Wednesday, March 3, 2010

How I Control Migraines Without Scary Pharmaceuticals*

Retro Headache
Originally uploaded by Migraine Chick
I suppose you can tell from the title that this isn't my usual story/recipe/quirky observances kind of post. However, it's something I've wanted to post about for a while. Getting regular migraine headaches is something that has affected almost every aspect of my life for about a decade now. The headaches made me feel totally powerless and weak, even though I knew they weren't my fault. As someone who is very careful about what she eats and how she lives, I hated having this aspect of my physical health that I couldn't control or fix. It made me crazy.

Now, finally, the headaches are relatively under control (knock on wood!). In fact, last month I didn't have any headaches at all. It was no fluke, I know exactly why I managed to escape the usual migraine attack. I have become vigilant about controlling everything I can that leads to or helps eliminate the headaches. And since so much of it is nutrition/food related, I wanted to write about it here in case maybe what I've figured out can be of use to someone else out there.

1. Recognize food triggers. This was, in all honesty, one of the key reasons why I went back to being vegan after a number of years of being a lacto ovo vegetarian. One of my biggest food triggers was cheese. One night of pizza and I was down for the count. I started doing a lot of reading about migraines and food triggers and I learned that in a lot of cases, poor digestion plays a part in the headaches. I noticed that when I stopped eating dairy products my digestion was much better and my headaches were less frequent and less intense.

2. Keep those sinuses clear. I also notice, personally, a link between congestion and migraines. Often as a migraine lessened, it would turn into a sinus headache. Again, a reason why avoiding dairy would lead to fewer headaches. I've also started doing a few other things to keep my sinuses clear, namely rinsing my nose out with water (sucking it through my nose and spitting it out, like you might do accidently while swimming. Ugh, but it works) and sleeping with my head propped up on two pillows instead of one. I know some people would say, well then you aren't having migraines, you're having sinus headaches, but that isn't the case. I know my migraines because I have a visual aura (flickering wavy lights that take over my vision) and I absolutely know the difference between a migraine and a sinus headache.

3. Consult with a naturopath. When I talked to my regular doctor about the headaches, she offered me a drug to take when I got a migraine. "Does it take the pain away?" I asked. "No," she said, "It just puts you to sleep until the migraine is over." I said I'd pass on that. I don't usually have any trouble falling asleep on my own, unless the migraine is particularly bad. We discussed preventative drugs, but those all seemed to have heavy side effects. So next, I went to a naturopath, Shawn Yakimovich at the Ottawa Integrative Health Centre. Shawn asked me about four times as many questions about the headaches as my regular doctor did. Then he gave me a homeopathic remedy to take when I felt a headache coming on. I've been taking the remedy whenever I'm worried about a headache and I haven't had any headaches after taking the remedy. The only headaches I've gotten since I got the remedy have come on at night when I wasn't awake to take it.

The remedy also helped me wean myself off the Advil Liquigels (NOT vegan!) that I was taking every time I worried that I might be getting a headache. Which was really bad for my health. Ibuprofen can contribute to high blood pressure which is something that runs in my family. I started noticing that my heart would beat really fast after I took an Advil which scared me. And I've noticed that since I've stopped taking Ibuprofen, I've been sleeping much better and I feel more calm in general.

4. Increase magnesium intake. In a lot of the articles I read, magnesium was sited as a supplement to take that would lessen the frequency of migraines. And then an aquaintance told me that when she was pregnant and couldn't take regular pain killers, her doctor gave her magnesium injections to help control her migraines. Right now I take at least 500 milligrams of manesium a day, sometimes a little bit more if I know there are other factors (diet, weather, lady problems) that might be bringing on a migraine. I have found that this really, really helps to prevent my headaches and when I do end up getting a migarine, it isn't nearly as bad as they used to be.

5. Keep blood sugar steady. I read a few different studies that said that people who are suffering from a migraine often have low blood sugar at the time the headache strikes. I've mentioned before on this blog that I have lots of problems with my blood sugar. The migraines are yet another reason for me to watch what I eat. If I eat refined sugar I tend to crash soon afterwards. More often then not the crash comes complete with migraine. I also make sure that I eat small meals at regular intervals through out the day and that I avoid refined sugar and stock up on protein instead.

Those are my main tricks. They aren't difficult to keep up, but I do find it occasionally annoying to be constantly thinking about it. It would be nice to be able to eat whatever I wanted, forget to take my vitamins, go to bed without extensive preparations, and not worry about carrying remedies and pain killers with me wherever I go. But when I really think about it, there are much worse ailments to have, and at least I have the kind of migraines that respond to actions like the ones I've listed.

