Migraine Triggers and Disordered Eating
When I first started looking into elimination diets, it was after hearing from both friends and from my neurologists’ office at the time that tracking diet and daily habits could help identify triggers.
I could then try to reduce or eliminate those triggers, and through this process, I was told I might be able to avoid, reduce, or alter the intensity of my migraines. Sounded easy enough. Young and eager to try anything that would possibly lead to a more migraine-free life, I jumped right into tracking everything.
Where to begin?
I started off by using a paper form from my doctor that was titled ‘headache tracker’, which I thought needed to be updated but nevertheless, I found it helpful in getting an idea of how many factors there may have been affecting my body and my migraines. It looked a little like this headache diary.
What I found was: there were a lot of foods and habits that may or may not have been triggering my attacks, but I had a hard time figuring out where to even start making a change. I had some data in front of me, a compilation of my general habits, but I was getting migraines as often eating sandwiches as I was eating salads. Where was I to start?
Jumping in blind
I should have dug further and done a lot more research on ways that folks have approached elimination diets in the community, (here is a great article to read if you are considering starting an elimination diet) but I was young and desperate.
I began to cut out foods that I thought could possibly be triggering my migraines based on my tracker sheet, but my migraines persisted. Determined to get to the bottom of these potential triggers, I kept cutting. I tried cutting out all carbs. I hadn’t eaten meat for a few years by the time I first tried eliminating foods for the sake of my migraine management, but I went from vegetarian to vegan.
I tried vegan Keto. I cut out all additional, non-natural, and processed sugars. I tried raw veganism. The more micro and involved I got into trying to identify food triggers, the more hyper-fixated and obsessed I began to be over food in general.
Factors beyond food
As you might imagine, my migraines persisted and I was becoming unhealthy in other ways. My veganism was non-supplemented, so I was always fatigued and low on iron, calcium, and protein. This imbalance could have been triggering some of my migraines. I wasn’t exercising much, and when I did exercise I felt hungry but unable to eat. I was afraid to eat.
I had developed, by this point, an eating disorder.
I felt like I needed to notate every detail about what I was eating. This made it difficult to eat because 1) I didn’t always want to log some extensive meal and 2) I was obsessed with eliminating food to find out for sure what triggers to avoid. At least, I thought that was the reason.
After a while though, I also began to be obsessed with my weight. Eventually, I was in a blur, my migraines were worse than before, and my diet was in shambles. What had started out as an attempt to find out ways to feel better had become a nightmare.
Darkness all around
Disordered eating is consuming and can be extremely dangerous. I was eating next to nothing in an attempt to find out what foods were ‘safe’ but was actually engaging in unsafe behavior. Instead of sharing details about my elimination diet with my care professionals, I found myself hiding information about my consumption habits.
Wait. Why was I doing this?
I must have known something was wrong if I wasn’t willing to share with my doctor, but I kept telling myself I was doing all of this for the possibility of lessened migraines...but they were still here and even worse. I was in denial.
During this time, my caretaker saw that I was losing a lot of weight, getting sicker, and becoming short-tempered and obsessive. I was spending time researching about how ‘healthy’ individual foods were (like broccoli, a clearly natural and healthy vegetable). I was skeptical about food and I just didn’t want to eat. It wasn’t even about migraine anymore.
For a while, my caretaker tried to help me track and eliminate the foods that we both thought were possibly triggering my migraines, but realized that things had taken a turn. They advocated that I reconsider what I was doing and why. I was telling myself, I had to be strict about my diet in order to get better, but that was clearly not working.
My caretaker, through many stern conversations, put things into perspective. I had been hiding my behaviors and trying to take control on my own. But now someone else knew and they were watching closely. At a certain point, I also began to experience some really scary moments like biting my tongue at night and fainting. Those were wake up calls.
Choosing a different path
Having some perspective does not cure an eating disorder, at least it didn’t for me, but it did help illustrate a recovery path. Over several months, I began to (begrudgingly at first) reintroduce foods into my diet slowly. Over time, I worked towards a balanced vegan lifestyle and began to take supplements for nutrition.
I began to develop more energy and felt less cold and irritated. I also began to gain some weight back. I was feeling better in many ways, and my migraines were actually becoming less frequent, but I was so far away from where I started that I couldn’t compare then to now. In many ways, I feel as though eating disorders can be as neurologically consuming as migraines.
As a note, because I had struggled with disordered eating when I was even younger, in retrospect I feel as though I was more susceptible to falling back into those habits under the purview of migraine management. They certainly can influence one another for the worse if not checked. I am still, years later, recovering. I have lapsed into disordered eating a number of times since then, but I now approach eating and cutting out foods with careful consideration and with a grain of salt.
Handle with care
Elimination diets are not inherently bad but should be handled with care and consideration. As with any changes to lifestyle and diet, starting an elimination diet should be discussed with a healthcare provider. Having balance and intention are important, and can help avoid obsessive eating behaviors like the ones I developed.
Disordered eating is serious and can lead to sickness, malnutrition, and even death if not treated. Organizations like the National Eating Disorders Association can offer tools and help to those in need.
Have you tried an elimination diet and found it difficult to manage? Let’s discuss in the comments!
Can you tell when a migraine attack is coming?