Tuesday, August 28, 2012

How I Cured My Migraines with Real Food

How's that for a gripping title?

It's a true story.  I can't guarantee that everyone who reads it would have the same outcome that I did, but I'm telling you what really worked for me.

I suffered from migraines for 11 years.  They started in 5th grade, and continued until the year I got married, my senior year of college.

I generally got between 1 and 3 migraines each month, and they all followed the same "classic" pattern:  I would have visual disturbances (like I couldn't see out of half of one eye, or I saw bright squiggly lines all over my field of vision) for about an hour, then I'd be in pretty horrid pain for 3 to 5 hours, then I'd usually vomit several times, and finally, I'd have a "migraine hangover," or mild-ish pain, on one side of my head, for the next day or two.

If I had 2 migraines a month (fairly typical), that meant about 4 days of being mostly out-of-commission, missing school or college classes (or work), fun times with friends, etc.  In high school, when my youth group went to Washington D.C., after I narrowly avoided throwing up in the White House (sure wish I had now - that would make a great story), I spent the rest of the day suffering back at our lodging instead of touring the city with my friends.  My freshman year of university, I had the huge joy of taking my first ever college finals while only being able to see out of one eye, and with pain quickly building in the back of my head.  But my favorite (ha ha) memory is of sitting on stage with my high school orchestra at a highly-anticipated all-city concert, being thankful that I had my music mostly memorized, because I couldn't see it, and praying that I wouldn't vomit into my clarinet.

I started planning ahead when I got that familiar fuzzy-vision feeling, making sure I only ate things that would not be too horrible to throw up later.  It was something of a pathetic science.

If I averaged 4 migraine-suffering days a month, for 11 years, that's 528 days of my life, basically down the drain.  About a year and a half.

My doctor was a very kind and conscientious man who sympathized with my pain, gave me a list of "migraine triggers" to try to avoid, and prescribed me a prescription drug to take when a migraine began.  The medication didn't help at all (and I usually threw it up after a few hours anyway... it was really gross tasting), and the list of "triggers" I was supposed to avoid included cheese, wine (hmm, scratch that one off, I was in 6th grade), chocolate, stress, lack of sleep, travel, and changes in weather, like high winds.  Wow.

So as long as I didn't eat two of my favorite things, travel, worry ever, attend slumber parties with friends, or experience wind storms, I just might be okay?  Sounds like a real treat for a kid.  Oh, and none of it helped.

So, why am I sitting here, looking back and laughing about these rather nasty experiences, instead of hating my life 3 days a month while hanging my head over the toilet in searing pain?

I stopped consuming MSG and Aspartame.

That's it.

I know, you've probably heard plenty of people talk about Aspartame giving mice cancer, or MSG somehow mysteriously poisoning the nation's Chinese food.  You may be on board with these theories, or you may think they are a load of hooey.

I am just telling you what worked.

After one particularly horrid migraine, before which I had consumed copious quantities of Crystal Light (hey, it's healthy, it has no sugar, right?), I started wondering.  I had also started reading a bit at that point, some classics like The Maker's Diet and Never Be Sick Again, and I was just starting to wonder if maybe my body was trying to tell me something.

It has been a journey since that time, first just avoiding MSG and Aspartame (and all the sneaky MSG variations), then learning all about good fats, and gradually evolving my food philosophy to where it is today.  But one thing remained consistent.

If I ate anything with MSG or Aspartame in it, I got a migraine.  I was like a walking MSG-detector.  The migraines were not as severe after a while, and I started carrying crystalized ginger everywhere with me to help alleviate the symptoms (it was much more effective than that old prescription, plus I figured if it didn't work, it would taste better on the way back up.  It worked.)

I haven't had a migraine in almost 3 years.

If you get migraines, or if you know anyone else who does, I am not saying all migraines are the same, or that my solution will work for you.

But guess what?

The whole 11 years I was suffering, my doctor never once, NEVER EVEN ONCE, suggested eliminating MSG or Aspartame from my diet.  Avoiding travel and high winds?  Uh...I'd much rather just stop eating the seasoning in Top Ramen, thanks.

