I am not a physician or a headache specialist, but I have been suffering from migraines since I was in high school, so I know them well.
When I was in my teens, I started having severe headaches right after a few weeks of exams. To make them go away, I would lie down and sleep. When I started university, the pressure to perform excellently in all subjects (I was a real nerd) also took its toll in the same way, with increasing frequency.
Whenever I felt put to the test or faced a situation that meant taking a step out of my comfort zone, I was overcome with uncontrollable anxiety that gave me a pounding headache: an important event or trip, taking an exam, giving a presentation, or going for a job interview. I remember that I couldn’t stop the thoughts from repeatedly spinning through my mind because of the unrealistically high expectations I had of myself: What if I failed miserably at this challenge? As a result, almost invariably, I suffered crippling headaches and it was only years later that I realised that these were migraines, difficult to understand if you have never experienced one. In my case, I usually feel am intense pain on one side of my head, have an aversion to light and sound, experience changes in vision (I see little coloured dots coming and going), sometimes dizziness and, in the worst cases, end up vomiting.
After the traumatic birth of my son in week 29, I started having migraines very frequently, up to three times a week. In addition to poor sleep, I was constantly stressed, and my work-life balance was precarious. With each attack I would lie in bed knocked out for a whole day, unable to do anything, not even sleep, worrying about what I should be doing instead and how I was wasting my time feeling bad. And after each new episode, my fear of developing an ill-timed headache – I was especially scared of having one while alone with my baby – increased, and with it my stress, so the muscles in my upper back and the base of my neck would tighten, triggering further headaches and thus creating a vicious cycle.
In the past fifteen years I visited physicians, chiropractors, homeopaths, osteopaths, migraine specialists and physiotherapists to try to improve my condition. I tried ibuprofen and paracetamol just as much as natural remedies like tinctures and anthroposophical tablets, both with no results. I have religiously drunk more than 2 liters of water per day and diluted lemon juice with Himalayan salt; I applied essential oils, hot compresses, cold compresses, and eye masks with little or no effects.
When I mentioned the migraines to my gynaecologist in the hope that she would order some blood tests to check my hormones, she quickly dismissed the matter.
Only recently I have managed to reduce the frequency to the days before-during-after my period.
Here’s what I have discovered has a positive influence on my migraine management:
Sleep and rest:
The first months (years) after giving birth I was seriously sleep deprived. My son didn’t sleep properly well until he was 18 months old. I had to resume working after 3 or 4 weeks after his birth, so I was physically and mentally exhausted. When I started getting 7-8 hours (not more, not less) of deep sleep every night my condition improved. Check out this blogpost about improving your sleep.
Reducing stress in my life has been fundamental to ease the frequency of my headaches. There are a bunch of things I have tried that have proven helpful: from going out for a walk on a regular basis, taking a hot herbal bath, doing one thing at a time, lowering the expectations, spending time outdoors, and practising yoga.
While yoga helps, once the attack begins there’s no asana or breath practice that can stop it, but preventively, to manage stress, reduce anxiety and relax cramped muscles, practising regularly is key to my well-being. Going out for walks and hiking are also extremely beneficial.
Changing the diet:
Increasing the consumption of vegetables and home-cooked meals (rather than processed foods), cutting out sugar, dairy, and gluten (which also makes me very bloated) and reducing caffeine all seem to play a part. I haven’t had coffee for the last three years, which doesn’t mean I’m caffeine-free: I still like chocolate and mate, which contain a fair amount. I have reduced my intake of white flour (pasta and bread) and rarely drink alcohol.
Keeping a diary:
One of the specialists that I consulted recommended that I keep a migraine journal, including when I suffer from migraines and their intensity (from mild to severe). I’d also add where I am in my cycle, my mood, the food I’ve eaten the previous day and how I have slept, to try to identify a pattern.
I inevitably get headaches in the days before, during or just after menstruation. Once I notice the signs (changes in vision, heaviness and mood swings), I take a prescription pill called Relpax (Eletriptan) which, although it sometimes gives me brain fog, helps a lot to stop the migraine from setting in.
If you suffer from migraines and have found a way to cope with them, please let me know how, I’m happy to hear from you!
Disclaimer: The content of this article is not intended to substitute any professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health provider with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition.