If there had been a hidden camera videoing my migraines, it would have captured a woman in her 30s, writhing on the living room floor of her apartment while trying desperately—and weirdly—to massage the pain out of her shoulders and head. Sometimes I’d knead with my hands, occasionally with massage devices, and once in a while with the handle of a purple hairbrush. Then you’d see me run to the bathroom, where I’d clear out on both ends, and then I’d return to the floor. Repeat, repeat, repeat. It would last about four to six hours—and happen around four times a month. It was a mystery—just like ocular migraines: the scary health problem no one talks about.
At that point I was otherwise pretty healthy—I did yoga and meditated, I drank mostly enough water, ate a fairly balanced, mostly organic diet—not too much sugar or processed foods. To stop the migraine monster from visiting, I tried acupuncture, massage, hypnosis. I kept a food diary to search for “triggers.” I studied my menstrual cycle to see how it corresponded with my migraines. I popped magnesium supplements. I stewed stinky Chinese herbs. Nothing worked. (Check out these 15 ways to stop migraines before they start.)
I finally accepted a prescription for Imitrex from my doc. If I took the migraine drug at the first inkling of a headache, I could shorten the stretch of misery—maybe I wouldn’t throw up, or I’d just feel nauseated for an hour or so. But each time the drug made me feel weird, like a pillow was expanding in my head and concrete was pouring into my stomach.
Finally, I went to a neurologist. She gave me pamphlets, an MRI, and then weekly mega doses of intravenous magnesium—but still no relief. Then, at 40, I got pregnant. My migraine monster, perhaps in deference to my state, disappeared. According to the American Migraine Foundation, 50 to 80 percent of women who suffer from migraines have fewer episodes during pregnancy, especially during the second and third trimesters when estrogen levels rise. I was free of them throughout my pregnancy.
A few weeks after my glorious baby boy arrived, my doula offered to watch him as I slipped out for a latté. I marvelled at my freedom on the walk to the coffee shop I used to frequent. I ordered a regular latté, with regular, full-fat milk (I was breastfeeding—I needed the fat). The intense, velvety flavour was the caffeinated balm to my soul.
A few days later, a migraine struck: The first one was mild, the next more intense. The monster was back. I didn’t want to take meds because I was breastfeeding. So I suffered and nursed my fussy child. One day I opened his diaper and saw green. I Googled for an answer, and mom sites suggested it could be from me eating dairy.
When I checked with my pediatrician’s office, the nurse said crisply, “That’s a myth. Dairy doesn’t cause green poop. It’s a normal colour.” Normal for some babies, but mine was super-cranky. And what about the other moms who’d said dairy was the thing?
I decided that if I was eating something that might be hurting my baby, I should try stopping. I switched to soy lattés, then quickly switched to no lattés (because they were awful). I stopped eating ice cream. I halted pizza and yogurt.
Something I’d read said it takes a while for the dairy to get out of the mom’s and baby’s systems. After about 10 days, my baby’s poop was brown. He cried less, he slept better, he didn’t scrunch his face in what looked like pain. After about two weeks went by it hit me: I hadn’t had a migraine.
Dietary migraine triggers can range from olives to alcohol to MSG: The American Migraine Foundation has a list of the main migraine triggers. I didn’t realize that I didn’t have to be allergic to something in a traditional fashion to have it cause migraines—and milk does not appear as an allergy for me in a pin-prick test. Also, I didn’t fully understand how triggers can work: For me, it meant I ate something bad, and three days later I’d get a migraine. Neurologist David Buchhholz, MD, of Johns Hopkins University, told NPR.org that the effects of a migraine food trigger can be delayed up to 72 hours.
Once I’d cleared dairy from my system, though, I did become more sensitive. Recently a restaurant made a mistake—broccoli raab cooked in butter, not oil—and I spent the night throwing up.
So, I abstain. I’m not naturally an abstainer. Rules make me itchy. But apparently, the agony of a migraine is motivation enough. So I’ve found “ice cream” I like too much—coconut-based Larry & Luna’s. I’ve semi-settled on oat milk for my coffee (it’s good but makes for a chalky latté). I get non-dairy pizza when I can.
Truly, I miss good cheese. I haven’t found a substitute that doesn’t remind me of Play-Doh. I miss real, greasy, margarita pizza. I miss yogurt. I miss chocolate soft serve on warm summer nights. But I don’t miss being that woman writhing on the floor late into the night.
My best advice if you’re struggling with migraines? Find a doctor who will take your pain seriously and check you out fully. Then you can try an elimination diet, and start adding things back, one by one, to see if any trigger head troubles. But don’t stop looking for a cause—migraines can impact your life in numerous ways. While I might get the occasional tension headache, I don’t get migraines any more. And that’s even better than the best latté ever.
Next, read about the woman whose “nagging headache” turned out to be a stroke.