When I first experienced the unbearable throbbing on the right side of my head, accompanied by nausea and extreme light sensitivity, the pain was so intense that I couldn’t imagine it being anything less than fatal. I was surprised to hear from one of my colleagues that I was likely suffering from a ‘benign’ migraine. Benign only because it does not seem to cause any damage in the brain or have any overall effects on one’s health, even though a sufferer feels like they could easily volunteer for a one-sided lobotomy to get the aching part of their brain out.
After its first arrival, migraine continued visiting me three to four times a month with each visit lasting for about 24–48 hours and rendering me completely bedridden. I started missing out on many work days and social events every month. When I didn’t suffer from a migraine, I suffered from anxiety and stress over the potential of getting one soon. It started diffusing into all parts of my life and identity. I started desperately to look for a solution.
I first booked an appointment with a neurologist who diagnosed me with migraines within five minutes of hearing about my symptoms. I was grateful for a rapid diagnosis. However, the cure did not follow the diagnosis that easily. My neurologist told me that they are still not sure what might be causing migraines. Moreover, most of the drugs that are used to treat or prevent them are repurposed drugs (i.e. designed to treat other diseases, such as antidepressants, drugs to lower blood pressure, etc.) with many side effects. A patient would never know how they would react to them or how effective they would be until they were used for at least three months.
Over the years, I tried many pharmacological and non-pharmacological methods to cure my migraines, from repurposed anti-seizure medicines that made me forget words to acupuncture, all to no avail. I eventually learned that while ‘curing’ my migraines completely was not possible, I could ‘manage’ them with these 5 simple steps:
- Write down your daily activities
According to the latest numbers from the American Migraine Foundation, over 36 million people suffer from migraines in the US alone and what triggers a migraine changes for every individual. Information is power and to power through a migraine, you need to know what your triggers are. Find out what causes your migraines by keeping track of your daily activities: how many hours of sleep do you get, what do you eat and drink throughout the day, how much do you exercise, where are you in your menstruation cycle, how stressed are you? Write it all down and look back at the end of every month to see what your day looked like on the day you had a migraine. Play detective and search for patterns: Do you usually get one after a late night? After having too much coffee? Right before having your period? Once you discover your triggers, it will be much easier to avoid or control them.
2. Watch what you eat and drink
The most common triggers of a migraine are what you eat and drink: too much or too little caffeine, alcohol (especially wine and beer), chocolate, MSG, processed foods that are high in sugar content are among the biggest culprits. It is important to be mindful of what you put in your body. If you realize that wine gives you migraines, for example, you don’t need to ‘cold turkey’ it completely. You can simply moderate the amount you drink, switch to another beverage of choice or try organic wines with much less sulfites. Two things to definitely keep in mind, though, are to never skip a meal and to always keep hydrated.
Sleep is key for a healthy lifestyle. It is also the way our brains learn and process memories. Try to get as much sleep as possible (about seven to eight hours) consistently each day. Don’t pull an all nighter one day and try to make up for it by sleeping in the next day. Get about the same amount of sleep each night. Keep in mind that, just like too little sleep, too much sleep can trigger a migraine.
Stress is a major player for migraines and there is no better way to combat it than daily moderate exercise. You don’t have to be a gym rat. Anything that will keep your body active and moving even for 20 minutes a day is good: go for a hike, run, swim, do yoga or stretches. Again consistency is key.
5. Make peace with it
Ah, the most subtle but also the most important step of all: the acceptance. As Joan Didion, the amazing writer and a fellow migraine sufferer, has said on her essay, In Bed: “It was a long time before I began thinking mechanistically enough to accept migraine for what it was: something with which I would be living, the way some people live with diabetes”. Even though there are some promising new drugs in clinical trials to prevent them, migraines are still, for the most part, a lifelong debilitating disease with no cure. However, by understanding your triggers and maintaining a consistent healthy lifestyle, you can manage to live with them. Be good to your body and your body (and your brain) will pay you back.