Tuesday, December 20, 2005

Apple #134: Migraines

Every once in a while, I get a migraine headache. I wasn't sure that's what I was experiencing because when people describe migraines on TV, they make it sound like you're completely debilitated and incapable of doing anything except lying in a dark bedroom with a cloth over your face for several hours. But after talking to my doctor and especially after reading lots of people's personal descriptions of their own migraines, I know that what happens to me is officially a migraine headache.

But oftentimes, my head doesn't even get to the aching part. I get the visual "aura," as people call it. If I look at a light bulb just so, or if bright sunlight glances off the chrome fender of a car and hits my eye just right, and if on top of that one or two other things are going on, that triggers the migraine. Or, I should say, the aura starts.

The aura is kind of like looking at a light bulb for too long, and it imprints its image on your retina so that you see it even when your eyes are closed. Except with this, what I see whether my eyes are open or closed is like a tiny replication of a blood vessel, complete with pulsing blood, or perhaps electricity, moving and quivering, in black and white. Then the pulsing wire starts to get bigger, often begins tracing its way clock-wise in a circle. When the circle is completed, what's in the middle of that circle fills in, and I get a big black spot in the middle of my vision.

If I take a couple of ibuprofen when I first see the pulsing vessel image, after maybe 15 minutes or so, the progression from line to circle gets arrested, and often I get no headache. Today, the pulsing line did not make a circle, but branched out into what looked like many and diverse blood vessels, and I got a piercing headache at my temple. Fortunately, because of the ibuprofen I had taken, it didn't last long.

Lots of websites say things like, "there are many triggers for migraines," and then they make a list. This led me to believe, at first, that I'd have to avoid every single thing on that big huge list if I wanted to avoid getting a migraine. But it's not like that. Different people react to different things. Migraines are kind of like allergies in that while many people have allergies, most people are not allergic to every irritant, but rather, most people are allergic to just a few things, or a few classes of things.

Unlike allergies, you may not react to the same trigger the same way on each occasion. In other words, if you eat MSG one day and get a migraine, the next time you eat MSG, you might not. Obviously, this makes identifying your triggers difficult. But what's probably going on is that your body reacts to the confluence of several factors, and if only one or two are present, your body may be able to handle it.

Here is a list of potential triggers. If you keep a journal of the things you eat, the amount of sleep you get, your moods, your menstrual cycle if you're a woman, the atmospheric pressure, and other environmental factors, you might discover which of these stimuli have set off the migraines you've experienced in the past:
  • Foods, especially processed foods or those that deplete magnesium levels, including
      • Coffee, tea, chocolate or anything that contains caffeine
      • Cheese, especially aged cheeses such as cheddar or blue or Parmesan
      • Dairy products, espesically cultured dairy products such as buttermilk or sour cream
      • Red wine (sulfites), vermouth, champagne, or beer
      • Yeast in products such as sourdough bread, rolls, doughnuts, coffee cake
      • Nuts, peanuts, peanut butter
      • Dried fruits such as figs or raisins
      • Overripe fruits such as avocados, bananas, or red plums
      • Beans, including lima, Italian, lentil, broad, soya, or peas
      • Soy sauce or other soy products
      • Canned soups or packaged soup mixes
      • Nitrites in foods such as hot dogs, most lunch meat, dried meats, corn dogs, sausages, bacon, or chicken livers
      • Other aged, canned, cured or processed foods such as anchovies, sardines, dried fish, salami, or caviar
      • Preservative benzoic acid or its associated compounds
      • Preserved or pickled foods such as sauerkraut, pickled herring, pickles, or olives
      • Monosodium glutamate (MSG)
      • Other additives such as Nutrasweet or meat tenderizer
  • Lifestyle / other health factors
      • Stress, repressed emotions, or after stress is removed
      • Not enough water throughout the day
      • Not enough sleep the night before
      • Skipped meals
      • Onset of menstrual cycle or other hormonal changes
      • Some medications, especially if you've been taking too much headache medicine
  • Environmental factors
      • Loud noises
      • Sudden, bright light or flashing lights
      • Changes in weather, especially increases in humidity or changes in barometric pressure
      • Pollution, smoke, perfume, or other odors

Again, some of the things listed above may or may not be involved in triggering your migraine. You might discover that things that aren't even on this list are involved in your migraines.

For me, if three of the lifestyle factors are present, I'm more likely to get a migraine. But some of the other factors might also be involved and I just don't realize it.

A note about caffeine. Some people say that it actually helps make their migraines go away. Given the way migraines work (blood vessel dilation, as opposed to blood vessel constriction which is what happens with other types of headaches), caffeine could possibly counteract the migraine. But based on what I've read, I'd say try other things first before trying the caffeine remedy. And of course, check with your doctor.

University of California, Berkeley, Migraine Triggers
Chet Day's Health and Beyond, Foods that Trigger Migraine Headaches
Connective Tissue Disorders, Migraine Triggers
About.com, Teri Robert, Migraines Often Triggered by Change in the Weather

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