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The Migraine Experiment

I decided to try out new migraine remedies, without resorting to heavy meds or invasive techniques. Here’s what worked for me — and what might work for you

I used to believe that only Excedrin, my bed, a heating pad, and a dark room could get me through the nauseating, dizzying, and pounding pain of a migraine.

After missing yet another event or obligation because of a migraine attack, I’d listen politely as my well-meaning friends shared their sometimes unusual-sounding tips to prevent and treat headaches, but I never considered trying them. I doubted they’d work.

But after a particularly debilitating migraine that lasted for four days, I started to listen more closely when people gave me their homegrown remedies.

There are, of course, pharmaceutical or invasive ways to minimize or prevent the pain of a migraine (see sidebar). But these fixes are usually doled out to people with chronic migraines, defined as 15 or more a month. Because my migraines are thankfully sporadic, I was more interested in non-pharmaceutical, low-risk interventions.

I started culling tips from all the advice givers around me — especially women, who are three times more likely to suffer from headaches than men. I also spoke to several medical experts to see whether they could confirm or debunk the techniques people shared with me. Here’s what I learned — and what worked for me.

Identifying Your Trigger

A long list of potential triggers can cause migraines: stress, depression, anxiety, insufficient sleep, excessive physical exertion, hormonal changes, medications, food additives, caffeine, alcohol, and more. Seemingly innocuous things like bright lights, strong smells, and abrupt changes in weather can also bring on migraines.

The challenge for migraine sufferers is to figure out what their particular triggers are. A good way to tease out exactly which factors bring about one’s migraines is to keep a detailed lifestyle diary, advises Carolyn Bernstein, MD, an assistant professor of neurology at Harvard Medical School and staff neurologist at Cambridge Health Alliance in Cambridge, MA.

The more thorough the diary, the better. Dr. Bernstein, who wrote The Migraine Brain, explains that one’s diary should include all medications, bedtimes, wake times, exposure to excessively bright sunlight or fluorescent lighting at home and at work, amount and types of exercise, strong smells (such as air fresheners, perfume, flowers), strong chemicals (cleaning fluids, bleach, or formaldehyde), foods (processed, sugary, or other non-healthy foods), drinks (red wine, caffeine, phosphoric acid in brown sodas), repeated exposure to noise, emotional stress, changes in humidity/barometric pressure, jaw grinding at night, dust inhalation, and stages of hormonal cycles. Once the triggers are identified, the next step is eliminating exposure to them.

As soon as I learned that the phosphoric acid and aspartame in brown sodas can trigger migraines, a loud, ringing alarm bell went off in my head. Since I was a kid, Diet Coke has been a “treat” that, in retrospect, I intuitively associated with headaches. I immediately saw a correlation between my diet soda consumption at Shabbos kiddushes and the start of headaches after shul.

Going cold turkey on Diet Coke has definitely helped me to reduce headaches, and after giving it up, I find that I don’t even want it, as I now associate the drink with headache pain (and bloating).

By keeping a diary for just a few days, I discovered that going to bed past midnight is a migraine trigger for me. One helpful tool I now use is a “bedtime chime” on my phone that reminds me to get into bed and unwind with a book 30 minutes before my planned bedtime.

For me, bright sunlight is a trigger, which is hard to avoid when you live in California. I try to stay inside or in the shade, but when I have to brave super sunny L.A. days, I wear dark sunglasses and sunhats over my sheitel.

(Excerpted from Family First, Issue 669)

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