Even though I have been a “migraineur” myself for over 20 years, migraines was not something I really considered as a chronic illness until recent years.
I still remember one of my first migraines. It arrived on the first day of my Higher School Certificate exams. English. That morning we had a creative writing exercise to complete, something I usually loved to do. But the migraine made it difficult for me to find the right ideas or words. Despite knowing that Lewis Carroll was a migraine sufferer, and that he wrote under the influence of a migraine attack (or perhaps the hallucinogenic drugs used to treat the condition at the time), I’m afraid my exam piece was no “Alice in Wonderland.” I bombed.
Looking back, I can now recall that the situation I was in created a perfect storm for migraines. Along with the significant stress of the time with all that high-pressure studying, there had been a change in weather that morning (a common migraine trigger), not enough gentle exercise or movement, and I no doubt had been not eating well.
From that time on, migraines came along more and more. To me, it was simply a fact of life to be endured.
After all, my Mum had migraines, my grandmother and great grandmother as well. Migraines seemed to be a regular visitor for all of us. Something to be tiptoed around, expected and just to be put up with. In my grandmother’s case, it meant a couple of days in bed. As new medications started to become available, it meant that my mother and I could “soldier” on through and keep working and functioning (although not very well) whenever we had a migraine.
Personally, I rarely allowed migraines to stop me. I never gave myself the permission to rest and recognise that I needed to take extra care of myself. I certainly didn’t make the connection between nutrition and migraine.
But gradually, migraines started to affect other areas of my life. I’d miss out on social and family events especially, as migraines arrived regularly on a Friday afternoon, and stayed with me throughout the weekend.
I had studied a little on migraines during my naturopathic studies, but not a great deal. Migraine was always one of those mystery illnesses which is notoriously difficult to treat. Medically, the cause was not well understood – in fact we are still trying to understand it.
Yes, in a naturopathic college, we learnt about the impact of certain minerals and vitamins, herbal medicines, and the importance of physical therapy and stress relief. How a change of weather can cause a migraine. All of this knowledge and treatments helped a little in their own way. But really, while there were lots of potential answers out there, no one seemed to have that one thing that could cure a migraine.
It has been the same with pharmaceuticals. Some of them could help treat a migraine in progress, some can help prevent them. Others would just take a tiny edge off the pain. But all had some wicked side effects, and the reality is that you needed to keep taking more and more medication as your body because tolerant to them.
Neurologists, psychologists, other specialists and physical therapists could also help to a degree, but again, there didn’t seem to be a single solution to either prevent migraines, or halt one in it’s tracks. Some practitioners seemed to not understand much about migraines at all. Many thought it was just a bad headache, and rarely did anyone ask about the other symptoms I experienced.
It wasn’t until later that I realised my other symptoms such as anxiety, insomnia, needing to wee all the time, restless legs, tingling, itchy eyes, sore neck, ringing in the ears and dizziness were all part of the migraine picture.
Everyone seemed to have advice on how to avoid a migraine. Others just didn’t understand the difference between migraine and headache - “just take a Panadol and go to bed” they would say. But painkillers don’t really help.
Migraines just seemed to always have a way of making themselves win.
Over my 30’s my migraines started to increase - they arrived more frequently and also were getting more severe. In my early 40’s, a series of difficult life events meant that I now had a migraine more often than not. In fact, I now fitted the medical criteria of someone with “chronic migraines” - experiencing migraine 15 or more days a month.
I was facing a future of multiple medications to manage the condition, and as someone who believes passionately that, in most cases, everything we need can be found in nature - taking medications ongoing was something I refused to do if there was an alternative. They didn’t really help anyway and many made me feel worse.
Because migraines had always been a “fact of life” for myself and family, I didn’t take them that seriously until it seemed I had one every week. The fact is though, they ARE a chronic illness that hugely impacts our ability to work, function, have a social and family life. It is only now, when I have mostly migraine-free days, that I realise just how migraines were holding me back in so many ways.
So, in the past 18 months I’ve been studying every research paper and book I could on migraines. I’ve focused on migraines in my recent university work. And experimenting myself with a range of natural therapies. I’ve realised that, like many chronic neurological conditions, that there is no one single cure for migraine. A truly holistic approach is needed.
And, there is a lot of emerging research that shows we need to look at migraines in a different way than we have before. Each migraine is different, and we are discovering new types.
The brains of those who get migraines are different to the brains of those who don’t. There is an explanation as to why we are super sensitive to light, sounds and smells. That we tend to get especially anxious, and are often on hyper alert. Reasons why we get a migraine at the start of the weekend or holiday. Factors that mean we can see in the dark and smell things that no one else can.
In a sense, the brains of those who suffer migraines have not adapted well to modern living. And so we need to look to nature and more a more natural (dare I say primal?) diet to find the balance for ourselves again.
Through all this research and working with other practitioners, I’ve developed a set of treatment protocols for migraines. I’ve really done the research into which forms of certain nutrients and supplements are effective, and which ones aren’t.
As a practitioner, I find that you really need to look at the individual first. This is why I love naturopathy – we take the time to really understand what is going on with each client.
And we also need to face the fact that what we eat has a massive impact. I’m not just talking about well known triggers such as cheese, chocolate, red wine and citrus. But overall the importance of balancing our intake of sugars and mineral salts (essentially we need much less of the first and much more of the second). Simple solutions such as cell hydration is key.
And then craft a plan which addresses the many causes and triggers of migraines. Hormonal health, musculoskeletal health and digestive health all play a role here.
I’ve been developing a holistic approach that works for myself, and other clients. Sometimes what we can achieve naturopathically can be enough, sometimes we need to bring in a team of practitioners - GPs, physiotherapists, acupuncturists, chiropractors or massage therapists. And the results are very encouraging. I’m seeing much less or no migraines, less medications and more getting back into life. For myself, those weekly migraines have gone down to monthly migraines, and last month I didn’t get one at all. It is a massive improvement.
Migraine is a special interest for me. As someone who has experienced them, I get it.
If you, or someone you know, is having difficulty managing migraines, I’d love to help.
Naturopath, Nutritionist and Herbalist