Creating a life beyond migraines – The Physical Dimension
Last week I introduced Creating a Life Beyond Migraines, with a promise to follow up on the physical dimension, mental/emotional dimension, and the spiritual dimension. To meet the overarching goal for removing all toxicity and allowing yourself to heal from within, the following are some guidelines in the physical dimension.
1. START WITH YOUR GUT!
There is a reason why we say “I had a gut feeling”! Even though we experience migraines in the neurological system, the digestive system is the best place to investigate one’s overall health.This is because the digestive system is where we convert food into energy, blood, new cells – everything we need to create for a happy, healthy life. Inflammation inside the body is the principal cause for the degeneration of our bodies, and consequently, most diseases.
A GI (gastro-intestinal) test is the easiest way to examine how your digestive system is doing, the level of your body’s immunity, toxicity, levels of inflammation etc. The Schwarzbein Institute is a good resource for this, as are many naturopathic centers.
A GI test can also reveal food allergies – most typical ones causing internal inflammation are gluten (wheat, rye, barley and many other grains) and casein (dairy). Often following a gluten-free/casein-free (GFCF) diet resolves several health issues for a large part of the population. (Personally, I was found to be allergic to gluten, casein and soy protein!)
2. CHECK YOUR METABOLIC / HORMONAL (IM)BALANCE
Related to inflammation and GI tract functioning are all our hormones. The biggest learning I’ve had is that our hormones are not isolated agents (thyroid, adrenal, sex, pituitary etc) but work in close concert with each other at a systems-level, to maintain an optimized balance in our body so it can perform all its functions. An imbalance in one likely indicates an imbalance in another, and an isolated test for one hormone seldom reveals what the total system is doing. So if someone tests your thyroid and recommends thyroid supplementation, an underlying problem may be your adrenals, which are pumping out too much cortisol due to stress, affecting other hormones. Or if insulin is too high, a related problem could be a malfunctioning thyroid. In the case of migraines, serotonin plays a huge role, and is connected with hormonal balance. Many women suffer migraines that are linked to their menstrual cycle, also making the hormonal system an important player.
To understand your full system hormonally and metabolically, a specialist in endocrinology who has a natural, systemic approach would be your best bet. Getting your hormones in balance through diet and nutrition is the best course of action, and hormone replacement therapy, if needed, should be the last and carefully considered recourse.
3. EAT RIGHT – THE RIGHT FOODS, THE RIGHT WAY
I have found that eating the right foods in the right way correlates to almost 60% of the results!
For the right foods, there are two aspects:
- The first is to identify any allergic foods and trigger foods, and avoid those. Food allergies are different from “trigger foods” for migraines, because they contribute to the overall inflammation in the body, and hence system level issues. Trigger foods are those which when add up to a level beyond your body’s specific tolerance level, can trigger migraines. Some common trigger foods are aged cheese, MSG, nitrites/nitrates, red wine, chocolate etc.
- The second is to simply eat healthy, fresh, natural, unprocessed foods. I once read a simple guideline that startled me: “If it didn’t grow out of the ground or didn’t have a mother, don’t eat it!” (I have forgotten the title of the book – I will try to locate it.) Eating this way automatically eliminates many things we take for granted in our diets – packaged and preserved foods, fruit juices, processed cereals, condiments etc. Educating oneself in nature’s most nutrient-rich foods and eating these goes a long way in health.
For the right way, there are 3 aspects:
- The first is understanding how to put together a balanced meal. A balanced meal is one in which essential proteins, carbs and fats are present in the right proportions. The proportion is as important as the quantities of each. Dr. Diana Schwarzbein’s work is the best guide I have found for this information.
- The second aspect is to establish how often you eat. Eating smaller portions more often in the day keeps blood sugar balanced, energy levels constant, and is less taxing on all your system components. It also prevents binge eating.
- The final aspect is how you actually eat – i.e, what your mental/emotional disposition is. If you eat when you are stressed, upset, on the move, etc, the quality of your disposition causes your body to focus attention elsewhere, rather than on digestion. Perhaps this is why eating has been a ceremony in so many world traditions – and sitting at a table with your family and saying Grace is prescribed. Being thankful for your food, tasting every morsel, and chewing until your food is liquid not only helps you enjoy your food to the fullest, but also prepares your body for proper digestion and absorption of nutrition.
