Doing something about migraines

Migraines get in my way. I’ve canceled on seeing the same person three times in the last week alone.  Migraines don’t happen randomly – people with migraines have triggers.  Some people have lots of triggers, some people have few. Some triggers are obvious and some are really hard to figure out.  One thing that makes triggers so hard to figure out is that they’re additive.  I think of them like rocks in a boat: get enough weight and the boat sinks.

By Flickr user StephenTaylor430

From Flickr user StephenTaylor430

When the boat sinks, the migraine happens. I’ve talked mostly about barometric pressure here because that’s a big, big rock in my boat.  But there are a lot of small rocks that can add up to a migraine for me: any change in my sleep, any overwhelming emotion, being tense, being hungry, eating the wrong thing, bright lights, loud noises, getting hot, getting cold, being cold and getting hot, perfumes and many chemical odors.  Keeping as many rocks as possible out of my boat reduces the number of migraines I get.

Controlling and reducing triggers is a big part of David Buchholz’s Heal Your Headache. He totally gets how any sort of ‘surprise’ to a migraine sufferer’s body can be a rock in the boat.

“Regularity is key: you should sleep, eat and exercise on a regular basis. Get enough sleep each night, seven to eight hours or more, and don’t oversleep sporadically, as on weekends.”

Heal Your Headache has been recommended to me multiple times and seems to work very well for some people.

By recommended, I mean pushed on me by people who believe it like holy rollers believe the Bible.

The book recommends three main steps: 1) Stop taking abortive migraine medications 2) Follow the migraine diet 3) If you followed steps one and two, you should be healed, but here are some preventative medications you might consider otherwise.

I’ve done step one, and not by choice. I ran out of options. Narcotics don’t work anymore, barbiturates don’t work anymore, triptans make me violently ill, OTC migraine meds don’t work, aspirin/Tylenol/naproxen doesn’t do a damn thing, exciting cocktails of the previous don’t work/make me violently ill. Even when I could take narcotics or barbiturates, taking them more than once a week meant that I’d end up with rebound headaches.

Step two involves avoiding all these foods:

Migraine diet from David Buchholz's Heal Your Headache

Click to embiggen. Also, I am not responsible for the overzealous highlighting. Or the ham helper. I am not sure what ham helper is, but I am pretty sure it is not food.

Imagine avoiding all those foods for FOUR MONTHS.  I’ve done it, mostly.  It sucks.  This is a very restrictive diet and my bank account at the time restricted it further.  I ended up getting MORE migraines because I wasn’t getting enough food with enough of what I need.  Despite that, I’ve been good about reducing or cutting a lot of those things out of my diet in general (the preserved meats and fish, MSG, alcohol, processed foods, dairy). Still my attempts to identify dietary triggers have not been very successful.

Dietary triggers are tricky.  One doctor told me food can affect headaches 3 days from when it’s eaten, which makes identification of a trigger pretty hard, especially when it isn’t enough to sink the migraine boat by itself. Theoretically, I could cut out a few things at a time, but it’s impossible to keep all other triggers constant during that period, so I’d never really know which migraines were influenced by weather/sleep/stress and which by food. But I know food influences my migraines.  If I eat a piece of pizza, I’m usually alright.  If I have pizza for 2 meals a day for 2 days, I will not be alright. With all the experimentation with my diet, I did develop a feel for some things that probably give me migraines – aged cheeses and dairy in general, processed or fast food, any alcohol, and too many pickled or preserved things (like hot okra pickles or sauerkraut). Maybe there are other things I eat on a regular basis that are dropping rocks in my boat, but I don’t think there’s much else I can do to discover them.

As for step three?  I never found a preventative that even touched my migraines without some other significant decrease in my quality of life.

Some of the info in Heal Your Headache is great. A lot of it is complete bullshit.  All in all, I agree with these assessments of Heal Your Headache:

His conviction that that people who “fail” with his approach likely don’t follow it to the letter or are attention-seekers is offensive. And, oh yeah, he dismisses scientific research that he doesn’t agree with and blames other doctors for making themselves not believe in food triggers. [The Daily Headache]


I stopped drinking caffeine and alcohol and stopped eating chocolate, cheese, M.S.G., nuts, vinegar, citrus fruits, bananas, raspberries, avocados, onions, fresh bagels and donuts, pizza, yogurt, sour cream, ice cream, aspartame and all aged, cured, fermented, marinated, smoked, tenderized or nitrate-preserved meats.

