I mentioned in my last post that I have long suffered with migraines, and suffered from chronic migraines (more than 15 migraine days a month—I was around 20) from roughly October of 2013 until July of 2016. So, this post will tell my story about what my migraines are like and what methods I went through over the course of about a decade to mostly rid my life of them (or at least reduce them to an occasional disruption in an otherwise healthy life).
About My Migraines
These migraines were truly terrible. If you have migraines, you understand; if you don’t, imagine combining your worst dental headaches with moderate food poisoning or the flu. From before the chronic migraines, and for some of my migraines even now, episodes generally extend over a three-day period in 8-12 hour waves, with the first day being most intense, then each subsequent day stepping down by about 25%. For the first two days, I would be in intense pain with disorientation, sensitivity to light, sound, and touch, some speech issues (aphasia), and nausea that would build until I managed to empty everything from my stomach into the toilet, after which it would somewhat subside. The third day tended to just make me irritable and distracted. Each episode would leave me exhausted and emotionally drained.
My migraines have always been hemispheric, shifting from one side of my head to the other each day. The pain usually begins as a tension in my neck that becomes painful then begins to resonate and merge with a sharp, throbbing pain in my eyeball or eyebrow on the affected side. Pain medicine usually did not work, although for several years in my 20’s I used Excedrin migraine and ibuprofen too much (NOT advised). Eventually that stopped working. Occasionally now Tylenol will help temporarily, but use of any pain medicine can just push the episode into the near future, or even trigger a “rebound headache.” I generally just avoid pain medicine at this point.
Not Everybody (or Every Migraine) is the Same
I want to stress one point if you are struggling with migraines: not everybody is the same, and your migraines are probably not going to be exactly like other peoples’. My mother’s migraines are very different from mine in duration and constancy throughout an episode, but similar in other ways. What this also means is that what works for me may not work at all for you. While this may at first seem to be a problem of its own (Oh no! Now I can’t rely on anyone’s recommendations!), it really is the most crucial mindset to cultivate, because it’s true. One must approach and judge everything through one’s own experience with it. Be skeptical while being patient, methodical, and optimistic until some results become clear. Test different things out, and if they don’t work, try some others. Just don’t give up without pursuing every possible, safe (relatively speaking) option.
I have always been reluctant to deal with prescription medications for this. My first experience with migraine medication was with a blood pressure medicine that dropped my blood pressure so low I could barely walk uphill, had violent mood swings, and nearly lost consciousness. Later on, when the chronic migraines started, I saw a neurologist who prescribed a different blood pressure medicine (which made things worse over the course of a few months), an antidepressant (which made me impatient and gave me an “angry sweet tooth”), and an anti-spasmodic medication that put me in a constant drowsy haze and, again, didn’t provide relief.
For about two years, I tried that approach and found it didn’t work for me. It didn’t deal with the root of my problem, and in my case, it didn’t even alleviate the symptoms, all the while giving me a range of horrible side effects to deal with.
Experiments with Supplements
After that, I tried some supplements to see if they might help. This can be a bit dangerous, even if they are over the counter, so you should always do some research and be careful, even when desperate for relief. For a year or so, I took 5-HTP, which did seem to help a little. However, at the same time, I was taking Zyrtec for allergies and to keep my sinuses clear, and I was wrapping a cloth with ground nutmeg around my forehead (more on this later) during migraine episodes. After about nine months of some improvement, the migraines began get progressively worse and worse, until one afternoon, dealing with some of the worst, stabbing pain and nausea that I have ever experienced during a migraine, I screamed out, “What is this! What is this!” Something had to change.
Doing more research, I learned that, in addition to the serotonin boost from the 5-HTP (which I was well aware of, since it directly metabolizes into serotonin, and that is why I was taking it), both Zyrtec and nutmeg increase serotonin levels as well. I had been, in effect, slowly poisoning myself with serotonin syndrome.
The Miracle Migraine Diet
It was time to stop looking at what else I could put into my body and start looking at what I was already putting into it, day after day. For years I had been resistant to making changes to my diet, and to exercising regularly, but really, these two things—diet and exercise—should always be the first things to examine with any health issue.
So in my case, a diet has worked wonders to prevent most of the migraines I had been experiencing (90% effective at least). Moderate exercise has helped reduce my stress a bit too, which has probably also helped reduce my migraines (and certainly my depression, which is probably comorbid for me), but it was definitely the diet that did the trick for my migraines.
