At seventeen I got my flight licence. It hadn’t been an easy task to achieve as I was attending school and working part-time for an airline, but I was ambitious, a hard worker, and made it possible.
One day I was going to become a commercial airline pilot. I was young, determined, and felt that nothing could stop me. I was wrong.
The excruciating, throbbing pain that one day began over my right eye and eventually spread to one side of my head, began to interfere with my flying. After extensive testing done at Toronto’s Mount Sinai Hospital, I was diagnosed with migraines, given Fiorinal, a powerful medication consisting of analgesic, aspirin, caffeine, the barbiturate butalbital which is a tranquillizer, and sent home.
The frequency of the headaches increased. I was able to finish school, and keep my airline job, as the work schedule was flexible and I was able to trade shifts when the headaches became severe, but my dream of becoming a commercial pilot was abruptly grounded.
As the migraines increased, so did my use of Fiorinal, and over the course of a few years, they became ineffective.
My physician changed the medication to a more powerful drug, better suited for migraines, but the side-effects that ranged from rebound headaches, to a zombie-like state, made it almost impossible to drive, much less fly.
Overall, the medication was a hit-and-miss ordeal. Sometimes it worked, often it did not. The headaches, which were now occurring weekly, lasted from two to three days, and during the attacks I would become bed-ridden. Every few years the medication would again be changed in a desperate attempt to find something more effective.
The desperate cycle continued. Over a 20 year period I tried every migraine pill available with little relief, until the medication began to counter-effect my health, and my personality. I was often lethargic, moody, highly emotional, and unable to concentrate, and it wasn’t long before I had a total nervous breakdown.
Out of total desperation, my husband took me to a naturopathic doctor who immediately took me off the potent drugs, and commenced homeopathic treatments suitable for my condition.
For a one month period, without medication, as ineffective as it was, the pain was unbearable. The naturopathic doctor suggested two aspirin, and assured me that I would get better.I was sceptical at first, but then began to feel a bit better. She then advised me to begin researching the possibility that the migraines might be a result of food sensitivities, poor eating habits, and poor stress management.
It was one of the best pieces of advice I got. The information that follows is from years of experimenting with data I researched and applied to my situation, Over time, these lifestyle changes were instrumental in dramatically reducing both the frequency and the intensity of my migraines.
Not Just a Headache. Medical professionals describe migraine as a vascular headache caused by the dilation and constriction of the blood vessels in the brain. Unpredictable and debilitating, this disorder is responsible for more time loss in the workplace than any other non life-threatening illness.
There are two types of migraines; common and classic. The common migraine was the one I experienced. This type begins with a slow, steady pounding around the eye area, and eventually moves to one side of the head. The pain is unbearable, and nausea usually accompanies the pain. The attack can last from four hours to three days.
The classic migraine begins with the sufferer seeing flashes of lights known as an aura, or fragmented vision before the pain begins.
Dear Diary. Although there are many theories as to what exactly causes a migraine, research reveals that food sensitivities are a possible trigger. And so I began to keep a diary of everything I ate and drank.
Over the course of three months I noticed a pattern. If I ate chocolate, Chinese food, or had a half glass of wine, eight to ten hours later the pain would begin. These foods were a trigger, and understandably so.
Chocolate, red wine, as well as aged cheese, contains tyramine, an amino acid believed to reduce serotonin levels in the brain, thus causing blood vessels to dilate. The dilation causes the throbbing pain.
Over time I learned that over 90 percent of headaches are linked to food sensitivities, flavour enhancers, preservatives and colouring.
According to the Food and Drug Administration, over 5,000 additives are used in food products in North America. It is no wonder that as the variety of food increases, so do migraines, as it is estimated that the average consumer ingests about five pounds of chemicals yearly.
Hidden Agenda. Once I learned about a salty enzyme added for flavouring known as Monosodium Glutamate, or MSG, I began to read labels, and avoided foods that were enhanced with this additive. But while most foods clearly label this ingredient, others hide it in technical names.
Ingredients such as sodium, calcium caseinate, hydrolyzed protein, textured protein, glutamic acid, flavouring, flavours, stock buillon, soy sauce, malted barley, moltodextrin, and a host of hundreds of other additives found in candy, gum, and fast foods, all contain sources of MSG. It is therefore up to the consumer to determine the ingredients they are sensitive to, and avoid them.