On a related note, I went to see Wilco perform last night and I was reminded of this article that lead singer Jeff Tweedy wrote about his extensive struggle with migraines. When I found this article it really helped me get over my perception of myself as "weak" on account of the migraines. He is a smart, talented, productive person who struggled for years with the same malady and eventually got it under control. I found it very inspiring. It was great to watch and listen to him last night, so happy on stage.

I'd love to hear from you folks if you have anything to add. Are you in the migraine club too? If so, is there anything you've found that helps? Or maybe you have another problem that you've managed to conquer through nutrition and natural remedies. It would be great to hear some of your stories.


*And, just in case it wasn't fully obvious, I'm not a doctor or an expert. I'm just writing about what I've read and what works for me.

This Time Last Year: Vegan Crepes With Blueberries


zoom said...

I get them too. I don't know why I refused to call them migraines for so many years. But I had bad chronic headaches that would last for days. They were so frequent I had to plow through them and keep working or whatever. Otherwise I would have been off sick half the time. One thing that finally helped me was to stop taking over-the-counter headache pills. They were dulling the pain, but causing rebound headaches. It was a vicious cycle. Speaking of cycles, I believe one of my triggers was hormonal.

Anyway, good for you for being vigilant enough to figure out so many triggers and so many ways to control it. Mine have become less frequent over the past year, but I might add some magnesium to the mix.

nicole aka shayna punim said...

wow - i'm sorry to hear you get migraines - but, selfishly, it always makes me feel better to hear that someone else is 'in the club.' unfortunately, no one i know so far has a bigger membership than i do.

i had an accident two years ago that jumpstarted them, and it took multiple doctor/ER visits/MRI's to figure out what was wrong with me.

i think its great most of your triggers are preventable - so far, mine really aren't (except no red wine.) i do have to take daily preventatives - my first migraine lasted 3 months and i couldn't function. and, for the record, there's a big category of drugs just for migraines that are used as abortives that are NOT pain killers (i.e. will not make you fall asleep and will not cause addiction) - they're called triptans, and they're wonderful. i also have to carry around a set of emergency rescue drugs to inject myself with so i don't have to go to the ER when it rages out of control. i'm always looking into more types of treatment and looking forward to a time when they won't rule my life anymore and i can lesson (hopefully completely) my meds. i hate taking drugs, but i know i need them now, and its sad when you utter the phrase "i just want to finish my dissertation" with utmost sincerity.

for the record, my biggest triggers are hormones, stress, and the weather. i do take magnesium, i have to get occasional b12 injections, and i visit the massage therapist semi-regularly. i try various de-stressing exercises, such as deep breathing and various forms of yoga, and ice massage it my best friend. might i suggest you go on amazon and by a used copy of 'the migraine brain.' it'll cost you four dollars and its extremely useful.
thanks for sharing :)

Brigid said...

I've been getting migraines since I was about five. They wax and wane in severity, but they have gotten worse since I finished college. I have been recommended magnesium and feverfew but haven't tried either one. I really need to pick some up. I have a prescription abortive, but it doesn't work all the time, and I hate putting that stuff in my body for no reason. I tried two different preventives (Topomax and Inderal), but they didn't help at all. Topomax in particular caused some awful side effects. I haven't identified food triggers, but I've noticed that being mostly vegan (I eat dairy about once a week) has really helped. I get a migraine with a bad blood sugar crash, too, and when I don't eat enough protein. My worst trigger, though, is the change in barometric pressure. I'm still trying to figure out how to deal with that.

Jacksonian said...

I am addicted to blue liquid gels.

Anardana said...

It's great news that you are finding ways to reduce migraines, but I am personally very (very) skeptical of homeopathy. The basis of homeopathy is wildly unscientific. It is different from other alternative medicines. Do you know the theories that it is based on and what the pills contain (and don't contain)? If you haven't looked into it before, here is a very detailed site all about homeopathy: and that's a skeptical site, but pro-homeopathy sites will tell you the same thing when it comes to what homeopathy is. The blog Science-Based Medicine also has a good archive of articles about it:
I know anti-corporate, DIY people like us are attracted to alternative medicine, but some if it is more legitimate than other kinds.

J. said...

Zoom: I agree with you about the rebound headaches. That is something I noticed as well (but I worried I was just being paranoid!) Now I take less intense tylenol and I don't notice as many issues as I did with the extra strength Advil.

Nicole: Wow! Thanks so much for sharing that story. I heard a similar story on This American Life recently. I wish I could remember what episode it was. I will check on The Migraine Brain for sure. I'll have a look at the library first but order it if I can't find it.

Brigid: My naturopath has done a ton of work with people who get the barometric pressure headaches and he says they're really tricky. Because really, there's totally nothing controlable about the weather! And I empathize with the blood sugar crashes. So aggravating when that happens!.

Jackson: Always nice when you check in! I know of the Advil devotion. The blue pills are so pretty.