For a couple of weeks, I was ravenously hungry, cranky, spaced out and vaguely, deprivedly resentful. But I felt, headache-wise, somewhat improved. I had six or nine migraines, but they were less severe. And, once I got used to it, I came to almost enjoy being on my diet, exploring my capacity for hunger and self-abnegation, obsessing over what foods I could eat, and how, and when. At the very least, the diet made my friends happy. Renouncing food, renouncing pills, is so often, in our time, seen as the right and righteous, pure and wholesome thing to do.

And then the headaches returned, with a vengeance. [Judith Warner]

Heal Your Headache‘s advice isn’t going to cure me. The few things that might help, I already know. I started reading Heal Your Headache knowing its claims were too good to be true, but I was still (pitifully) hopeful. One of the reasons books like Heal Your Headache appeal to people like me is that they give you something to do. If I know it won’t hurt me (and sometimes even when I don’t), I will try a migraine remedy just to feel like I have some control in a situation where I very clearly do not. It feels good to try to make my body better, even if I know it probably won’t work.

Which brings me to my next migraine-control attempt: The Complete Book of Ayurvedic Home Remedies. This book was sent to me several months ago by reader donutszenmom after an interesting conversation about Ayurveda. The recommendations aren’t backed up by science, but as long as they’re safe, I’ll try them!

First it suggests a pitta-pacifying diet.  This is complicated, but less restrictive than the migraine diet recommended above.  Still, I’m not ready to make a change that big yet.  Instead I’ll try the ‘preventative breakfast,’ which is banana, ghee, sugar, and cardamom.  Yum!  I’ll also do the specific yoga postures and breathing exercises suggested; those shouldn’t hurt me and will almost certainly help with the muscle tension I tend to accumulate during a migraine.

Another recommendation is an herbal mixture composed of Asparagus racemosus, Bacopa monnier, Nardostachys grandiflora, and Cyperus rotundis. They seem relatively safe, at least alone and in small quantities. However, most of them have quite a number of badly researched secondary compounds. This means that they’re more likely to actually do something –  helping or hurting hasn’t been studied in a controlled way.  Who knows if I’m allergic to one of these things!?  Plus, there’s the issue of finding the right extracts in accurately reported dosages with accurately reported ingredients.  Ayurvedic drugs aren’t exactly regulated by the FDA.  I think I’ll do the diet and dig around for a few more papers before I actually try this.

My FAVORITE remedy is called ‘a healing yawn’ (I hear you snickering!).  It most certainly does not make my migraine go away, but it feels great and gets some fun weirded out looks on the bus. It’s definitely okay to try at home, too.  Here’s how: pull down on your earlobes while you yawn.  I have no idea why it’s so soothing for me, but I won’t complain.

I’ll report back on the preventative breakfast in a few weeks.


  1. sara says:

    I have migraines as well, though not nearly as badly as yours. Oddly, I started taking anti-depression medication and found I had far fewer headaches. Maybe it helped reduce stress, who knows?

    The yawn makes sense, as I once had a massage therapist completly cure a headache by rubbing the various muscles of my head/scalp.

    Best wishes for a less painful 2011!

    • sarcozona says:

      Anti-depressants definitely help some people with migraines. I’ve tried a few and low doses of nortriptyline seemed to be helping at one point. I also feel like headaches and depression can feed off of each other, so treating one can help relieve the other.

  2. Pat says:

    Cardamom is my main trigger, the Ayurvedic advice would just have led me to discovering that if I hadn’t already known. For that breakfast, is it dairy ghee or vegetable ghee?

    One thing I have noticed is that I get more migraines when I get low on protein. My main sources of protein are lentils, peas, beans, nuts (and nut butters, yummy), freshly-baked yeasty breads, pea protein concentrate and soya products like flavoured tofu. I can see why the rollover title is “STARVE”. Where are you supposed to get your protein from? Seeds and cereal?

    I don’t eat meat, dairy or convenience foods and I don’t drink coffee or alcohol, which appear to be the only things I am doing right by that chart.

