Migraines and cluster headaches: whatever the label, the pain and side effects can be intense! In addition to traditional treatments, including more of the following “superfoods” can help.
What are superfoods? Well, they’re not exactly supplements–although some supplement companies have begun to market “extracts” of various superfoods. By definition, superfoods are whole foods or oils that offer exceptionally high doses of nutrition. People call them “super” in part because of their benefits and in part due to their origins. Most superfoods are not new; rather, they’ve been used by powerful ancient cultures and only recently rediscovered by the West. Although some scientists and many raw foodists credit superfoods with amazing regenerative and protective abilities for almost any health issue, this article discusses superfoods for special consideration by those who suffer migraines and/or cluster headaches.
Cacao (kuh-COW): Commonly marketed as raw cacao or raw chocolate, this “food of the gods” actually became monetary currency in the Aztec empire! Conventional wisdom tells those with migraines to avoid chocolate as a major trigger food. While some people do have sensitivities to chocolate, most people actually react to the typical dairy and refined sugar in cooked chocolate bars. Raw cacao, by contrast, offers seven times the antioxidants of its cooked version, without the offending dairy and sugar. More importantly for those with migraines, raw cacao contains one of the highest sources of magnesium in any food. Magnesium acts as the relaxing counterpart to calcium and helps to balance brain chemisty. In fact, many migraine sufferers manage to stave off headaches by consuming large quantities of magnesium supplements. Magnesium can also help with PMS, another known trigger of migraines. In addition to magnesium, raw cacao offers caffeine (which seems to affect the body less intensely in its raw form). Some people with migraines find that judicious use of caffeine can curtail a headache before it becomes a full blown episode. Most prescription migraine pills contain some form of caffeine. From a nutritional standpoint, raw cacao certainly beats a Pepsi! If you know for sure that chocolate causes a reaction, skip the raw cacao, but otherwise it could be worth a (delicious) try. Add cacao nibs or powder to morning smoothies, or make raw fudge by mixing the powder with coconut butter, raw agave nectar or honey, and some of the other superfoods listed below. As with any new food, start small so you can monitor your reactions.
Maca (MAH-kuh): Also known as “Peruvian viagra,” maca is a root grown at 14,000 feet in the Andes Mountains. Despite its fame for keeping Peruvian men virile into their 80’s, maca actually functions as an adaptogen, meaning it balances all hormones. If someone has too much estrogen, maca works to lower estrogen levels. If another person has too little estrogen, maca helps the body bring those levels back to optimal levels. Maca also nourishes the adrenal glands, helping the body handle some of the stress that so often triggers cluster headaches and migraines. Maca grows in some of the most inhospitable conditions on earth, but it has learned to flourish where other plants die. Natives believe that the root transfers this strength and adaptability to those who consume it: “You are what you eat!” Metaphysics aside, maca’s high mineral content, B-vitamins, protein, fatty acids, and plant sterols allow it to rebuild the body wherever it most needs help–good news for people whose headaches come from stress or hormonal imbalance. Maca tastes a bit like radish, so you don’t want to add too much to sweet smoothies. It blends exceptionally well with cacao, though, and I always enjoy a morning glass of fresh squeezed lemon juice in water with about a teaspooon of maca. The lemon brings out maca’s hidden sweetness, making a surprisingly zesty lemonade.
Hemp: No, I’m not talking about marijuana, even though some people do employ cannabis for medicinal purposes. You can now find hulled hemp seeds, hemp butter, hemp protein powder and hemp oil at alternative health food stores and in many online shops. Despite virtually no THC content (the psychoactive ingredient in marijuana), the U.S. government prohibits the sale of hemp seeds ready for sprouting, so you can only legally buy hulled ones or hemp products, most of which seem to come from Canada. Nonetheless, hemp has experienced a major resurgence in recent years as people have rediscovered what ancient Europeans knew so long ago. Hemp supports the immune system and contains edestin, the protein most easily assimilated by humans–good news for people who react to protein powders made from soy or dairy (whey). Hemp seeds, butter and oil also contain the perfect ratio of Omega 3 and Omega 6 fatty acids, thought to help balance hormones and brain chemistry. In addition, the green color of hemp comes from chlorophyll, which differs only by one atom from hemoglobin. (Hemoglobin forms around an iron atom, whereas chlorophyll forms around that beneficial magnesium atom.) Purifying the blood with chlorophyll-rich foods like hemp, wheat grass and leafy greens can alkalinize the body, which, in turn, eases stress responses like migraines and cluster headaches. Hemp protein powder tastes a bit gritty, but the butters, oil and seeds carry a pleasant, slightly nutty sensation that combines especially well with raw cacao and maca. You can also replace the bulghur wheat (gluten is a major migraine trigger) in foods like tabouli with hemp seeds, or use hemp butter as a nutritious replacement for another common trigger–peanut butter.
Yerba Mate (YUR-buh MAH-tay): For those people who know they need to kick the coffee habit but simply can’t forgo their cuppa Joe, Yerba Mate offers a good substitute. Another highly mineralized South American food, Yerba Mate tastes somewhat similar to coffee, but instead of depleting the adrenal glands, it nourishes them with B-vitamins, 15 amino acids, 11 polyphenols (like in green tea and red wine) and, you guessed it: more magnesium and chlorophyll. Whereas coffee provides a caffeine jolt, mate’s energy comes from the B-vitamins, blood purifying properties and a component called mateine. Unlike caffeine, mateine gives a lift without the crash. Some independent coffee houses now serve soymilk “mate lattes,” or you can brew the tea at home. For best results, warm but don’t boil the water, then let the tea steep for 5 minutes. You can then add hemp milk and essential oils like peppermint with a hint of raw cacao powder, creating your own minty mocha. Yerba Mate also brews well as a sun tea, mixed with orange peel or traditional chai tea spices. A favorite of shamans, Yerba Mate offers a traditional, nutritional alternative to coffee, along with minerals and nutrients thought to support hormonal balance and alkalinity.
In short, these superfoods bring trace minerals, potent nutrients, and a bit of folklore. As foods rather than drugs, they gradually rebuild and support the body, instead of generating a “quick fix.” If you’d like a holistic approach to treating migraines or cluster headaches and haven’t responded to “newfangled cures,” you might want to explore some ancient culinary treats.