Anardana: Yeah, I won't pretend that I'm not skeptical about the homeopathy and the science (or lack of) involved. However, since I got that remedy I haven't had any migraines during the day when I've been able to take it. So whether it's psychosomatic or coincidence or actually working, at least I've been migraine-free.

Anonymous said...

I just skimmed all the comments here but have you ever heard of a neti pot? You mentioned rinsing your nose out with water but it didn't sound like you were referring to one of these, i think it might be a lot easier for you. You're supposed to do it with a salt water rinse. oprah made them big a few years ago when she featured them on her show. A lot of people say they're the only thing that helped their allergies.

prettymess said...

I started getting headaches recently but I have never had a problem with them before, unless I was in a smokey room or switching eyeglass prescriptions. I talked to one of my friends who is a midwife and she mentioned that the type of birth control I am using (nuva ring) gave her headaches when she started using it on the "week off" or menstruation week. She figured out that it was from estrogen withdrawals. I thought that seemed strange but she was totally right. If you just leave the ring in a whole month the headaches stop! It also messes with your cycle but eventually the result is lighter, and less frequent! Just thought I would share in case anyone else could benefit!

Lesley said...

Oh J, as if you don't have a neti pot....!
I've been using one almost everyday for the last two years and it has changed my life dramatically. Like, in two years I've had a stuffed up nose maybe once.
And it's not like when you get water up your nose during swimming at all.
It's actually pretty pleasurable.
Get one today! They're awesome!!

The Voracious Vegan said...

Thank you SO much! I've suffered with migraines my whole life and they are just awful. People don't understand how incredibly different they are than regular headaches. Migraines completely and totally incapacitate me for the whole day, and then I have a shaky hungover feeling the next day. It is miserable.

Since going vegan they have *almost* vanished. I used to get several a month, now I get several a year. That makes me SO happy.

I notice when I eat fresher, healthier foods they tend to stay away and when I start inhaling bags of potato chips and frying everything I see they creep up on me again.

Thanks for the magnesium tip, I'm going to have to check that out!

Anonymous said...

Hello. And Bye.

Veg is Sexy said...

Good to know! I get really bad caffeine headaches...if caffeine gets into my diet and then I don't get more I get splitting headaches. This is good info to have on hand - I know it's a little bit different but it's worth keeping in mind.

J. said...

Anon: I've seen the neti pots but have never tried one. I might look into it!

Prettymess: I had HUGE headache probs when I went on hormonal birth control. A big fat trip to the hospital where everyone told me that people who get aura migraines shouldn't be on birth control. Thanks, medical system!

Lesley: I think I need to watch you use yours the next time you end up staying at my house.

VV: The magnesium has made such a difference for me! I hope it works for you.

Veg is Sexy: Love your name! How true! Yeah, those caffeine headaches are awful! I get little ones sometimes and then wonder why I feel so much better after a cup of tea.

Pearl said...

I get migraines too. I keep forgetting the dairy trigger. Cheese has crept back into diet.

Advil. I have never watched for that correlation with racing heart, which I also get and dad got.

Blood sugar makes sense.

Pearl said...

and what zoom says about stress. if my regularity of sleep is thrown off, carbs up, stress up, I go down.

Lauren Jamison said...

I have suffered from migraines for a long time as well, I'm talking like clockwork every time that time of the month came around, and often when the weather changed drastically.

A month or so ago I started refocusing my diet on whole foods and have tried to stay mostly vegan/vegetarian and I made it through without even a hint of a headache. I'm amazed and totally motivated to stick with my new lifestyle. It's the only relief I've ever had with or without drugs!!

Anonymous said...

I too get headaches, migraines and sinus crap from all the crud you mentioned. I hate it when I fall of the diet bus. I really enjoy your blog / recipes! Thanks!


Marysol said...

I had to leave work early because of exactly this today, it was wonderful to read through - thanks to all.

One trick that has worked for me over the years is peppermint oil. I put some on my fingers then rub it on my temples, in my neck. (Then wash my hands not to put it in my eyes!). Apparently, it dilates the veins and helps the blood flow... it does not make it go away forever, but for a few hours, at least enough to sleep.

sarah said...

You said your naturopath gave you something to take when you were about to get a migraine.. what was that? Mine gave me these tiny pills i was to dissolve in water and drink when i felt a migraine coming on. were yours similar?

Anonymous said...

Hi All:

I am so excited to come across this! I also have horrible migraines (I basically have to go to sleep asap or suffer and silently bawl my eyes out - which feel like they're going to pop out of my aching skull), and like Jennifer, have slowly and carefully figured out my triggers - mostly what I put in my mouth, sinuses and weather. Reading this piece has got me so excited because I have found people who understand!! As a lone vegan, family and friends often think I'm nuts and flat out don't believe me when I say diet is a huge factor for most ailments I felt previously before going vegan. Thank you, my day has been made!

Deea said...

Great tips!