My n=1 Quest to Live Headache-Free

August 29, 2011

I started getting headaches as a teenager, and migraines when my first daughter was born 9 years ago. I’m 34 now, so that’s about 20 years of some kind of regular head pain, and who knows how many ibuprofen pills popped.

When I started seriously self-quantifying a couple of years ago, pain was high on my list of things to measure and hopefully eliminate through n=1 experimentation. It’s been a long, slow process of tiny, incremental insights.

Here’s what I did, how I did it, and what I learned.

July 2009 – I started tracking my detailed food intake with the DailyBurn iPhone app. I did this for almost a full year, and started to get a good sense of how I felt after eating different kinds of food.

I thought I noticed a pattern that changes in my dairy intake caused migraines, especially having a lot of cheese or butter one day and then none the next day. I consciously tested this hypothesis after reading a post on Seth Roberts’ blog about butter – I ate 1/4 stick of butter, and sure enough, got a splitting migraine.

CureTogether’s list of migraine treatments gave me the idea of wheat/gluten being a possible offender, so I tested this too, and it was.

July 2010 – By now I had enough evidence that both dairy and gluten were triggers, so I gave them up entirely. I had 3 weeks of intense withdrawal headaches, and then an almost miraculous experience of no pain. I started using the Countdown iPhone app to record headaches and experiments.

Also, I noticed a very distinctive signature for dairy vs. gluten headaches, as graphed above. If I was accidentally exposed to dairy (sometimes the Starbucks baristas forget that you asked for soy), I would get a strong headache the next time 1 pm came around, which would last 6-8 hours. If I was accidentally exposed to gluten (like before I learned that soy sauce has wheat in it), I would get a strong headache the second time 5 pm came around, which would last 4-6 hours. This is highly repeatable in me.

August 2011 – I started noticing more frequent headaches again, but now I had a year of headache data, so I could actually chart it!

Some notes on this chart: GFDF is when I went gluten-free and dairy-free. There was still a background level of 1-2 headaches a month, one of which can be attributed to my menstrual cycle, the other to accidental dietary exposure. In October and February I actually had no headaches strong enough to record (if I have to take medication for the pain, I record it in Countdown).

The recent increase in headaches was puzzling, especially since they were getting stronger again. A couple of weeks ago, when I was having a clear migraine (my first one in over a year), my husband started scouring the web for ideas. He came across Seth Roberts’ post on cleaning products triggering migraines. Then he remembered that just the other day, he had bought some Febreze and sprayed our whole house with it. Could cleaning products be triggering headaches?

I went back through my Google Calendar, and sure enough, every time the cleaning lady came, 2-3 days later I would record an unexplained headache in Countdown. So we asked her to switch to only vinegar, baking soda, and unscented detergents that we provide for her. Last time she came, I didn’t get a headache!

Other offenders I’ve come across are:

Caffeine and sugar – I recently gave up chocolate and my decaf soy lattes, and all other sugar for good measure. I noticed that every time I went to a conference, I would eat a lot of chocolate and end up with a strong headache when I stopped. Some might say, why stop, just keep eating it! Well, then I have to be super careful to regulate the amounts to make them constant, and it doesn’t make my body feel good in other ways. So it’s just easier to eliminate it entirely. And when pain is a motivator, it’s not hard to stay on track. I feel much calmer and more balanced off sugar, too.

Gum – During stressful periods, I used to go through 2 packs of gum a day. The physical act of chewing would make my jaw hurt, which would turn into a headache. Gum is now on my blacklist, too.

Shoulder pressure – Heavy backpacks are a trigger, and when I get a massage, I always make sure to tell the person to not put too much pressure on the muscle between my shoulder joint and my neck (the superior trapezius muscle, if you want to get jargony).

Menstrual cycle – I usually get one headache just before my period, which must be hormonally related. No idea what to do about this one yet.

Emotional intensity – If I have a day where I cry a lot, say if someone dies or there’s some kind of major loss, it can trigger a headache. Being off sugar helps me to stay more emotionally balanced, but this does happen occasionally.

So that’s everything I’ve learned about my headaches so far. I’m investigating a couple of other suspects, like tyramine and blood sugar, but I don’t have anything to report on them yet.

What do I want from all this? It would be awesome to go a whole year without a headache – but that’s a soft intention to move towards, not a cold, hard goal. I hope that sharing this story of self-experimentation helps some of you out there with your own processes. Thanks for reading!

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