Migraine Life with Diet & Chemical Sensitivities

By Emily –

If you’ve read my about me page you might already know I have not had a migraine since last fall. I have had some close calls with auras and other prodrome symptoms — defined as the first beginning stage of a migraine attack — without the headache phase to follow, as well as some headaches I might call “mini-migraines.” However, none of these have lasted long enough or escalated to a severity level that would officially qualify as a migraine. These “mini-migraines” are my little reminders that I cannot become complacent because this illness requires constant management. I will never truly be out of the woods but I owe this migraine-free streak, the longest since my late teens, in large part to diet change in the form of decreased chemical consumption.

The Beginning of My Chemical Sensitivities

While much of this management is diet-based, I want to take a moment to discuss the first place my chemical sensitivity manifested: certain prescription drugs. When my migraines escalated to chronic migraine status in January 2015 I was, of course, ready to take anything the doctors offered that might put an end to my misery. My migraines were occurring on a daily basis and I was desperate to say the least. I tried a number of different preventative and abortive medications all of which caused my (unbeknownst to me) extremely sensitive system much strife and severe symptoms while resulting in little to no relief.

This is not to say these drugs are all bad. I know so many people for which the same medications have worked wonders. They just didn’t happen to play well with my system. After a handful of unsuccessful attempts I tried a medication that ended up causing me such severe insomnia that I was awake for four days straight. That was the point the last straw broke and I decided I needed a different approach. I wasn’t quite sure what this new path would be, but I was ready to listen to my body, follow my intuition, and find a better way. It was an unpopular decision, but it was the right one for me.  

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It may not have been until this past winter, going the entire season without a migraine, that I could fully appreciate the impact chemicals were having on me. This had been the first winter, without even one attack, since my very first migraine. So much of this success I owe to cutting out chemical laden foods. I remember the moment, in the summer of 2015, when I got my first big clue that food additives were a trigger of mine. I was out to eat with my family at a local diner. I uncharacteristically had a hankering for cherry pie and ordered a slice for dessert. With my first bite a familiar feeling feel over me.

Food Additives as a Trigger

At first, I brushed it aside, but halfway through my pie I couldn’t ignore it any longer. I knew what was coming. I looked down at the bright red color, of the clearly prepackaged cherry pie filling, and my intuition told me the culprit was red food dye. I flashed back to almost a year prior, drinking a Hawaiian Punch (again, abnormal for me) and feeling exactly as I did in the diner eating my cherry pie. The last time I could remember the almost exact order of events. I put down my fork to signal that I was finished. Time felt like it was slowing down around me, everything was almost in slow motion. My Nana is speaking to me but I can’t focus on her words because the late afternoon sun, pouring in the shaded window, has become blinding. The clattering of plates a bus boy is clearing, across the restaurant, is deafening. My head begins to pound and there’s no denying, it’s yet another migraine. Everyone else finishes up as I suffer in silence fearing the coming hours, wondering how long this one will last.  

From that point on I worked hard to find my chemical triggers. The list started off simply enough. Red food dye, aspartame, and MSG were the most immediately apparent. When I started to cut these three ingredients out of my diet I quickly found out it wouldn’t be quite so simple. These were not the only culprits and my list began to grow. Keeping track of an ever-growing list of unidentifiable and, often, difficult to pronounce ingredients became overwhelming. I knew the solution would have to be to eat as clean as possible but, for me, that was easier said than done. I often do not have the healthiest relationship with food and, as a result, I needed to work in baby-steps. Cue Bob Wiley: “Baby-steps out of the office, baby steps to the hall…”

Diet Hardships

Now, for the most part, I do very well sticking to safe foods. However, I have been known to get myself in trouble.

For instance, I love a good deli sandwich. However, I cannot eat lunch meat that does not come from a source that offers preservative-free meats. While at my cousin’s cabin celebrating Labor Day, sandwiches were on the menu for a late lunch the day we arrived. Five feet away, in the fridge, I knew there were a number of safer options. At the time I had yet to discover lunch meat without preservatives and I missed the simple pleasure of a perfectly crafted sandwich.

So I indulged.

Hours later while sitting around the fire I felt a migraine coming on. As is my custom, I didn’t say a word, I suffered silently as long as I could before retreating to my bedroom uncharacteristically early. I spent the night, and better part of the next day, in excruciating pain. The real punishment was that it caused me to miss one of my favorite cabin traditions, the Ricketts Glenn Falls State Park waterfall hike.

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You’d think I had learned my lesson but not too long after, another similar experience occurred. This time, sheer politeness and the fear of being an imposition got me. I was spending time with my in-laws and everyone wanted to order Chinese food. We would be ordering from a place that I was unfamiliar with. When at home I would semi-regularly order Chinese, but only from one place that I knew for sure did not use MSG and would not trigger an attack. My mother-in-law said she didn’t think they used MSG and, while I had my doubts, against my better judgment I agreed. You may not be surprised that I regretted it later that evening.

The Switch to Whole Foods

I now buy all my groceries at my local Whole Foods. They have high quality standards that are focused on clean natural foods. (You can find their quality standards here.) Suddenly, grocery shopping became a thousand times less stressful knowing I no longer needed to read labels since everything in the store is safe for me to eat. I do not eat fast food, with the exception of the occasional Chick-Fil-A run which does not give me the same reaction as their competitors. Otherwise, when eating out I choose restaurants I know are clean such as Panera Bread and a number of local joints. When eating at a place that’s iffy I am careful about what I order sticking to items that are unlikely to be processed.

The situations I still have the most difficulty in are at social gatherings. I can never be sure of the ingredients in any particular dish and I do not want to offend the host. I certainly do not want to foolishly eat something I shouldn’t and regret it later. Been there, done that. I try to be proactive, eating something at home before the event and keeping safe snacks with me in case my choices are limited. When all else fails I can often have a bite of something and know if it will be migraine-inducing. My senses have become keen to identify chemicals that are a no-go. This has come in handy many times and I have come to consider it my own little super power.

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With each time I let my weaknesses get the best of me, I go longer and longer without making poor diet decisions. I’m working hard to learn to let my guard down and speak up when I need to. I’m not perfect, but I’m getting better each day and my body thanks me for it. I do not pretend that this is a cure by any means.

I still have migraine, I’ve just found my own form of preventative medicine. I certainly know my method is not the answer for everyone, just as many others were not the answer for me. I will continue my baby-stepping, and try to count my blessings daily, with the hope that I will be able to live a life with less pain because of it.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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