I’ll be a graduate student in the fall. It isn’t my first time. I was a Master student (and for a short while, PhD student) once before. The experience lead to serious burnout and chronic migraines that lasted over two years. I had “transformed migraine,” which basically meant some sort of headache at all times, even while sleeping. It was hell. Although I’m super excited to go back to school, I’ve noticed the voice of anxiety cropping up to remind me of these past experiences. “What if it happens again?” it whispers. “What if your body just can’t handle the additional stress?” “What if you ruin your life?”
I’m writing this post partially to help others who are dealing with migraine and looking for an answer–I credit my ability to manage migraine and become “normal” again to months and months of research, much of it shared by fellow migraine sufferers online–but mostly to remind myself that migraine wasn’t just a mystery affliction that came and went without explanation. I identified and altered many factors in my life in order to get better. It took work, but I went from getting migraines 2-5 times per week to getting them 1-2 times per year.
Without further ado, here is how I got rid of chronic migraines:
1. I tracked everything. I read everything.
I saw a few doctors and learned pretty quickly that they weren’t very helpful. Most doctors are in the habit of making diagnoses and writing prescriptions and not doing much beyond that. After reading horror stories about migraine meds initially helping but later making symptoms worse, or migraine meds being addictive, or migraine meds having horrible side effects, I didn’t want a migraine prescription. (That said, I know every situation is different and respect people who do choose to go the prescription route.)
I read everything there was to read. The most helpful book by far was Heal Your Headache by David Buchholz. It became my handbook.
Understanding migraine took a while, but it was necessary to grasping what was going on with my body. I’d previously thought the label “migraine” applied to any really painful headache, but I was wrong. A migraine headache is a very specific type of headache that not everyone gets (Mayo Clinic has a great, easy-to-understand migraine definition). “Migraine” is a neurological disorder that is passed on genetically (thanks, Mom!) and never goes away. Individual migraine headaches are brought on in people who have this disorder, in response to certain environmental triggers. A person’s sensitivity to these triggers varies based on many factors.
I worked both to reduce the migraine triggers I encountered and my sensitivity to those triggers. Because different “Migraineurs” are triggered by different things, it took a lot of investigating to identify what my triggers were and when I was more sensitive to them. A migraine can occur hours or days after the presence of a trigger, which is why tracking was so important. For a while, I wrote down pretty much everything–what time I fell asleep, what time I woke up, how many hours I slept, how restful my sleep felt, what I ate and drank and at what time, when I exercised and for how long, details on my mood and energy levels, when I began and ended my period, and, of course, when I had headaches and what symptoms were present. I cannot overstate how important this was. I wouldn’t have known what changes to make without it.
2. I quit hormonal birth control.
In Heal Your Headache, David Buchholz names hormonal birth control as one of the major factors that sensitizes women to migraine triggers. I already knew that there was some sort of hormonal connection–my migraines were more intense and frequent around my period–so I believed him.
I’d already suspected birth control was a culprit since I’d been getting headaches and stomachaches more and more frequently after starting BC. Three doctors–a gynecologist, primary care physician, and pharmacist–had assured me, however, that the migraines were completely unrelated since they had gradually worsened over time and not started in full force immediately after I began taking the pill. I think those doctors were wrong, and did not fully understand the nature of migraine.
3. I quit caffeine.
I resisted this majorly, but tried it because I was willing to try anything. I quit all forms of caffeine–coffee, pop, tea, chocolate, and caffeine-containing OTC migraine meds, like Excedrin. After a couple of weeks of tracking it was clear that this helped big time. A few months ago, I reintroduced caffeine into my diet in the form of one cup of green tea per day. It seems to be going fine. I will probably never drink coffee again.
4. I quit MSG.
Once I got off birth control and caffeine, I started seeing improvement and it became easier to identify which foods were triggering migraines since the headaches were spread farther apart in time. I was a vegetarian then and was shocked to find out that my “healthy” vegetarian food was a trigger. Yep, Boca burgers and Morningstar chik’n nuggets, soy milk, Zone bars, Bolthouse Farms protein drinks–all of the things I had felt good about eating–were triggering pain. I learned that “soy protein isolate” and any sort of “hydrolyzed protein” contain MSG. I started reading labels and found MSG under different names in my whole-wheat bread and vegetarian soup. I quit eating fast food altogether and became a more conscious grocery shopper.
I should note that I had already eliminated artificial sweeteners from my diet after noticing a connection between aspartame and anxiety.
5. I started sleeping 8 hours per night. The same 8 hours.
Well, I should say I started lying in bed for 8 hours per night. In the beginning I had serious insomnia. I followed the insomnia tips you find all over the internet even though I resented them and felt like a kid being told to mind her bedtime. Eventually it worked. I’d get in and out of bed at the same time, even if I didn’t feel tired (at night) or had the option to sleep in (in the morning). I stopped going online the hour or two before bed. I moved electronics out of my room or at least away from my bed. I bought an eye mask and earplugs to preemptively protect myself from potential sleep disturbances. Getting more and better sleep helped.
