Let’s talk about migraines…

We get quite a few searches for migraines and I have also had a few questions about them, so I figured I would do a post touching on migraines:  Just my experience, what they are, how to know if you have one and most importantly how to deal with them.  I was originally going to include a recipe but this post got pretty lengthy rather quickly so it’s all headache talk today.  If you aren’t interested, I apologize and I will have a recipe for you next post.

So, first and foremost, how do you know what a migraine is?  They can be different person to person, but in general you know if the headache is a migraine because they are normally only on one side of your head, they last for multiple hours up to a few days and people generally have sensitivity to light, sound, smells.  They can also cause nausea and some people see ‘auras’ before they get a bad migraine.  If you have most of these symptoms, you probably have a migraine.  But many people can experience headaches that are not migraines.  See here for more info.

I do not experience auras, so I never really know when I will get a headache until it is too late.  I always have headaches on the right side of my head only, and usually if I touch my temple, I can feel my head throbbing pretty badly.  I also have extreme sensitivities to light, smell and sound.  Everything smells disgusting to me, and also magnified by about 1000.  Also, small sounds like a faucet dripping 2 rooms away becomes very magnified and all I can focus on.  As for light, I usually like to wear an eye mask because being in the dark helps them to go away.

I started getting migraines at a very young age, but not regularly.  I remember one day in fourth grade, I told my teacher that I had a really bad headache and asked if I could go home or go to the clinic.  She told me to wait until after afternoon recess (which was essentially the end of the day).  I don’t blame her because after all it was just a headache.  And even though I tried to stress the urgency of it, it must not have come across very well.  So, shortly after I asked to go to the clinic, the nausea from my headache set in and I ran out of the room, trying to make it to the bathroom but ended up puking in the hall.  Embarrassing, no?  My teacher felt soooo bad that she had dismissed my headache as nothing.   Well, that was only the beginning… Migraines really became a problem and more debilitating at the end of high school and throughout college, especially my senior year of college.

In the beginning of college, they were on and off but mostly off and in no way as debilitating as they would become.  My junior year in Australia, they all but went away despite the large amount of alcohol I was consuming.  I actually remember having only 1 really bad headache the whole time I was there (6 months).   I attribute this to a couple of things.  1.  My lack of stress—I took really easy classes while I was there so school was never a concern for me and I was just happy to be there, and happy about life!  No stresses besides maybe missing my family and friends.   2.  This is the major one–the difference in food and how it is made.  Other countries just naturally use fewer preservatives and the ingredient lists are short.  If you buy bread in Australia it goes bad within a few days—even if it is refrigerated.  Here in the US, bread can stay good for weeks, even months in the fridge!  That says some scary things about what is going into the food we eat.  I could go on a tangent on that topic, but that is a whole other post.

Once I moved back home and went into my senior year, my headaches came back in full force and then some.  I spent the majority of the fall getting excruciating headaches at least 2-3 times per week.  I tried going on a few different medicines that you are supposed to take at the first onset of a migraine.  I tried Imitrex which didn’t work at all for me.  I do know that it works wonders for some people.  I tried a blood pressure medication, which also didn’t do anything.  Finally, I got put on a preventative medication called Topamax which is actually a drug created for epilepsy.  Ahh topamax—we have such a love/hate relationship.   The medicine took my headaches from 2-3 per week down to 1 or less per month.  My quality of life went way up in that respect.  But, topamax has some nasty side effects—especially at the beginning.  While I did lose quite a bit of weight which I’m not about to complain about, I also had almost constant tingling in my hands and feet.  I also had a lot of pain in my feet.  The only way I know how to describe what happened to my feet is that I often felt like the bones in my feet were trying to grow through my skin.  That sounds strange and nasty, but there really is no other way for me to put it into words.  My nails were brittle and constantly broke—to the point where it was half of my fingernail or toenail that would split down the center–painful.  My face often went numb and I was always so cold that I couldn’t even hold a drink without using multiple napkins because the glass would turn my hand numb.

Believe it or not, I stayed on topamax for a little over 3 years.  The side effects decreased until they were almost gone towards the end.  Topamax is often dubbed ‘dopamax’ because of its ability to make the people taking the drug dumb for lack of a better word.  I did notice in college that it started taking me almost double the time to do my work because I had trouble concentrating and comprehending.  But, I figured it was worth it to be rid of the debilitating headaches.   If you have ever had a migraine, you will probably agree with that.  I never felt that I was that slow or dumb, I still don’t think that I ever came across that way but my dad was pretty worried about the drug affecting my mad smarts and kept trying to get me to go off of it to which I flatly refused. I eventually started a new job here in Chicago and was still on the drug and had no problems learning and adjusting to the job.   The problem was that as the side effects subsided, so did the effectiveness of the drug.  The only answer was to increase dosage and I wasn’t sure that was something I was willing to do.  I got more and more nervous that I was stupid/slow and didn’t even realize it because I had been taking this medication for so long.  I got so paranoid about this that I got off of the drug about a year ago and am currently only taking an onset medication.

