Migraines: The Pain Is Not All in Your Head

Migraines have been around since the beginning of time. The term migraine actually means “half a head” in Latin.

Fortunately for many of us today, a lot more is known about migraines thanks to a heightened awareness of the devastating physical, emotional and economical effects of migraine. It’s estimated that 28 million Americans suffer from migraine. Women are the biggest sufferers, outnumbering men eight to one.

Yet, as a migraine sufferer, I still talk to people almost every day who have a relative, friend or neighbor who is debilitated by them. Why? Because many people don’t go for help, don’t realize they have migraines or have been herded through so many unsuccessful therapies that they have given up trying to find a solution and have decided to “just live with it.”

Well, I know that you don’t have to “just live with it.” I have been on a 17-year-quest to find a solution. In that time, I was literally a human guinea pig — being prescribed everything from painkillers to anti-seizure medications from a bevy of traditional medical specialists.

Unfortunately, my story is not uncommon among migraine sufferers. In 1996, I spent a week at the clinic in Chicago and every patient there could share similar stories of misdiagnosis, ineffective medicines, less than stellar medical care and being told, “it’s all in your head.”

One of my friends who also suffers from migraines, always tells me that I am like “a dog with a bone.” The bone is migraine and I’m looking for some place to bury it! My long and complicated journey for a successful therapy sent me in many different directions, and even with failure after failure I persisted. I’d like to share with you what I have learned.

Lessons Learned

First, migraines are a disease. The whole body undergoes physiological changes during a migraine attack. I have common migraine without aura. There are a few different classifications such as common or classic migraine, but all migraines end up the same — horrible pain that leaves you unable to function at even the most basic level. My migraine usually starts with an upset stomach, proceeding to extreme fatigue and then searing pain behind my left eye. The migraines also occur on my right side with less frequency. I used to get three to four migraines a week, work a full-time job and go to school part-time, spending whatever time I had left in my darkened bedroom.

No one, not even the doctors at the clinic, can say with certainty what causes migraines. The traditional belief is that a series of mechanisms starting with a drop in the brain chemical serotonin cause the blood vessels to dilate and then constrict, setting off pain nerves. Some holistic healers believe that migraines are a disease caused by toxins circulating in the brain; a lack of sufficient blood sugar; a lack of oxygen due to constricted blood vessels; or a lack of proper hydration. Remember, the brain cannot feel pain, so the pain messages start somewhere else in the body and are sent to the brain. One thing is sure; if someone or something offers you a “quick fix” for migraine you better look for another option. You cannot cure migraines; you can only learn how to control it.

Migraines are triggered by many things: foods, weather, stress, insomnia, hormone imbalances, liver malfunction, PMS, etc. Tyramine-containing foods are most often the source of migraine food allergies and these include: aged cheeses, chocolate, citrus, red wines and coffee. Different people have different sensitivities that can also include gluten, corn, tomatoes, milk products or food additives (especially MSG and nitrites).

So you say, what’s left to eat? Well, believe it or not there is plenty, but it’s mostly fresh, including lots of vegetables, fruits, rice, other whole grains and cereals. Once you modify your diet, you can even get by with “cheating” a little now and then. It outlines not only what you shouldn’t eat, but the foods you can include in your diet that actually help your body fight pain and a good elimination diet regimen.

When you start to investigate triggers, the most important thing to remember is they are highly specific to the individual. I might be bothered by chocolate, but you might not. A huge storm front and drastic drop in the barometer pressure is almost always a trigger for me; it might not be for someone else. Sleep is one of the biggest triggers overlooked by many people. For many years I assumed that sleeping was the best thing I could do to heal myself. Yet the opposite is true. Migraine sufferers should never take long naps (a short 20-minute nap is all anyone needs to rejuvenate). If you take long naps as I once did, you interrupt your deep sleep at night and your body doesn’t “repair itself.” In essence, you get caught in a vicious cycle of light sleep, long naps and more migraines. Doctors told me that my bed is for two things: sex and sleep. No reading, napping, lounging, standing on your head, etc.

Thousands of Dollars and Years Later

Meanwhile, after spending thousands of dollars on traditional medicine with no relief, I began to look at vitamins and supplements and the holistic approach of alternative medicine. What I discovered is when you have a chronic disease such as migraines you can’t just “pop a pill” and get relief (or as I call it the “American way to fix it”). I began to re-evaluate my lifestyle.

The following are some of the things that have worked for me. This is in no way a prescription for migraines, it is “food for thought” from information that I have researched and lived out over the last 17 years.

The first thing I did was modify my diet.

I now eat largely vegetables, fruits, fish, chicken, rice, pasta and salads. I drink only pure fruit juices and mineral water. I do not eat processed foods, and I buy most of my snack foods from the local health food store to ensure that the ingredients are natural or organic.

* I walk for at least 35 minutes five times a week on a treadmill.

* I have two massages a month with a neuromuscular therapist (who is also an herbalist).

* I learned to meditate and do it whenever possible (after all, I do have a four-year-old son), and I avoid stress whenever possible.

* I have also gotten in touch with my God and my spiritual side.

That’s a far cry from a 40-plus hour-a-week high stress job, night classes and a bruising exercise routine.

Supplements, Vitamins and Herbs

It’s important to take a great multi-vitamin and mineral formula everyday. Read the labels, find a nutritionist and a herbalist you trust and ask for recommendations.

For migraine prevention, I take the following, once a day:

Daily multi-vitamin/mineral formula

* 800 mg. of magnesium,
* 400 mg. of No Flush Niacin
* 60 mg of Gingko Biloba (increases circulation to the head and brain)
* 1000 mg. of Vitamin C with Bioflavinoids (also could get this in a multi-vitamin)
* 800 mcg of folic acid

In addition, for many women, hormonal fluctuations trigger migraines and that is certainly the case with me. To keep my hormones regulated, I take 1300 mg. of Evening Primrose Oil (doubled five days before the onset of menses and continued through my cycle), and 400 mg. of Chaste Berry Extract per day. B-vitamins are also very important for women.

If I do get a killer migraine, I will take the drug Soma. It is the only drug that has ever worked, but it leaves me extremely fatigued and with flu-like symptoms.

Prescription Drugs Without a Prescription
Today, I don’t take preventive migraine drugs on a daily basis, instead I use a variety of herbs, vitamins and minerals and my migraines are manageable. I believe the pain of migraines lead me down paths that I would have never discovered otherwise making me a more compassionate, spiritual and knowledgeable human being. For that, believe it or not, I am thankful. I still haven’t completely buried that “bone,” and I’m not running as fast trying to find that perfect spot. I know that it’s all up to me to make healthy and informed choices and live with the consequences.