6. I quit drinking alcohol.
This was a gradual process. Alcohol was a major part of my social life so I resisted giving it up entirely. First I gave up red wine, an obvious migraine trigger. Then whiskey became an obvious trigger so I gave that up, too. Finally I had to admit that even beer was triggering headaches, so I gave it all up. Now, years later, I am able to tolerate clear alcohols like vodka and white wine without problem, but still avoid red wines, most beers, and dark liquors.
7. I quit perfume, scented candles, and air freshener.
I quit wearing perfume. That helped a little, but then I noticed other things had triggering smells, too. I gave up scented deodorant, hair spray, and fabric softener. I gave away my scented candles and begged my roommate to throw out her Glade Plug-in.
Now that I’m better, I’ve been able to reintroduce some scents into my life. I’ll never buy an air freshener and most regular perfumes still make me feel sick, but over the past year I’ve begun wearing the natural perfume brand Pacifica a minimal amount–I particularly like Island Vanilla.
8. I began taking vitamins and supplements.
Some worked, some didn’t. I believe Magnesium worked. After reading The Magnesium Miracle and The Magnesium Solution for Migraine Headaches I was eager to try it. I felt it made a difference and I took it daily for a year or two.
I also believe the Forever Well supplements worked for me. I was on them for two months. Click their link to read about the gut-brain connection. Seeing as how my diet and migraines were closely intertwined, the gut-brain idea makes a lot of sense to me. When I finished those, I started taking probiotics.
Supplements I tried that did not seem to have any effect included Butterbur and Feverfew.
9. I began eating more often, and cut back on sugar.
I list these two together because I believe they were directly related. I was trapped in a cycle of forgetting to eat and then becoming so faint and weak that I needed an immediate quick fix. I’d eat sugar-laden food to gain energy. My tracking showed that often triggered a migraine.
I began carrying healthier snacks like apples and nuts in my backpack and ate them throughout the day in an effort to avoid that blood sugar crash and subsequent sugar cravings. Although I didn’t feel able to give up added sugar foods completely, I started eating them as desserts rather than meal substitutes.
10. I started doing low-impact exercise.
I already exercised prior to getting the headaches, but had cut back since beginning grad school. When I first tried to restart my previous exercise routine I was in for a big surprise–vigorous exercise now triggered a headache! Instead of aerobics or anything that involved running or bouncing around, I started walking, bicycling, and doing yoga. It helped with headache reduction, but even more than that, helped with reducing the anxiety and depression that tended to accompany the headaches and make me feel trapped and hopeless because of them.
11. I paid attention to my body and acted accordingly.
My way of dealing with the pain had been to ignore my body, and when I first started noticing it again, that involved becoming aware of even more pain. It was difficult, but necessary.
I started meditating at home. I started paying attention to my breathing and to my muscle tension throughout the day, trying to take deeper breaths and to relax my muscles. I noticed that the sun hurt my eyes almost any time I went outside, and it triggered headaches. I bought extra pairs of sunglasses and began carrying some at all times. I realized wearing a headband or my hair pulled back put tension on my head and would turn into a headache with time. I wore my hair down. Essentially, I began noticing low-level discomfort and alleviating it before it passed the point of no return.
12. I starting saying “no.”
First I dropped out of Spanish–an extra class unrelated to my grad program–in hopes of lightening my course load and freeing up time to sleep more. It was too little, too late, however, and I ended up dropping out of grad school altogether. It’d be oversimplifying to say this was entirely due to migraines–I had questioned my path of study since beginning it–but migraines played a major role.
I was an over-achiever plus I wanted to feel normal, so saying “no” to things I normally would’ve said “yes” to felt difficult and selfish at first. I realized that my health had to come first, however, and that anyone expecting me to do something that would compromise my health was the selfish one. I turned down volunteer and professional opportunities, social events, and family get-togethers when I felt they would be too taxing. It helped.
13. I received massage and Reiki treatments.
I didn’t believe Reiki treatments would work because I viewed them as mystical, but I enjoy getting massages so I accepted when someone offered to barter combination Reiki/massage treatments in exchange for grant writing. I had about 5-10 sessions and they worked. At that point I was down to about one migraine a week, and this seemed to be the final thing that ended them.
I don’t know that there is a conclusion, really. While I was successful in ridding myself of chronic migraines, I’m not going to pretend I never faced a health/pain problem again. I’ve also dealt with fibromyalgia, depression, anxiety, fatigue, and IBS symptoms on and off. Whenever I let healthy habits drop off in one area, symptoms of some sort pop up. It feels like a never-ending process of finding the optimal lifestyle.
I’m glad I wrote this post, though, because it reminds me that I’m much better off now than I was in 2007, when I had transformed migraine and dropped out of the PhD program. If I feel symptoms creep up once I’m a grad student again, I will spring into action by saying “no” to all but my required responsibilities, once again quitting alcohol and caffeine entirely, and engaging in other self-care efforts.
For people out there who are managing migraine (or fibromyalgia, or IBS, or depression, or anxiety), do major life changes like moving across the country and entering a grad program concern you? When you’re undergoing major life changes, do you hedge against a “relapse” in symptoms by engaging in protective behaviors? If so, which ones?