    Asparagus racemosus, shatavari, is pretty well-researched clinically in India and thought to be safe according to my reading. It does contain some interesting steroids and a peculiar alkaloid. The only thing to worry about is that it can increase sexual desire in women. This is more obvious in older women, however.

    Bacopa monnieri is also well-researched for toxicity and is relatively safe. It is a bit stimulating and I have known people develop headaches from it but that is a different sort of headache. Very popular for scholars in India as its main use is for memory.

    Solgar do a reliable herb/extract mixture of Bacopa monnieri and Asparagus racemosus and are one of the more reliable herb capsule makers.

    Those spp. of Nardostachys and Cyperus are both very strong perfumes that some people find objectionable. Nardostachys is a sort of sweet valerian smell that some people flinch from instantly.

    I think I mentioned before that I use members of the Berberis and Mahonia genera to get rid of my migraines. I haven’t seen any other reports on this, it is just something I did out of desperation, after trying over a dozen other random remedies I had lying around.

    Depending on the part and species, about 30 flowers chewed or a gramme of the root (easiest to store) or leaves brewed as a tea with lemon juice or another acid. Whatever is closest to hand, though vinegar is disgusting. Total restoration of health within minutes if taken before the aura disappears. The only drawback is that they are antibiotic and screw up your intestinal flora. With longterm use this can cause some B vitamin problems. Overdose can be lethal but this would be very difficult with herbal preparations.

    Berberine has an antiadrenergic effect, this might be the mode of action against migraines.

    Coptis and Hydrastis also worked but are much more expensive and not so common in gardens and council plantings.

    Cardamom denial and Berberis changed my life. Good luck!

    • sarcozona says:

      Since I do eat meat, the protein wasn’t a huge issue, but I did have to eat more meat than I like. It’s good to hear more about the particular plants recommended by Ayurveda – Can you recommend a source for me to read about some of them?

      Cardamom is an interesting trigger – I’m pretty sure it’s not one of mine, but I’ll find out for sure when I start the preventative breakfast. I don’t think it specified dairy vs. vegetable ghee. I was going to use dairy because my grocery store doesn’t carry ghee, but I know how to make it myself. Do you think it would make a big difference? What kinds of Berberis and Mahonia do you use?

      • Pat says:

        I was just thinking about the advice to avoid dairy. Fatty acids do have a huge influence on inflammatory diseases. In this case I suppose it is the fermentation products like tyramine that are being avoided.

        For Ayurvedic herbs I have mostly read original research papers by searching PubMed or at my local University library. I have to pay £25 a year for the latter but it is well worth it. That is my idea of fun. Even the books on Ayurveda in the Uni library don’t seem to be very good at assessing risk or giving in-depth details, let alone the usual bookshop New Agey-type fluff. I have tried three of those as herbs or extracts, and Nardostachys as an essential oil.

        I have used lots of different spp of Berberis/Mahonia. Before I discovered about the cardamom and when they wouldn’t stop using a particular air freshener at work I had regular migraines, never recovering. So out of desperation I tried whatever was at hand and they always worked:

        M. japonica flowers
        M. lomariifolia flowers and young tender leaves (and possibly x media in council plantings)
        M. aquifolium (commercial herbal Oregon grape) root.

        B. vulgaris (commercial herbal barberry) bark
        B. darwinii flowers
        B. thunbergii flowers and leaves, once the chopped young stems
        B. hookeri flowers and wood (from pruning one in the landlady’s garden)

        There may have been other spp but I wasn’t always able to see well enough to tell anything to specific level.

        I haven’t tried the fruit despite dried barberries being available in Middle Eastern groceries.

        Soon after discovering about the cardamom I was taken out to an Indian restaurant with a large group of friends at no notice. “At least you’ll be able to eat the rice.” When the rice arrived it was decorated with several lines of huge cardamom pods criss-crossing the whole dish. The waiters were obviously confused as to why I only ate huge amounts of poppadum.

  1. […] A very kind reader sent me The Complete Book of Ayurvedic Home Remedies, and I’m trying the migraine remedies it recommends. The first remedy (yawning in a funny way) was a failure at treating migraines, but feels good. […]

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