If you or someone you know is suffering, isn't it at least worth a try?

What are your experiences with your food choices impacting health in dramatic ways?  Do you have a story like mine or know someone who does?  Has conventional medicine ever let you down?

Posted at Fat Tuesday and  WFMW


  1. Interesting story! I'm so glad you discovered your triggers and have been able to avoid them. My friend has migraines triggered by a chemical that's in many perfumes...and being unable to avoid perfumes in the workplace motivated her to quit and start a business that's been very successful, so that's good...but she still has to go to trade shows, and of course she just wants to go to public places sometimes, so it's still a problem.

    I have reduced the frequency of my migraines significantly over the last 3 years, but it's taken a multifaceted approach. Instead of having any trigger food I can identify, I have food cravings that, if satisfied, will ward off the headache; as I've improved my diet, I don't experience those cravings as much, but when I do it's important to eat the "magic food" ASAP. Usually I can stop a migraine in its tracks by consuming ibuprofen and caffeine together, but I have to do it at the very first symptoms. I guess the #1 change I have made is to pay attention to my body's needs instead of putting them off for later or denying them ("I feel like drinking coffee, but I shouldn't; I drink too much coffee...")--my boyfriend made me a little sign that says, "Suffering needlessly is not Being Good. Treat your headache now." and honestly, I still need to look at it a couple times a week to feel okay about taking care of myself. It's crazy, but admitting to the craziness and taking steps against it has really worked for me!

    1. Thanks for commenting, Becca!
      What a rough time your friend must have - I can't imagine having to avoid public places or risk a migraine! That's great that she was able to find success somewhere else, though.

      I've never heard of cravings being warning signs of migraines before! How fantastic that you can generally avoid them now if you listen to your body. I hope you are able to continue to improve your diet and have fewer and fewer suffering days. And the sign is such a thoughtful idea!

  2. That's an amazing story. Thanks for sharing! It really is beautiful how our bodies tell us in some way, shape, or form what they want to survive on and it's not processed fake food. So glad that you finally figured it out. It's just so crazy to think about how much money our society could actually save in health care costs if they just listened to their bodies and ate real food. Mind boggling.

  3. This is so interesting. My dad has suffered from migraines my entire life, I would say one every 1-2 months. They were getting much, much more frequent when he went to a free health screening and discovered his blood pressure was through the roof. Since he's been on medication from that, I'm not sure if he's had anymore. Anyway, I'm nearly positive that I can't influence his food choices...but I'll pass this info along and see what he makes of it. :)

    1. That would be nice if taking care of the blood pressure would help with migraines too. Good luck. :)

  4. Hi I've experienced the same thing with aspartame and MSG! I think both are bad ingredients for me. In fact, I just finished a fast from meat and dairy for 4 weeks and no migraines except with one minor one with a stessful event.

    Anyway, the day I broke the fast, I ate Long John Silver's fish, then got a splitting headache so bad at 3:30am I had to call in sick for work. And, today is 3 days later and I still have the headache, (although it's less since I've been taking Imitex or Amerge for 3 days).

    My question to you is, do you have a few favorite recipes, simple, like 5 ingredients or less to throw together? I was "bored" on my vegan thing I did, which I am going to do again, but hopefully I can add some new recipes.

    What have you found to be a good meal for you?

    Thank you!


    1. So glad to hear you've had some relief and are starting to find solutions, and sorry to hear about the brief relapse!

      I don't have any vegan recipes, since we highly value healthy animal fat and protein. It really helps to make things at home though, instead of eating out, so you can control the ingredients! Not sure if you're interested in recipes with animal products, but a few super easy favorites are the Butternut Squash/Sausage Chili under the recipes tab, and just simple salads loaded with eggs/a little cheese or leftover meat/homemade dressings. We also love a simple roast chicken with vegetables.

      Good luck as you keep striving for a headache-free life!


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