Migraines are severe headaches characterized by throbbing pain and sensitivity to light or sound, are estimated to affect 10% of people worldwide. Migraine frequency can vary from person to person—some get them once or twice a year; some experience more than 15 a month. If you’re dealing with migraines, it can help to seek out the help of a professional who can offer suggestions on managing the condition, which will often include identifying triggers, trialing various medications and incorporating lifestyle management techniques, such as regular exercise.
While supplements probably aren’t a substitute for a migraine treatment plan for most people, there is some evidence of their effectiveness at reducing the frequency and duration of severe headaches. Generally speaking, these supplements are meant to be taken daily, at the recommended amount, with the goal of prevention rather than treatment. You should also inform your doctor, who can advise you of any potential interactions with other medications you’re taking.
And don’t expect a miracle overnight. “All of these supplements…take time to work,” says Katie Jantz, a registered pharmacist and researcher for Examine.com, which analyzes nutrition and supplement research. Generally speaking, it will usually take about 1-3 months to assess whether a supplement is having an effect…or not. (To help you gauge the effect over time, it can be helpful to keep a daily migraine journal, Jantz advises.)
Here are five supplements that are often taken to ease migraines, and what the current science can tell us about their effectiveness.
Some positive effects: Butterbur
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Butterbur is an herb that was briefly recommended by the American Academy of Neurology as it appears to reduce the frequency of migraines. However, they later withdraw the recommendation due to concerns about liver toxicity. Since then, it’s been determined that the liver toxicity effects are primarily due to the presence of pyrrolizidine alkaloids in the supplement, and additional steps can be taken to remove them—look for products labeled “PA-free.”
Although the research studies on butterbur are limited, “they have all produced similar results,” Jantz says, showing it does have some positive effects for migraine sufferers.
Reduces frequency and duration of migraines: Coenzyme CoQ10
Coenzyme Q10 is a substance that occurs naturally in the body and is responsible for carrying out a number of important functions related to metabolizing food. It’s also available as an over-the-counter supplement. In a recent meta-analysis, which combined six studies with a total patient enrollment of 371, CoQ10 was found to reduce both the frequency and duration of migraines, leading to an average of 1.5 fewer migraines a month.
“The downside of CoQ10 is you have to dose it at 2 to 3 times a day, which can be hard for people to remember,” Jantz says. Pro: Most people experience minimal side effects. Con: The dosing frequency required means the costs can add up.
Reduces frequency of migraines: Magnesium
Magnesium is commonly used to cut down on the frquency of migraines. It’s cheap to buy, safe to take, and there is a moderate amount of evidence to support its effectiveness, with the American Headache Society and the American Academy of Neurology giving it a B rating. “Just over half of studies show an effect, and the rest of them don’t, so it’s hard to deduce what’s happening,” Jantz says.
If you want to try magnesium for migraines, there are a number of different forms, all of which have different rates of absorption in the body, which may affect their effectiveness. Some of the more common forms include magnesium oxide and magnesium citrate. Generally speaking, it helps to start with what is affordable and accessible, and to switch to a different form if the first one isn’t working.
A modest effect on migraine frequency: Riboflavin
Riboflavin, one of the B vitamins, plays an important role in the body’s energy production. There is also some limited evidence to suggest that it can have a modest effect on reducing the number of migraines in a month. “The effect is pretty marginal,” Jantz says, but the advantage is that it is cheap, accessible, and generally well-tolerated.
Mixed research, risk of side effects: Feverfew
Feverfew is an herb that has been touted for migraine relief, with some studies suggesting that it can “enhance the treatment” of migraines. However, “the research is really mixed,” Jantz says. One major concern is that there are a number of different ways to prepare feverfew, which will vary according to the company, and any can have an impact on its effectiveness. There’s also a higher risk of side effects with this supplement, including abdominal pain, diarrhea, and agitation. As a result, Jantz rarely recommends it for migraines.