Kick Caffeine. On average I was drinking four cups of coffee per day. Research shows that caffeine is not only a stimulant that affects the central nervous system and makes one more alert, but is highly addictive, and is a vasoconstrictor that constricts blood vessels, (and migraines are the result of constricted vessels in the brain). Since it is a diuretic, which means the body eliminates more fluid than the volume of water contained in the drink, it also robs the body of essential nutrients.
Like myself, most migraine sufferers are deficient of magnesium, an essential mineral required to stabilize blood vessels and keep them from constricting and dilating, or going into spasms.
I now consume a calcium magnesium/powder mixed with hot water about three times a week. There are many varieties available at health food stores, and the choice is simply a matter of preference.
Hydrate Your Body. One of my most serious deficiencies was dehydration. I drank juices, pop, coffee and teas, none of which did any good to hydrate the body.
The brain is approximately 85 percent water, and extremely sensitive to dehydration. When in danger of dehydrating, it demands an increased supply of blood. When it does, these arteries dilate, and the circulation to the face and scalp increases, contributing to the pulsating sensation in the temple area.
But all water is not created equal. Tap water contains undesirable residue such as chlorine, iron, arsenic, lead, fluoride, herbicides, pesticides, and industrial chemicals.
I have since changed my drinking habits. I now drink three litres of oxygenated, reverse-osmosis water daily, a process that removes up to 99 percent of impurities and contaminants.
Under the B’s. Health research supports the fact that B-vitamins help support the brain and nerve function. They help alleviate anxiety and depression, both of which can be migraine triggers. I take a daily dose of liquid B-complex.
Something Fishy. Fish oil is an excellent source of Omega-3. This oil provides essential fatty acids that decrease arachidonic acid, a dangerous fat responsible for triggering migraines. I take one teaspoon of Omega-3 daily.
Cell Membrane Health. Cell membrane requires adequate nutrients for the proper transmission of nerve impulses from the brain to the nervous system. A super nutrient known as Phospatidyl Choline helps in this process. Phospatidyl Choline is also required for the detoxification of chemicals in the cells so that the DNA, or genetic structure, is protected against disease that originates with the dysfunction of cell membranes.
Without this nutrient the body becomes susceptible to illness, one of which is migraines. I take a Phospatidyl Choline capsule three times a day.
Stress Less. Stress by itself does not trigger migraines, but the poor management of stress does. When one becomes overwhelmed, adrenaline is released in the blood stream causing blood vessels to constrict. Once adrenaline levels drop, blood vessels begin to dilate and constrict triggering a migraine.
Silence Please. I have learned to listen to my body, and recognize the warning signs. I no longer spontaneously overreact. I now simply walk away, even for just a minute or two, from a situation that once would have caused me to lose my temper. I take a five minute break, or go for a short walk, or open a window for fresh air, or take ten long breaths, just to distract myself from a stressful situation.
At the end of the day I have learned to pray, even for just a minute or two. The spiritual connection works wonders to relieve the burdens and pressures that are part of everyday life.
I have committed myself to a three-day-a-week, 20-minute heart pumping exercise routine. Sometimes I dance to music, other times I jog with the dog, or just go on a fast-paced walk around the block. Exercise not only contributes to overall good health, but raises the level of endorphins, naturally occurring substances that suppress pain.
C is for Change. I have totally reformed my eating habits. Instead of snacks and potato chips, I now opt for raw vegetables. I have replaced coffee for coffee-substitute drinks, herbal teas, and plain old-fashioned water; candy bars for the occasional small piece of semi-dark gourmet chocolate; and cookies for an apple, or handful of berries.
Whenever possible, I purchase products that are certified organic. By doing so, pesticides and chemicals that are used in non-organically grown foods, are eliminated. These additives can cause allergic reactions resulting in skin rashes, headaches, and of course, migraines.
When I get the occasional headache, I no longer take potent medication, but an ibuprofen or two with two large glasses of water.
I have drastically reduced meat intake, and by doing so have eliminated from ingesting growth hormones and other drugs that go into meat production. I have increased consumption of cold-water fish, and replaced dairy products with almond milk and butter.
I no longer hold grudges. I have learned to forgive, forget, and carry on.
By taking control of my health, I have finally gained the upper hand over the frequency and intensity of the migraines that plagued my life for over 20 years.
And even though my dream of one day flying the big commercial airliners never did take off, so to speak, I am still able to enjoy countless hours of flight, migraine-free, accompanying my airline pilot husband on fun and exotic lay-overs all over the world.