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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.

This article represents the opinions, thoughts, and experiences of the author; none of this content has been paid for by any advertiser. The Migraine.com team does not recommend or endorse any products or treatments discussed herein. Learn more about how we maintain editorial integrity here.

Comments

  • Mr FBP
    2 years ago

    I’ve given up gluten for a while (as coeliac deisease is in my family) but that didn’t work, also gave up caffiiene as a challenge – initially I had withdrawl headaches, but no reduction in migraine. When diets are suggested for migraine now, i ask myself if I would be eliminating something that I’ve eaten as long as I have had migraine (since childhood) for example I eliminated processed meats like ham/bacon/sausage for a while but no improvement there, either.
    I have come to the conclussion that food does not trigger migraine. Hangovers are a trigger, but not alcohol – I can drink a small amount of alcohol (say two small galsses of wine) without triggering the migraine, but if I get a hangover it turns into a three or four day migraine.

  • Elizabeth Roberts-Zibbel moderator author
    2 years ago

    Hi Mr. FBP! Thank you for your comment, and I agree. I think I would benefit from seeing a nutritionist but to talk about blood sugar, not necessarily elimination diets. I’m 43 now and have tried eliminating all migraine triggers to no avail. Another thing I would like to do is have a full allergy test. Thanks for being here!

  • k_nelson
    2 years ago

    For me, I have had to cut out gluten. Going of gluten I didn’t realize any changes, though when I tried to add it back I got an intense migraine every time. I have had migraines since I was 13 and they are still constant 4 years later. I still have a 24/7 headache that I can’t get rid of that has been pretty constant the last couple of years. I have aura constantly throughout the day. Recently I also have been passing out when I haven’t eaten in the morning. I am on way too many meds that aren’t working. I have tried so many things though I can’t seem to find any that help. Migraines just make life 100x harder. I am taking many college classes even though I am in high school still. So I have to stay on top of things and migraines just make life hard and depressing.

  • Elizabeth Roberts-Zibbel moderator author
    2 years ago

    Keziah, I’m so sorry. What happened to you with your attempt to go off gluten was my worst fear. Same with having a 24/7 headache and aura. I’m sorry that you’re going through this so young too, but glad that you’ve been able to keep up with your coursework. Do you see a neurologist / headache specialist? I’m glad you’re here.

  • Maureen
    2 years ago

    i haven’t done major food elimination diets because I haven’t seen much correlation with food as a trigger except for bananas…which I didn’t need to figure out. It was obvious (and terribly sad, because I love them.) I, at times, have felt like peanut butter and avocados might be a problem, but not enough to eliminate them. And I am pretty sure sausage is an issue, but that was an easy one to cut out for me.
    But the thing that was the biggest game changer for me has been seeing a dietitian to help me stabilize my blood sugar throughout the day! I ate many small meals throughout the day, but often had the two minute drill where if I didn’t eat immediately, bad things were about to happen. My brain gave the warning alarm and if food didn’t hit the mouth almost immediately, I was going down and out. As time ticked away, my ability to make decisions ticked away with it and food choices just pushed me over the edge. Most of my decisions wound up being carbs. not good for blood sugar stability.
    My dietitian has helped me with a plan for eating more substantial meals that keep me full longer and my brain happier. This helps me make better, more carb/protein balanced food choices which help me stay full longer and my brain happier, etc., etc.
    You might think you know how to do this on your own; I know I thought I did. I found that I needed to eat half as much oatmeal with twice as much nuts and a little fruit. I needed to include a fruit with my two eggs and toast (even though I feel satisfied without it). It took a while to get the habits established, but I am feeling much better. It didn’t help against the pressure drop of that last nor-easter, but it helps on other days:)

  • Elizabeth Roberts-Zibbel moderator author
    2 years ago

    Ugh, sorry, Maureen, your comment is below Meredith’s comment and this one is for Meredith. Wish we could edit!

    Meredith I don’t have diabetes, but I think I’ve noticed the same things as you as far as triggers and lack of food. I’m sorry that you’re dealing with so many things!

  • Elizabeth Roberts-Zibbel moderator author
    2 years ago

    Maureen, I definitely would like to see a dietitian or a nutritionist. Hopefully someday, and I’m glad it benefited you. Thanks!

  • Meredith Putvin
    2 years ago

    I am finding that my triggers are more environmental, physical, and a lack of food at times. I started getting my migraines when I was 11 yrs old. I had recently hit puberty and got hit with my first migraine. At the time, relief came from vomiting that was self induced by Coca-Cola (aka cola syrup). I notice my auras more when I am under caffeine withdrawal (Vivarin helps me stay away from sugary drinks) and when I need to seriously eat something healthy. Add in Diabetes and a lack of a gall bladder (need to watch fat intake.) Because of the diabetes, I cut back (but not eliminated) my bread intake as well.

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