Migraines are the second most common type of primary headache, after tension headaches, but the most common type of vascular headache. Migraines are thought to be caused by excessive blood vessel constriction, which chokes off blood supply to the brain and leads to overcompensation of blood flow into the head and "pounding" headache pain. Niacin displays properties that limit blood vessel constriction and may prevent the progression of migraines.
Types of Migraines
According to "Professional Guide to Diseases," 4 percent of children experience migraines and the incidence rises to 6 percent among adult males and 18 percent among adult females in the United States. Migraines occur with auras or without auras. Auras are visual phenomena that precede headaches and are often described as bright flashes of light, distorted shapes and unusual colors. The headache pain from migraines is typically described as pounding, throbbing or pulsating and can last a couple of hours or more. Migraines are usually felt on one side of the head behind the forehead, but they can spread to both sides.
Causes of Migraines
The cause of migraines is not fully agreed upon, but the predominant theory is that the pain-sensing trigeminal nerve overproduces substances called neuropeptides that cause abnormal constriction of blood vessels within the head, according to "Comprehensive Review of Headache Medicine." The excessive constriction reduces the blood flow to the occipital lobe, which starves the visual center of oxygen and produces strange visual phenomena called auras. Within a matter of minutes the blood vessels overcompensate by fully dilating, leading to excessive blood flow into the head and increased pressure. Thus, migraine pain is thought to arise from increased blood pressure in the head, blood vessel inflammation and increased pain sensitivity in nerves.
Properties of Niacin
Niacin, also called vitamin B-3, assists DNA repair and the production of steroidal hormones within the body. Another property of niacin is vasodilation, or the ability to increase the diameter and blood flow within arteries. There have been a number of anecdotal reports stating that niacin has helped migraine sufferers. According to a study published in a 2003 edition of the "Journal of Orthomolecular Medicine," researchers found that niacin effectively aborted acute migraine attacks. Another study published in the 2003 edition of "Mayo Clinic Proceedings" found that niacin can be effective for preventing migraine headaches. The vasodilation abilities of niacin may prevent or abort migraines while they are in the aura phase, but may contribute to the pounding headache pain once the body has increased blood flow to the head.
Cautions of Niacin
Consuming niacin in dosages of 100 mg or more at a time can lead to "niacin flushing," caused by vasodilation of the small arteries underneath the skin. Niacin flushing is usually experienced in the face and upper neck and includes redness, hot flashes, perspiration, tingling, itching and mild burning. To avoid niacin flushing, some manufacturers offer niacinimide, which doesn't have vasodilating properties but may not have a positive impact on migraines.
- "Professional Guide to Diseases: Ninth Edition"; Springhouse Publishing; 2009
- "Comprehensive Review of Headache Medicine"; Morris Levin et al.; 2008
- "Journal of Orthomolecular Medicine"; Two case reports on the treatment of acute migraine with niacin. Its hypothetical mechanism of action upon calcitonin-gene related peptide and platelets; J. Prousky J et al.; June 2003
- "Mayo Clinic Proceedings"; Sustained-release niacin for prevention of migraine headache; D. Velling et al.; June 2003