An estimated 11 out of every 100 people suffer from migraines – debilitating headaches that cause blinding, throbbing pain that can last from a few hours to several days. If you’ve ever had one, you’ll know that they are no ordinary headaches. Unfortunately, I am a migraine sufferer.
A migraine is caused by abnormal brain activity, which may be triggered by stress, certain foods, environmental factors, or something else. Although research is advancing, the exact chain of events leading to an attack remains unclear, and there is no cure.
My own experience with migraines had taught me a lot about what I can do to reduce their frequency and, once they occur, their duration and severity. Every person who suffers from migraines is unique, so there is no “one-size-fits-all” list of triggers or remedies. But in my effort to cope with this condition, I’ve been able to uncover what helps me the most.
In terms of finding my migraine triggers, keeping a ‘migraine diary’ has been invaluable. This includes tracking info about when they occur, what I ate and drank before the headache (going back several days), as well as other environmental changes. In my case, I know that the following things can increase my likelihood of an attack: changes in weather (a nice day that turns into a thunderstorm, for example), lack of sleep, stress, sensory stimuli such as bright lights and certain odors (cigarette smoke, strong perfumes, and cleaning solutions, to name a few) remaining seated (particularly in front of a computer) for hours on end, and some foods and beverages.
My food triggers are common to many other migraine suffers. Drinking alcohol of any kind (even a little, like a half glass of wine) will almost certainly bring on a migraine. Same for nitrates and sulfites often found in processed foods like hot dogs. The frequency of my meals is also a factor…. Going for more than 4 or 5 hours without a meal or snack can be a trigger. Ditto for hydration – if I don’t get enough fluids, yep, you guessed it, that could bring on a migraine.
A healthy diet is a must. From my journal I’ve noticed that high sodium foods are a big trigger… nearly as much as alcohol and nitrate-containing foods. So the less salt, the better. If I stick with a low sodium, relatively unprocessed, and mostly plant based diet I seem to be ok.
If you have migraines, or think you do, there ARE things you can do:
Speak to a physician who will take your condition seriously. It took me years before I found a great neurologist who took the time to listen and work with me to find the right treatment. Now more than ever there are medications that can help prevent migraines (or reduce their frequency) or stop an attack when it starts.
Keep a migraine log. This is essential for getting a handle on YOUR potential triggers. This should include a record of everything potentially related to the onset of your migraine, as well as the migraine itself. Food, stress, work, weather, hormonal changes, sensory stimuli (lights, noise, physical exertion) should all be considered.
Get regular exercise. For some people (I am one of them) extreme physical exertion can be a trigger. But walking, yoga, swimming, are a big benefit.
Reduce stress. I know, this can be a tough one given the hectic pace of modern life, but this one can be key. I have found that yoga and meditation can sometimes (not always) help me avoid a migraine if I catch it early enough.
Pay particular attention to common trigger foods. Everyone is different, but here are some potential foods that you should monitor to see how they affect you. A good way to do this is to eliminate them ALL and then add them back one by one so you can find the culprit(s).
Common migraine trigger foods:
- Chocolate (anything made with cocoa)
- Aged or fermented cheeses
- Sour cream
- Soy products
- Soy sauce
- Processed meats (smoked, cured, aged, canned pickled)
- Citrus fruits
- Baked goods with yeast extracts
- Additives including MSG