Something Serious: Living with Migraines

This is another one of those rare serious posts you will find on this blog. I’ve written about my migraines in the past, but I thought I would sit down for real and talk with you lovely readers about triggers, preventatives, and how to live with migraines. I’m not a doctor and I have no training in the medical field except for my own experience, things my doctors have discussed with me, and research I have done on my own. Still, I think it’s important to talk about stuff like this. If it can help even one person then I’m satisfied 🙂

What is a migraine?

In essence (and as freaky as this sounds) migraines are like tiny seizures. Not in the classical sense that most people are used to, but in the sense that there is something wrong with the brain. Unfortunately, doctors are still relatively baffled by migraines. No one is 100% sure what they are, what causes them, and how to treat them with full success. A lot of this is based on the individual and must be planned around one’s own unique set of triggers.

A migraine is a severe, throbbing headache that can last from several hours to several days. It makes physical activity difficult or impossible, and causes auras, sensitivity to light and sound, nausea, and vomiting. Migraines interfere with the normal functioning of everyday life and vary in severity, timing, and effects.

For me, I have experienced all five effects of a migraine (aura, sensitivity to light and sound, nausea, and vomiting), but they don’t always appear 100% of the time. For me, sensitivity to light and sound are my first warnings of a migraine, but I have spoken to people who suffer from migraines who have never had this sensitivity. Instead, they see auras (flashing lights, spots in the vision, even partial, momentary blindness). These will differ from person to person, which is one of the reasons migraines are so difficult to treat.

What is a trigger?

A trigger is any number of things that individually or together work to induce a migraine. They can come in the form of food, sleep (too much or not enough), stress, hormone changes (for women especially), missing meals, changes in altitude, intense smells, bright/flashing lights, etc.

Interestingly enough (and sorry guys, this one only applies to women) pregnancy tends to prevent migraines, while birth control pills can actually elicit them. Again, triggers can be anything.

In this case, I am going to talk specifically about food triggers and what people with frequent migraines should try to avoid in their diet. I am writing about this one specifically because it is one that my own doctor is pushing for me to focus on. Unfortunately, in my case, I do not have any obvious triggers for my migraines. Thus, it’s important that I try to maintain a healthy diet (free from foods that are well-known triggers) and regular exercise. Both of which… I totally suck at.

Foods to avoid: Processed meats (salami, bologna, hot dogs, etc. Basically, anything that you can find pre-packaged is not good. You want to stick to fresh meats–turkey and chicken–and avoid red meat as much as possible). This was probably the saddest thing for me to work around because I am a meat lover. Vegetarians tend to live longer though, so… they might have us meat lovers beat on this one. Anyway, continuing with the list–

Cheese (especially aged cheese, or any cheese with a potent smell), fermented foods (including soy sauce), plums, peanuts, broad beans, peas, lentils, anything with caffeine, chocolate, raisins, bananas, raspberries, citrus fruits, avocados, figs, wine, crackers/bread. 

Now, just because something is on this list does not mean you can’t eat it at all. I read an article recently that said people with migraines should stay away from pickles. I know I’m the only one on the planet, but pickles are my all time favorite thing to eat. I LOVE PICKLES. And now they’re telling me I can’t eat them? Yeah, no freaking way. Just try to avoid these foods as much as possible. This will benefit you in two ways: 1) removing possible triggers should reduce migraines, and 2) if you do not eat these foods often and then experience a migraine after eating, say, a bar of chocolate, you know you’ve found one of your triggers. That’s a good thing!

How can I prevent/get rid of a migraine?

Let’s talk about preventing migraines first. The most important thing is to make sure you are getting the nutrients you need. That means:

VITAMINS!

For people with migraines, Vitamin D is essential and probably most important. The closer you live to the equator, the better off you are. Unfortunately, for those of us who live quite far from the toasty dividing line, the sun just isn’t strong enough. According to, well, everywhere I’ve looked, Vitamin D should definitely be a part of your everyday routine in order to keep yourself healthy and prevent migraines.

Fish oil (a.k.a. omega 3). These are another one of those essential day-to-day vitamins when it comes to migraines. There are a lot of benefits besides migraines (this is actually something many doctors recommend for heart health), but they are also beneficial for brain function (thus, how they apply to the prevention of migraines).

A B-Complex vitamin is the last one on the list of daily must-haves. B vitamins are great for everything mind related (memory, mood, and–once again–brain function!) they have also been noted to relieve stress. Believe it or not, many of the current “energy drinks” on the market (those should also be avoided if you have migraines, FYI) are chalk full of B vitamins due to their ability to make you more alert, focused, and raring to go.