This dietary advice came from a book called The Migraine Miracle by Josh Turknett, which I credit for turning my health around. I was skeptical at first due to the title (sounds kind of New Agey, and I am always skeptical of the hyperbole that is everywhere with books about chronic illnesses), but I gave it a try and I went from having chronic migraines (about 20 days or more a month) down to a couple of migraine days on average a month, sometimes less. Related to this, the book Wired to Eat by Robb Wolf is a great book about creating a personalized diet which follows pretty much all of the same rules that The Migraine Miracle follows. I haven’t put Wolf’s specific 30-day reset diet into effect for myself, but his meal advice is helpful for those transitioning to a more paleo-style diet, which is what this is.
Here are the highlights of what helped me:
- I stopped eating/drinking nearly all added sugar or honey, which includes all juice, candy, desserts, or foods with more than a few grams of added sugar/honey. I can tolerate some sugar, but it can only come in very small doses, and mostly from natural sources like fruits, tubers, and vegetables. Best to just avoid everything sweet except for whole foods (the sugar in whole fruits and vegetables is better because the fiber content helps soften the impact of the sugar on blood insulin levels, I think). Also, I found it helpful to not eat even fruit alone as a snack. I always pair it with something with protein, additional fiber, and/or fat. Eating fruit as part of a meal is great, and if you are able to eat dairy, fruit parfaits with whole fat yogurt are wonderful.
- I have reduced the amount of carbs in my diet to a more moderate level (between 150 and 250 grams a day, I would estimate, though I have not been counting for a long while). I would generally advise when trying this to cut down to a true low-carb diet for a while and see if it helps, then even try a ketogenic diet if that doesn’t work. Cutting back severely (or entirely) on breads, pasta, and white potatoes is a huge part of this. Eating small portions of unsweetened sweet potatoes and other tubers that are higher in fiber is fine (my wife is Caribbean, so I eat things like plantain, green (not sweet in the least) bananas, taro root, and African/Jamaican yam). Gluten-free oatmeal for breakfast is great too, as a bowl is about 30 grams of carbs. Put some fruit (banana or raisins/dried cranberries) in it for some sweetness. If you boil it with some nutmeg and cinnamon, that makes it a bit tastier too.
- I am personally very sensitive to even small amounts in caffeine, so giving this up was a no-brainer on my part. I would suggest removing caffeine to see if there is any improvement, but many people with migraine are fine with caffeine, and it even helps some people. Again, this is individual.
- Maybe related to the caffeine issue, I have found that chocolate is also a trigger for me. I mourn this as much as the loss of coffee, but the loss pales in comparison to positives of not have life-destroying migraines all the time.
- Another big thing that helped me is removing gluten from my diet. This is really a difficult thing to do if one is used to eating out or has a typical American diet (I certainly did), but you should find out within a month of strictly avoiding gluten if there is any benefit. It is found in bread, but also in many sauces, some rice [yes, they add it often to rice at Chinese and Sushi restaurants], prepared foods, fried foods (they often fry everything, breaded or not, in the same oil)—essentially anything made from wheat, barley, or rye or which has been in contact with it. It is best to just avoid eating out or eating prepared, processed foods altogether when testing for a gluten issue.
- Finally, a really important thing is to avoid/reduce your intake of omega-6 fatty acids and increase your intake of omega-3 fatty acids. Omega-6 fatty acids come almost entirely from vegetable and seed oils (vegetable oil, soybean oil, sunflower oil, safflower oil, peanut oil, grapeseed oil, corn oil, canola oil, etc.). In terms of cooking, use coconut oil, olive oil (check online to make sure the brand is really olive oil and not a vegetable oil substitute), and butter.
- Also, related to this, I have also found that peanuts and especially peanut butter are triggers for my migraines, although not if I only have a little very infrequently. I think it has to do with the oil in it.
- It has also helped me to supplement my omega-3 intake with a Fish Oil supplement. Here’s a really highly rate one (Viva Naturals) that I use from Amazon. One a day after a meal is fine to help counteract the omega-6 fatty acids.
The only other things I do currently is take a Vitamin D supplement for energy (5000 IU a day in the morning) together with one Vitamin K2 supplement (100 mcg; if I don’t take that, that level of Vitamin D gives me vertigo for some reason), along with Nasacort for my sinuses (no more Zyrtec!). I take the full dose of Nasacort (2 sprays in each nostril, one a day). This helps keep my sinuses more open and lessens the impact of changes in the weather on me, since this is a big trigger for me personally. If you find sinus pressure or weather systems trigger migraines for you, it’s worth a try. Best to keep the number of pills/medications to a minimum though. Not sure how much the Vitamin D affects the migraines, but if you find you have symptoms of Vitamin D deficiency, it might help. It really helped bring up my energy level and base mood.
