Moms & Migraines

By Jennifer Rodgers

So many moms out there experience these debilitating headaches, and so many of us find little relief. For those of you who have never had a migraine, here is a brief description: extreme, throbbing pain, usually on one side the head, that is relentless. It pounds away minute by minute and is accompanied by heightened sensitivity to light, sound, and even smell. Almost anything will make it worse. Some experience nausea or vomit, some must hide away in a dark room, others go to the E.R. because the pain is so great. Most get no relief until they go to bed that night and hope it’s gone in the morning. For most sufferers, it has miraculously disappeared after a good night’s sleep; for others, it can continue for two to three more days. The pain can be so excruciating that most people are willing try anything to make it go away, and most things don’t work. Adding children to the mix (especially young and needy ones) when a migraine hits tests the strength of the strongest moms!

I have suffered from migraines since the age of 26 (I am now 41). I have researched the topic, tried almost any and every suggested remedy, gone to doctors, acupuncturists, and herbalists. Here is what I learned over the years to hopefully help anyone with these mega-headache blues:

Causes and Triggers:
Following are some common causes and triggers that contribute to a migraine occurring. Note that it isn’t just one of these that will cause the headache, it is typically a combination of them. I spent many years trying to find that one culprit, thinking that I could eliminate that and be fine; and it took me a long time to realize that it’s not the case. Too many triggers experienced at the same time will cause that dreaded pounding to start.

– Migraines are typically hereditary. If you get migraines and start talking about it with your family members, you’ll probably find that someone else gets them too. My dad does, as well as my aunt, and now my younger cousins. Unfortunately, we’re a migraine family, but they also have been a good resource for me when trying to discover my common triggers. Often, they are the same.

– Getting too little sleep. This is a big contributor to the onset of a migraine, and I know that if I have multiple nights of no sleep, a migraine is sure to follow. Sleep can be nearly impossible with little ones, but try to make it up where you can. Go to bed when your babies do, nap when they do, or try to find some time during lunch breaks to just close your eyes and rest that poor brain.

– Having too much caffeine. Caffeine, our lifesaver in the morning or when we don’t get that beloved sleep, can also bring on that migraine faster. It constricts your blood vessels and increases your heart rate. It feels good in the moment, but it can also make that incessant pounding worse. I finally kicked the coffee habit after many lovely years with my darling java, but it has really helped. I still drink tea, a combination of black and green, so I do still intake caffeine, but not at the same rate or in the same concentration.

– Not eating regularly, or drinking enough water. In combination with healthy sleep, migraine sufferers also benefit from eating at least every three hours, as well as drinking plenty of fluids (ideally water). Lacking these two essentials just adds fuel to the migraine fire.

– Menstrual cycle migraines. Some women find that the dips and dives in their hormones due to their period can cause migraines to regularly occur. At least two moms I know have found that their menstrual cycle is the major contributor to their monthly migraines.

– An onslaught of stress. We all know that stress is unavoidable in our lives as moms, but an influx due to family problems, illnesses, financial worries, and more can add up fast. Taking a break with some relaxation or even a short meditation can help. It might not solve your problems, but can give you a little distance for a short while, and maybe keep that headache at bay.

– Red wine, some cheeses, dark chocolate. That just doesn’t seem fair, does it? All of those delicious foods can cause migraines? For some, yes. Red wine has been a culprit for a long time. Tannins and a substance called tyramine is said to contribute to those who are prone to migraines. The same goes for aged cheeses, tyramine helps that headache along. Dark chocolate also contains it and caffeine from the higher content of cocoa. My aunt discovered that dark chocolate is her biggest trigger (along with caffeine), so she avoids it completely.

– Food allergies or intolerance. Foods that your body cannot tolerate or has a reaction to will cause inflammation in your body. Inflammation can help that migraine come into being. After doing a food intolerance test, I discovered that I am intolerant to milk, lactose, cheese, and many types of seeds. I have completely cut those out of my diet and seen positive results.

– Weather changes. This trigger might seem a little silly, but it can be a contributor. Drops in the barometer mean changes in pressure, which can be painful to an already sensitive head. Major changes due to the changing of seasons affect my headaches, as well as visiting other places where the humidity is vastly different (like the southern states). There isn’t much that we can do about the weather! But being aware of it might cause you to not have that extra cup of coffee or stay up a little later.

How to help your head:
– Healthy lifestyle changes. Do your best to get enough sleep, don’t overdo it on caffeine (or drink it at all if possible), always be aware of when you ate and when to eat again (do not go over three hours, carry snacks in your purse, always have water with you).

– Track your menstrual cycle along with your headaches. If you notice a pattern, avoid your other triggers when you know might start your period (or whenever headaches occur in your cycle). You also can consider trying birth control pills, which has helped those moms I know who get cycle-related migraines.

– Keep a headache log and note any patterns. Did you have red wine the night before, what did you eat, did you get little sleep, are you particularly stressed, is your period coming or did it recently end? The goal is to narrow down any little pattern. That will help you untangle the triggers that bring migraines on.

– Get a food intolerance test. Knowing what foods your body reacts to can help your entire system (from your G.I. to your head). I had no clue that my body doesn’t tolerate milk products, and I’ve been eating them my entire life! You may not like the answers, but if you’re desperate for relief, you might be willing to try.

– See your doctor to get a prescription for migraine medication. There are options out there for us migraine sufferers and I have tried many of them. There are meds to take when a migraine starts to attack and there are some to take on a daily basis to ward them off. Choosing to take medication is personal and entirely up to you, but know that options exist, some of them helpful.

– See an acupuncturist who can get you back in balance. Acupuncture is beneficial for chronic pain or any other problem, which is often due to an imbalance somewhere in your body. The right acupuncturist can treat this imbalance, and in turn, alleviate some of your headaches, or make the pain less severe when they occur.

What worked for me:
First, please note that everyone is different and what has worked for me may not work you in the same way. Everyone’s migraine journey is unique; still, some of my solutions might help you too.

– Adequate sleep, eating healthily, and drinking lots of water. If I miss out on any of these, especially in combination, I’m in trouble.

– Exercising on a regular basis. It helps my body and brain, even short walks can count for something.

– Changing my daily diet. After getting the food intolerance test and cutting out my body’s major reactors, in my case, milk, lactose, many seeds, and some alcohol, I noticed a marked difference in my headaches. As a family we also cut out gluten (due to my daughter’s intolerance), and that has helped, too.

–  Acupuncture. It took me awhile to find the right practitioner (every acupuncturist has their own theory for your ailment, like a doctor), but once I did, she worked wonders in clearing out and detoxing my body and helping my energy level overall, especially my headaches. I went from having migraines a few times a month to having one sporadically every four or five months. She worked wonders for me, but again, everyone’s experience is different.

– Prescription migraine medication. I have tried a variety of these as well, some with varying success. In the end, I take a common medication (Imitrex) when I feel a migraine coming on. Since I have eliminated most triggers, that medication usually stops the migraine before ballooning into a full-blown attack. Prior to my lifestyle changes and acupuncture, the medication didn’t always work and I would take it much more frequently than I liked. Now, I am not waiting anxiously to fill my prescription.

The migraine problem is a hard one to solve, and it might be that you will always be prone to them, but know that you can cut out some of the major contributing factors and, if anything, reduce the times that you get them (and the severity). Good luck, migraine mamas!

Jennifer Rodgers is a full-time mom and part-time writer who lives in the Sierra foothills with her husband, two children, and too many animals to count. In her spare time she can be found reading, knitting, or hiking with the dogs.

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