4. ELIMINATE TOXINS
This is a really important step, and while it is the easy to outline, it is hard to implement, because our bodies become addicted to the very toxins that are harmful to us, and I don’t mean just tobacco and alcohol, but also allergic foods.
If you have identified your allergic foods, eliminating them will give immense benefits after the initial period of withdrawal, during which many symptoms may actually become exaggerated. For trigger foods, initially eliminating them entirely, and then managing the total content of triggers in your system helps to calibrate your level of tolerance.
For toxins that are bad for us all, here is some difficult news: caffeine, alcohol, tobacco, aspartame (or any artificial sweeteners that are chemically derived), and sugar (other than what is consumed through fruit) are all rather damaging to our bodies. When I first began eliminating these from my diet, I did feel terribly deprived. But eventually, I found that eating naturally opened so many delicious options that I felt lucky instead of compromised!
5. GET ALL TYPES OF EXERCISE IN BALANCE
Just like eating in a balanced manner, exercising in a balanced way is really important and rather easy to implement.
The three types of exercise one should get are:
- Cardio-vascular exercise: while some people enjoy running and extreme cardio, the best thing for migraneurs (and most of the population) is to get moderate cardiovascular exercise, in which the heart works hard without over-extending itself. For most people, a daily 30-minute brisk walk is sufficient! As Dr. Diana Schwarzbein points out (to my considerable surprise), cardiovascular exercise in extreme forms can be yet another addiction; more on this can be found in her books.
- Resistance training exercise: Moderate weight training, pilates and yoga all provide resistance training, which helps us build muscle and bone. I have found this to have considerable benefits to migraine, because unlike cardio, it can be done without jarring the body, and over time, one builds one’s tolerance for trigger foods along with muscle and bone!
- Calming / relaxing exercise: this is the most neglected type of exercise, but very beneficial. Stretching, lighter forms of yoga, a leisurely swim, a stroll in a park, simple breathing exercises (pranayama) are all ways of getting calming exercise. Doing these exercises even during a migraine attack can help relieve the migraine, and at other times, they ready our bodies for harder exercise, prevent injury and release stress.
6. GET TIMELY AND QUALITY REST
Sleep and relaxation are big factors in healing your body naturally and changing migraine patterns. Three factors matter: the timeliness, duration and quality of sleep.
- Timeliness is getting sleep regularly and in a consistent pattern in concert with your circadian rhythm – i.e. going to bed and waking up the same time every day regardless of it being a weekday, weekend or vacation. While this may seem too rigid, it makes an unbelievably significant difference.
- Duration is the length of nightly sleep. While 8 hours is recommended, for some migraneurs the ideal time may be 7 hours and others 9. Listen to your body’s needs and fulfill them. (I have found, for instance, that if I go to bed by 10pm, I need fewer hours than if I go to bed at midnight, and wake up more refreshed! This is probably because the former is more aligned with my body’s circadian rhythm.)
- Quality of sleep is determined by whether you are able to get deep, dream-free sleep. The type of mattress and pillows, temperature, darkness in the bedroom, sleep posture etc all make a difference in sleep quality, as do caffeine or sugar intake especially after 7pm, and nighttime TV or other latenight sensory stimulation (and I don’t mean sex ). Relaxing activities such as taking a hot bath, aromatherapy or reading a pleasant book go a long way towards improving sleep quality.
Apart from nighttime sleep, migraneurs may need and benefit from mid-day rest. I personally find that a 20-30 minute rest (even if I don’t actually nap) goes a long way in managing stress, while falling into a deeper sleep in the middle of the day may actually disrupt my circadian rhythm and cause a migraine onset!
7. TRY MASSAGE THERAPY, CHIROPRACTIC CARE AND ACCUPUNCTURE
Massage is incredibly healing, not just as at the physical level, but also the emotional and spiritual levels. The gift of healing touch has the power to change everything. I have had the fortune to work with several wonderful massage practioners, including a Reiki master, whose energy work has gradually re-wired my body. Chiropractic care promotes natural healing by opening up spinal junctions. Accupuncture does a tremendous job of unblocking stuck energy thereby also promoting natural healing.
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