A few other vitamins that I noted while doing research are the herb butterbur and feverfew (Tanaceturn parthenium). These are things you should be able to find at your local vitamin shops (though I haven’t checked myself), and it is recommended that you try these one at a time, giving each a standard period of eight weeks, to see if they work for you. I’m not sure about pricing or how common they are, but they are known to be preventatives of migraines. You can also look for coenzyme Q10 (CoQ10) which I have tried in the past. I will admit I am one of those people who do not stay on regular regiments well when it comes to taking vitamins, so I can’t really say anything about how well I thought it worked because of my own inconsistency. However, I can say that you should be able to find CoQ10 at any local drug store with the first three vitamins I mentioned above.

Another preventative measure is to drink LOADS of water. Water will keep you hydrated and help decrease the frequency of migraines. This was another big one for me because I don’t drink water as much as I should and I did notice a difference. Especially when I have a migraine (like I do right now), drinking water helps a lot.

Also try to maintain a low stress environment. If this isn’t possible for you, try to take some time out every day to practice calming techniques. (I’m sorry, this is sounding very yoga instructor-y, but it’s not meant to.) Although, yoga is actually recommended for people with migraines because it does help you to practice calming techniques that can relieve tension and stress (two things that trigger migraines!)

Lastly, when you feel a migraine coming on, take medicine immediately. Whether this is over-the-counter ibuprofen or prescription meds, it doesn’t matter. The medicines are meant to block the pain and stop the migraine from happening, the faster you can take the medicine, the better it will work.

So, now let’s move on to: I have a migraine, now what do I do???

There are many different medicine regiments for migraines specifically, and this is one of those things you and your doctor are going to have to work out for you as an individual. Unfortunately, like I said before, migraines are difficult to treat due to the wide range of symptoms and severity per individual. Due to this, some people may need nothing more than a couple of Ibuprofen once in a while, while another person (as in my case) may need prescription medication.

Something doctors are recommending for everyone who experience migraines is to cut caffeine almost completely from your diet. By doing this, you will actually be able to use it as a treatment for your migraines in the future. For example, if you have a caffeine-free diet, the next time you feel the onset of a migraine, drink two strong cups of coffee and lie down in a dark room. This could stop the headache before it even gets to the migraine stage.

Other over-the-counter medicines can be used as well (again, this is whatever works for the individual). If I find that I have a headache I feel could possibly turn into a migraine, I first go to the Excedrin Migraine medicine in my cabinet. This mini-cocktail of a few different medicines and caffeine helps to prevent the headache from becoming a migraine. Unfortunately, these types of medications (especially ibuprofen) can have serious side effects if taken too frequently. They may cause ulcers or gastrointestinal bleeding, so if you find you are taking more than what is recommended on the packaging OR you’re taking the max amount every day, it might be time to talk with your doctor about a prescription medication that could work for you.

These types of medicines (as well as some prescription medications as well) can also cause what is known as a “rebound headache”. These can be just as strong or worse than the original migraine.

Before I worked out a prescription medication plan with my doctor, I was out of school for nearly one month because of migraines and rebound headaches that would occur due to the large amount of medication I was taking. I am not someone who likes to take medication in the first place, let alone enough that it would make me sick, so this is one thing that I wanted to emphasize. Taking a large amount of medication does not always mean it will get rid of the pain faster and more efficiently, sometimes it can actually make it work. Again, this is something each individual must judge for themselves and decide whether prescription medication is something that should be considered.

After you have taken the medicine (which, again, you should take as soon as you feel the pain coming on), find a dark, quiet space somewhere where you can relax. If you have a cold compress available to you, place it against your temples or the base of your neck where your hairline ends. For me, my migraines tend to start at my eyes and then shoot straight into the back of my head, so having a cold compress on my neck/back of my head region helps a lot when I’m trying to get rid of a headache.

~~~~~

WOW! So that was A LOT more info than I thought would be in this post, but if any of that helped you, I’m glad. If you do not suffer from migraines, you probably know someone who does, and maybe you can use this information to help them. If not, thanks for reading anyway 🙂 I’ll talk to you guys soon.

Oh, yeah, and I didn’t edit this post because my head is killing me and there was just too much, so I apologize for incorrect spelling and/or grammar.

Peace and love! (That was me being a yoga instructor again).

Mel

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