Gluten for Punishment: My Attempts at Dietary Changes for Migraine
With this month's spotlight being on nutrition and health, some of us are writing about our own struggles and successes with dietary changes in hopes of better controlling migraine disease. This is the story of my temporary elimination of gluten (wheat) from my diet.
A teenage vegetarian
I've always been a lazy eater. When I was sixteen, I became a vegetarian because consuming animals didn't feel right to me. But to my mother's chagrin, I had no interest in learning to cook and didn't do much to ensure proper protein replacement in my diet other than to request veggie burgers, veggie "dogs" and other non-meat substitution products, which was a little more difficult in 1990 than it is now. My family didn't eat a whole lot of meat anyway, so it wasn't too hard and my health issues (severe episodic migraine, endometriosis, hypothyroidism, depression) stayed the same.
When I went away to college, the choices in the dining hall provided a smorgasbord of easy, filling food that wasn't all that nutritious. After watching me eat grilled cheese sandwiches, french fries, and jello for months, my friend Jason was concerned and bought me some multi-vitamins.
The gluten-free era
Fast forward fifteen years. In approximately 2007, I began to hear a lot about gluten-free diets easing more health issues than just celiac disease. My migraines had become much worse since the birth of my first daughter a few years before, leading to repeated ER and hospital visits, and I was desperate. I did a lot of research about wheat and other gluten-containing products and how lots of people with migraines did notice significant improvement after eliminating those foods. Unfortunately, wheat made up most of my diet, and I absolutely adore pasta and bread and cookies and cake. And sweet rolls, and bagels, and pizza, and sandwiches, and cereal, and packaged food with hidden ingredients that often cause the allergy alert to say "Contains: wheat." I did talk to my doctors, who approved (any dietary changes should not be made without assistance).
I took the plunge. Similar to when I became a vegetarian, I did a lot of replacement with packaged substitutions. Gluten-free bread, pasta, pizza, snacks foods, desserts. They all tasted pretty terrible. The bread didn't toast well or make good sandwiches because it would fall apart. Spaghetti tasted like... dirt. With the texture of glue. But I stuck with it and did notice some improvement fairly quickly, which made the sacrifice and additional full time job of label-reading worth it. I learned to make some gluten-free blondie brownies that were actually delicious, even modifying the recipe.
Adding meat back to the mix
Often, when I would have a bad migraine week, I was able to identify that something I'd been eating recently contained gluten (like Twizzlers, for example). Hospital visits, which had decreased but were still necessary a few times per year, became trickier in that I had to make sure the meals that came up from the kitchen were gluten-free. In fact, going anywhere, if eating was to be involved, was difficult. When I became pregnant with Zo after about a year of the new diet, I added chicken and (nitrate-free) bacon back in because I felt like the baby was starving without meat or wheat, which ended my nearly twenty years of being a vegetarian. I learned which restaurants had good gluten-free menus and that our fantastic local cookie shop, which delivers, had peanut butter cookies that were made without wheat (although peanut butter is also often a trigger). I learned that gluten-free packaged cookies seemed to have other chemicals in them that would trigger a headache sometimes, and that pizza was the same.
Chronic migraines return
After about five years, through Zo's birth and my hysterectomy, I was back to being chronic daily. Though the hysterectomy did fix the hormonal issue, I was again having severe headaches every day, which made it harder to make sure I was eating properly. I talked to John about it and decided to experiment with adding wheat back in to my diet. If I was going to feel this bad, I might as well eat better food in the meantime. And in fact, the easier just-grab-whatever eating possibilities did help me to stay properly fed when I wasn't feeling well, and over time I improved again despite eating regular pasta, pizza, donuts, Girl Scout cookies, cake, Oreos, bread, soft pretzels, pancakes...
Recently I thought that I might have to cut back on gluten again, but it turned out I had forgotten to change my estradiol patch for over a week. I always keep it in mind as something I might have to return to, but I have never been desperate enough. It was another case of Medusa (what I call my migraine disease) adjusting and outsmarting me. No fix ever seems to be permanent. But hey... at least there are those three boxes of Samoas I have on order.
What dietary changes have you attempted to better control you migraines? Feel free to share in the comments.
When it comes to planning vacations or other events where travel is required, how much does migraine factor into your decision-making?