A common approach to any health issue is bound to involve diet. But, personally the approach often taken is something I struggle with a lot.
Doctors ask. Friends ask. Family asks. Random strangers on the internet ask.
For most of my life, my diet has been “weird” to just about everyone I know.
I don’t eat pizza. I don’t eat fast food. I don’t eat fried food (fried Oreo’s are an exception to this rule). I don’t snack. I don’t order dessert. I don’t eat seconds. I don’t drink soda or alcohol. I don’t put sugar in my coffee. I haven’t had a midnight snack in over a decade.
Thank you mom and dad for not taking me to the single McDonald’s we had in my hometown growing up. It wasn’t until I was in middle school and had a Starbucks a block away from my house and one in the mall that I even had a taste for fast-ish food. But although my 6th grade self loved a good vanilla bean frappiccino, my sweet tooth has long abandoned me and I stick to my cappuccino these days. And the closest I get to “fast food” is a sandwich or salad from Panera.
Which brings me to struggle when diet is intended to be such a huge aspect of our health and healing process.
When it comes to migraines, there are things called “triggers” that can exacerbate the pain, act as inflammatory foods, or make us generally not feel good. The Migraine World Summit forced me to recognize that although food can be a trigger, once migraine is under better control, our threshold is higher so those foods are more tolerable.
With the knowledge that what I eat could make things worse, over the last few years I’ve really focused on my diet and what is beneficial for me.
I started by eliminating coffee for a month. This was *hell* but worth it in determining that the caffeine intake from my coffee was not making my migraines worse. In some instances, coffee helps relieve some of the pain and make my medications that contain caffeine work quicker.
My next diet focus came with fruit, particularly ones that aren’t “ideal” for migraines. I started with strawberries and eventually moved on to various citruses and blackberries/blueberries. I focus on eating fresh foods when they are in season, so once strawberry season was over and my migraines got slightly worse it was hard to draw a connection and say strawberries were good. When it comes to blackberries, I find that eating them is often followed by being a tad nauseous, but it doesn’t happen all the time. In the instance of citrus, I think it’s beneficial to my migraines – especially cuties.
I’ve focused in on dairy products. I’m really only a fan of regularly eating the shredded cheese that goes on my eggs and the cream cheese for my bagels. Heavy cream or high doses of cheese in meals tends to make my stomach upset. Ice cream on the other hand is my go to non-medical treatment for taking the edge off a migraine.
My rule of thumb when it comes to food is to focus on the perimeter of a grocery store. Fresh fruits and veggies, fresh herbs, sandwich meat and cheese from the deli counter, meat and fish from the butcher, and eggs make up the bulk of what I shop for.
There’s a few exceptions I make that are in the middle of the store. For instance I buy Thomas bagels and oatnut bread, jiff peanut butter, some canned veggies, pasta, and ground coffee.
I *try* to make my dressings from scratch compared to buying bottled salad dressing, but things like barbecue sauce and orange sauce are easier to grab than to prepare on my own.
So what do I actually eat?
Every day for breakfast I scramble two eggs, top it with a small amount of shredded cheese. I eat this with half a bagel topped with cream cheese. Although I love to eat waffles and french toast, even muffins, I’ve found that they don’t keep me full until lunch time.
Lunch and dinner get blended together when it comes to what they consist of. Lunch is usually leftovers of a dinner from a different night. It’s typically a meat (often times chicken) served with rice and/or a vegetable like broccoli or spinach. Other times its a casserole that has protein of some type in it.
When it comes to the snack department, I really only have two that I alternate between. I’ll either have some peanut butter mixed with honey or a small serving of macadamia nuts, cranberries, and dark chocolate.
Of course, I have a few go to meals that are pretty tolerable through nausea and pain. These include teriyaki/orange chicken with rice, meatloaf with spinach, and toast topped with peanut butter.
But when it comes to diet and eating habits, the most important factor for me is time and consistency.
I pretty much eat 3 meals, each separated by about 3 1/2 – 4 hours. I don’t always feel hungry, but I’ve noticed as meal time is approaching, I get nauseous. This makes it frustrating to eat, but I’m usually able to push through and eat and the nausea will subside.
If I have to wake up early and eat, I’m often way too sick to actually eat. I had this problem before my migraines were severe – I can remember catching the bus at 6:30 AM and having a bag of cheerios and some fruit that I’d eat closer to 9 AM during class.
If I miss a meal, or don’t eat enough, my body responds negatively. Since I’ve had spells where I do struggle to eat enough, my body relies on the food I eat for energy and there is no stored fat to burn off.
I’ve tried a lot of elimination diets. I’ve tried including keto, but with the way I rely on carbs more it simply wasn’t right for me. I’ve tried gluten free.
There is no right diet for all migraine sufferers or all people in general.
For now, I’m venturing in to this lifestyle program in about 2 weeks and I’ll really be focusing more and more on food. My diet isn’t perfect. My stomach certainly doesn’t respond well to some foods and I’m learning that I need to increase my fiber intake.
The thing is, I don’t have an unhealthy diet. But I don’t have a diet that is designed for me, to optimize food as medicine.
Finding ways to really treat food as medicine will be a challenge for me. I recognize areas where I am more stubborn with my food choices – like carbohydrates – because struggling with being a healthy weight means I need to eat higher calorie foods that’ll be sustainable. I’m hoping to be introduced to new foods and meals that can have a similar effect.
I have to strive to overcome what my perceptions of food are and to stop comparing myself to other migraine sufferers and their diet. Its incredibly hard to sit here and feel like I eat much healthier because I’m not putting junk into my body, when in reality migraines will exist regardless of the greasy french fries being eaten or not.
“Let food be thy medicine and medicine be thy food” ~ Hippocrates
**update 7/9/2019: My food habits have changed dramatically since the original publication of this post and I will address a follow up at the end of the 18 week lifestyle program that has guided me through understanding these changes.
I have completely changed my breakfast habits and now enjoy a probiotic yogurt, topped with fresh berries and delicious granola. I have vastly reduced my intake of processed foods and eat much more fresh and raw foods. I’ve also been shifting the types of food I eat based on my digestion, meaning that my intake of red meats and carbohydrates has also decreased.
When it comes to migraine and diet, it is an ever changing aspect of my life and requires loads of discipline and a great attention to detail to discover what does and doesn’t work for my individual needs.**