Thursday, February 11, 2016

Gut Problems Feed Headache

The Fall

Both in terms of season and headaches.  In late September, early October, I was doing well.  I had some weeks of 4 headache-free days in a row, and I was feeling pretty good. Then something happened to my belly, and I've never been quite sure what caused it.
Rocky descent 

I went to the symphony with friends.  In the middle of the performance high in the nosebleed section of the balcony, my stomach began to hurt and I was suddenly tired and sleepy.  It was all I could do to keep my eyes open.  After the performance, I went home and crashed and didn't get off the couch for days.  I couldn't eat much.  I was nauseated, my stomach hurt and I had persistent diarrhea.  My digestive tract was in full scale revolt.  I assumed I just had a stomach bug and waited for it to go away.  Days turned into weeks which turned into months of nibbling at a bland diet and going to doctors.  I lost 15 pounds.  My headaches spiked to near daily events.  Not being able to eat normally was a knock-out punch.  I felt so lousy, weak and anxious that we had to cancel our December trip to Mexico.  My creative brain tanked.  I couldn't bring myself to write, draw or weave.

I had no fever, nor had I taken antibiotics recently, two diagnostic clues that might have indicated a serious infection.  All lab tests came back normal.

Winter heading towards spring

On December 1st, I went for my first visit with a new acupuncturist.  Slowly time, diet and her treatments helped me turn this thing around.  It bears mentioning here that I never let my acupuncturist put needles in my head.  I learned the hard way that it triggers a migraine.  Finally within the last 2-3 weeks, the severity level and the number of days between headaches have stretched out enough that I am out of rebound range in my use of abortives and rescue meds.  Now almost 3 months after this malady set in, my stomach and gut have decided to behave themselves, my anxiety is down, and my energy level up.

My family was together for Christmas when my son confirmed that he and his girlfriend were truly getting married soon (although they didn't yet know quite when) .  By the end of Jan., I was feeling good enough to go ahead and rebook our winter vacation to Mexico for mid Feb.  Of course, soon afterward, they sent out the evite for a May wedding in ........ Mexico.  Two trips is not a bad thing!  

Digestion and headache

So what happened?  It may have begun with a virus and what my gastroenterologist called post viral syndrome.  But I also had some stomach trouble off and on last summer, which leads me to consider other possibilities.  I am extremely sensitive or frankly intolerant to many medications.  One theory is that I can no longer tolerate one of my headache prevention meds.  My stomach was signaling me to reduce the dosage.  I do know that when my gut is happy, I have fewer headaches.  Conversely, when my digestion is messed up, my headaches become more frequent.

There's a lot of interest and research in western medicine right now on the subject of the gut micro biome.  It turns out that what goes on at the microscopic level, the bacteria we carry around in our intestinal tract, is implicated not only in diseases like diabetes, obesity, heart disease and inflammatory bowel disease, but also in rheumatoid arthritis, autism, alcoholism, multiple sclerosis and, yes, migraine.
The gut and your migraine brain communicate via the vagus nerve, endocrine and immune pathways. And the communication travels both ways, gut to brain as well as brain to gut.

What does all this mean in terms of what we put in our mouths to nourish ourselves and cure our ills?  Can we use this information to improve our health and reduce our headaches?  Well, the jury is obviously still out on this score, but here's what I do and why.

  • First I'm keeping my eye out for more information via current scientific studies and research.
  • I have quit taking isometheptene and I'm slowly weening myself off another of my meds under my doctor's watchful eye.
  • Whenever possible I avoid taking antibiotics, which strip your gut of helpful bacteria as well as the bad bugs they're designed to take out.  I have a primary care provider I like (an MD), as well as a naturopath who has prescriptive power in Washington State.  He often knows effective alternatives to antibiotics.  
  • Years ago, I had food allergy testing and the one and only thing that popped up was a clear intolerance to eggs borne out by the fact that they make me very constipated when I eat them.  So I don't.   
  • I take L-glutamine which also seems to help my gut.
  • I take probiotics and eat foods that supply prebiotics which, evidence suggests, help digestion and protect you from harmful bacteria.
  • I take a tablespoon of ground flax seed daily.
  • I don't eat much prepared or packaged food, and when I do buy the odd bag of chips, package of crackers or boxed soup broth, I shop for the one that has the shortest list of ingredients, the one that leaves out the sugar, salt, thickening agents or preservatives.
  • I eat a lot of vegetables which, fortunately, I like.  My latest easy, tasty veggie is stir fried or steamed greens including kale, cabbage, beat greens, chard and spinach and more.  When my gut is behaving itself, I eat a lot of uncooked greens in salad too.

Here are a few tips from Dr. Christiane Northrup, a good source of information on ways to take care of yourself.

And from Michael Pollan in his book, "In Defense of Food."  Pollan looks at American eating habits and what he calls the culture of eating in this country.  He comes up with some great, well-researched  guidelines that deserve our attention.

Thankfully, I can finally eat again with the best of them, including tacos and enchiladas, rice and beans as well as #3 spicy Thai.  I'm looking forward to eating whatever I feel like when we touch down next week in Melaque, Mexico.  My strategy for staying healthy in Mexico?  Lots of limes, garlic and mineral water as well as my regular dose of probiotics.  Avoid the street food, and choose restaurants that are busy turning over a lot of meals every day.

Hasta luego y buen provecho!



  1. Your drawings are quite moving.

    Enjoyed the family photo from Santa Cruz in your previous post. What a great time of year to be at the ocean!

    I'm convinced about the gut connection with headaches and other health issues. This young woman gave me hope and laughter with her message:

    Sending good energy your way!

  2. Thanks, am. Good little video. I like the illustrations too. Where do you find these things???

  3. That particular video came from a blog from a woman named Sabine who lives in Germany and who is living with autoimmune vasculitis. Her blog is called Interim Arrangements. She, like you, writes with honesty about living with chronic illness and about how much she loves her family and her life.