“Triggers” Warning: Thinking in Terms of Threshold Instead
You may have some other triggers in your diet to deal with that differ from mine, too. Or possibly no obvious “triggers.” I put this in quotes because a fixation on ridding yourself of the triggers which, as the metaphor goes, initiate a migraine like a trigger initiates a gunshot, can be misleading and anxiety-inducing.
Turknett, in The Migraine Miracle, argues for a different way to think of how migraines start: the threshold. His theory, which I think is a helpful way to think about this, but maybe not completely the case (I really don’t know for sure), is that there are a range of things that, in combination, add up until they reach a “threshold” where your brain reacts by launching a migraine attack. Diet may only account for half of this, maybe more or less for different individuals, and it is one of the few factors we have a great amount of control over. For example, stress and anxiety are major factors for me, as well as large changes in the weather, and they have been responsible for many migraines–in part. Overstimulation (or just getting too excited) is also an issue with me that contributes to my migraines, I have learned. However, in terms of breaching the threshold, in this theory, if you can lessen the impact of your diet and, maybe, your stress level, then the other factors beyond your control will be less likely to reach to a combined point that will trigger a migraine.
One Very Welcome Side Effect of the Migraine Miracle Diet
Oh, and I lost about 30 pounds over a three month period by shifting to this diet. I was a bit overweight, so this was great for me. This was an unexpected side effect of the diet, and I still haven’t put any of that weight back on after two years, and have since stayed roughly 45 pounds beneath my previous weight, which puts me in a healthy weight range for my body size. Diet is, also, a very individual thing, so it may be different for you, but for many people, low-carb, higher-fat diets lead to weight loss or healthy weight stabilization.
Recommended Natural Remedy: The Nutmeg Head Wrap
I also have one more suggestion for helping endure and sleep better through migraines. This is the single most helpful treatment I have used for alleviating the agony of a migraine episode, and it came from the folk remedies of the Caribbean while visiting my in-laws one summer in St. Lucia.
Instructions: Onto a very thin cloth (like a head wrap or neckerchief), grate about half of a nutmeg in a line about as wide as your forehead (along a line running diagonally across the cloth between two corners), then wrap this around your head so it covers your forehead, just over the eyebrows or wherever pain is concentrated (just not directly on your eyes). Be sure to use whole nutmegs, not the stuff that has been ground already. Freshly ground whole nutmegs are much more potent than pre-ground nutmeg.
The fumes of the nutmeg are very helpful to breathe in, as they are a sleep aid and act as a muscle relaxant. Additionally, the nutmeg against the forehead will also numb the area quite a bit (I’d say 30% or so) after 15-30 minutes.
When I do this, I find that my muscles and body are much less sore after the migraine, and I feel like I have had a least some rest. I leave it on for 4-8 hours (as I am sleeping with it on). It will have a lingering effect after you take it off, and if you find it to be too sedating, try wearing it for less time or grating less nutmeg in the cloth. For the first use of the wrap each time I grate the nutmeg, I usually only keep it on for 4–5 hours.
Caution: Don’t do this too often, though, especially if you are on anything that already increases your serotonin levels (which includes some prescription drugs, supplements like 5-HTP, and pretty much all antihistamines). Four or five times a month, even if you were on those medicines, should not cause any harm. Doing this too much in combination with other serotonin-elevating medicines, supplements, or foods, though, could lead to overly high levels of serotonin in the brain. As I mentioned above, I once got sick (as well as some rebound headaches) from using this 3 nights a week for over a year in combination with 5-HTP and Zyrtec. I now use this method just for the migraines that are bad enough to warrant it. I can reuse the same grating of nutmeg several times, too, although the effect becomes progressively milder.
Finally, it is also best to give up on NSAID pain killers, and even cut down on things like Tylenol. They can easily cause rebound headaches. They generally have not worked for me at all for many, many years anyways. If you are taking them often, you should really question if they are actually helping or just feeding the cycle. And if you can change your diet and reduce the migraine frequency, that will mean less medication in general.
You might try to get some CBD oil from a local health food store for some relief (that helps for a little while), but it is currently very expensive. That helped me in the past, although prevention is, again, much better and much more cost effective.
Finally, for those who spend a lot of time at computers or staring at their cell phones or tablets, I heavily recommended using blue light filtering software to reduce the strain on your eyes, especially in the evening and at night. My favorite program is f.lux (I run a Windows PC), but there are many variations for different operating systems. On my Android phone, I use the built in filter for daytime viewing, then at night it switches to an oranger color using a Night Mode app that I installed for free. My eyes are much happier this way, and I’m sure it has saved me from many migraines.
I hope that advice helps. That’s pretty much everything I personally have learned about dealing with my own migraines. I am very passionate about helping others deal with migraines. They are beyond terrible and ruined my life for a long while, so if my advice can point people towards real recovery, I am glad to give it.