I wish I could say that I have never looked back, but I have thought about going back on topamax a lot of times.  It is really hard to go from living almost migraine free to having them come back full force again.   For anyone who suffers from migraines, you know how debilitating they can be.   The pain is not like a normal headache and is so intense that I sometimes actually think I am having a brain aneurysim.  Not that I know what that feels like, but I can imagine it would be similar.  I have had numerous MRI’s, cat scans, ECG’s, etc to know that it isn’t a more serious problem luckily, and while I myself am still figuring out how to deal with them,  I do have a few things that help me better cope with them and if you are a headache/migraine sufferer, hopefully they can help you too!

1.  First and foremost, if you think you have migraines, see a doctor!  I am by no means a medical professional and am only speaking from my own experience.

2.  If you have a medicine that you take when a headache comes on (and you by all means should), keep it with you at all times.  For me, it isn’t effective unless I take it immediately when I realize I’m getting a headache, any later is just too late.   I also often need to sleep once I take my medicine–even if it is for 30 minutes.

3.  Drink a lot of water….I mean a lot!  More headaches than you might think come from dehydration in one form or another. I have found that I dehydrate really easily which is probably why I get so many headaches.  I try to drink around 100 ounces per day of water.  When in doubt, drink more water!

4. Find out what your triggers are.  Most people’s triggers are different although there are a few common themes.  From what I can figure out mine seem to be stress, dehydration, prolonged hunger, too much sugar, wine (tannins most likely) and too much alcohol (which actually is probably dehydration).

5. Figure out specific items that might help you and make sure you have it with you!  Does cold/ice help?  I keep an eye mask in the fridge and it helps me so much when I have a headache.  Is there a certain scent that helps?  A certain food? I find that when I get nausea from a headache but need to force myself to eat, nothing sounds good except good ‘ol Ramen.  That is so random, but it works!  If you need a dark room, make sure that you have curtains or something to help you achieve this. You get the idea.   The reason I say keep it with you is because I know that when a migraine hits, you can barely walk to the bathroom let alone walk to a store to get what you need.

6. Acupuncture!  I know I have posted on how much I love acupuncture previously.  I don’t know why this was last on my list because it might be one of the most important right now.  I know acupuncture isn’t for everyone, I was pretty skeptical about it before I started.  It was kind of a last attempt for me once the headaches got so frequent that I knew something needed to be done.  I first went once a week and am now down to every other week.  Currently, I have around 1 headache per week or if I’m lucky one every other week which isn’t great but it is soooooo much better than what I was dealing with before.

Acupuncture is interesting because it takes so many other things into account–stress levels and what this stress could be coming from.  Sometimes I feel like I’m going to a psychiatrist at my acupuncutre appointments because I get to talk about the things in my life that are worrying me.   Also, personality and even when you were born can play a pretty big part.  My acupuncturist told me that I seemed like I worried a lot and when I said yes, she said that migraines were probably my bodies way of manifesting that worry–so other things that help manage stress and that worry besides acupuncture might help.  It is very different than western medicine, but I think in a good and fascinating way.

Beyond migraines, I also have a lot of stomach issues (as in I get stomach aches almost everyday).   I think that the two are very related but I haven’t ever been able to pin point what exactly is causing them.  I have put off an elimination diet for years because it just wasn’t something I wanted to do but after visiting a GI doc and having every allergy test under the sun come up as negative, and then having him try to put me on another medication to basically mask the problem, I decided it was finally time to try and figure out the root of my problem on my own and an elimination diet was a good first step.

So, for the next 3ish weeks or so I can’t eat soy, dairy, wheat, sugar, gluten, peanuts/peanut butter, nightshade vegetables and a quite a few fruits.  I think the most trouble I’m going to have will be because I can’t really eat anything sweet and I have a pretty big sweet tooth.  It has also been hard for me to get in enough protein without dairy.  And obviously, giving up tofu is tough.   I originally was worried about not getting enough carbs for the last week in training, but because I can have beans/legumes and rice flour (and therefore rice pasta, etc), I don’t see it being a problem.

Rest assured that I’m not going to post recipes for foods I wouldn’t enjoy all the time (not just on this diet).  If I’m eating something that isn’t so great because of the diet, I’m not going to post it.  I will only have meals that I would eat no matter what and I have realized that is not at all impossible on this diet.

And that’s that!  Sorry that got really long, but for something that takes up more of my life than I would like, it is a topic I know a lot about.  Like I said, if you think you suffer from migraines you should go see a doctor as my advice is strictly my opinion, but if you do have questions on anything I touched on, let me know and I will try to help the best I can!


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