Finding a pulse on migraine hope

By Josette Herdell of Herdell Migraine Institute  ·  May 25, 2021

Causes of 'invisible illness' for each sufferer are unique but can be addressed through a comprehensive plan

“‘But I will restore you to health and heal your wounds,’ declares the LORD” (Jeremiah 30:17, NIV).

“Dad, you know I have little reason to wake up in the morning.”—My brother, Jake, age 32, speaking to our father about his despair from suffering with chronic migraines since the age of 4.

The severe disabling neurological condition known as migraine is the third most prevalent illness in the world, affecting nearly 12 percent of the population, including children. Migraine is also considered to be one of the 10 most disabling illnesses by the World Health Organization. Women are disproportionately affected by migraines with three times more women experiencing this condition than men.

The symptoms of migraine vary from person to person but often involve extreme throbbing head pain, nausea, vomiting, constipation, diarrhea, visual and speech disturbances known as aura, sensitivity to light, sound, smell, and touch, and tingling or numbness. These symptoms can last between four and 72 hours. In addition, migraine sufferers are more likely to suffer from depression, anxiety, sleep issues, and suicidal thoughts.

As someone who struggled with chronic daily migraines for nearly two decades—alongside my two brothers, father, and grandmother, who have also struggled with migraines—I can understand the devastating impact this condition has not only on someone’s physical health, but also the toll it takes on someone’s mental, emotional, social, and spiritual health.

It is with tremendous gratitude and humility that I am pleased to share that I, my father, and my brothers are primarily migraine-free (and medication-free) thanks to addressing the root causes of our health imbalances. My journey provided powerful healing not only of the body but also of the heart and mind. It is a result of this healing that God has called me to dedicate my life to sharing this message of hope and partnering with families and individuals in order to support their own healing process.

At one low point in my life, though, I felt that suicide seemed like the only option left for me after I had exhausted all pharmaceutical options while working alongside migraine specialists, only to find my migraines continuing to worsen in frequency and severity until I was completely crippled and unable to function for nearly 25 days of every month due to migraines.

Unfortunately, migraines are underrecognized, underdiagnosed, and undertreated, leaving millions of people suffering and hopeless with what has been called an “invisible illness.” The most common conventional approach to migraines involves a trial-and-error pharmacological approach, including triptans, calcitonin gene-related peptide inhibitors, antiepileptic drugs, beta-blockers, antidepressants, angiotensin receptor blockers, Botox injections, neuromodulation devices, and to a lesser extent, if at all, lifestyle and dietary interventions.

Many medications often come with undesirable side effects and the risk of medication overuse or “rebound” headaches, which means the medication meant to prevent migraine actually triggers them. In addition, many patients report that medications help for a short time and then become less effective, leading them on a frustrating journey of trying new prescriptions, then adding additional prescriptions to manage new side effects, such as insomnia, depression, constipation, or anxiety, and, in the end, continuing to have migraines that are unresolved and disruptive to their quality of life.

I, my father, and my brothers are primarily migraine-free (and medication-free) thanks to addressing the root causes of our health imbalances.

Genetic, environmental, and lifestyle factors can cause or contribute to migraines in susceptible individuals. Some of the most common predisposing factors, triggers, and imbalances include environmental allergens, food allergens or sensitivities, gastrointestinal imbalances, hormonal imbalances, immune system imbalances, musculoskeletal imbalances, nutrient deficiencies, stress, barometric changes, changes to sleep patterns, and detoxification impairment.

More specifically, inflammation, mitochondrial dysfunction (mitochondria generate energy within cells) and gut health have been shown to play an important role in migraine development and progression. The gastrointestinal system plays a foundational role in regulating inflammation and the production of neurotransmitters. In fact, bacteria in the gut produce a variety of chemical messengers known as neurotransmitters, including serotonin, dopamine, and noradrenaline, which have been shown to impact migraine and brain function. Research has also shown that gastrointestinal (GI) disorders are common among migraineurs (those experiencing migraines), with a higher frequency of GI imbalances, irritable bowel syndrome, celiac disease, and intestinal permeability (“leaky gut”) reported.

As you can see, there are a wide variety of migraine triggers, and they can vary from individual to individual. These triggers build up until someone’s “migraine bucket” is overflowing, thus causing a migraine. For instance, someone with a predisposition to migraines may have slept poorly the night before, had a stressful day at work, is about to start menstruation, or missed a meal—all of these triggers combine to contribute to a migraine.

Here are tips on how to raise the migraine threshold so that potential triggers are reduced.

Tracking: Keep a monthly migraine calendar to help you narrow down patterns and triggers. This is a great resource to share with your health care team! Migraine Buddy and Migraine Monitor are two free phone apps that can be used, or you can download a printable monthly tracker.

Diet: Monitor what foods may trigger you and consider working with a nutritionist to learn how to use food for healing. Common dietary migraine triggers include dairy, gluten, eggs, alcohol, corn, fermented foods, processed foods and refined sugars, chemical preservatives such as aspartame, monosodium glutamate, nitrates, sulfites, and foods containing tyramines or histamines. Common symptoms related to food allergies or sensitivities can show up as migraines, fatigue, brain fog, bloating, chemical sensitivities, joint or muscle pain, sinus congestion, etc. The gold standard for determining food sensitivities is the elimination diet, which is best done under the supervision of a health care practitioner. While many dietary approaches have been studied for migraines, scientific and anecdotal evidence support eating an organic anti-inflammatory diet rich in phytonutrients and whole plant foods. Aim for at least 6 cups of colorful vegetables per day, a variety of low-glycemic fruits, and adequate fiber intake. Nutrient deficiencies are common in migraineurs and can be tested for and addressed through diet and supplementation.

Lifestyle: The migraine brain can be easily overstimulated or overexcited, so it is extremely important to reduce stress levels. Practice deep breathing, daily gratitude, and prayer. There are powerful mind-body tools for supporting a healthy nervous system and lowering the migraine threshold. In addition, regular exercise and movement can reduce inflammation and migraines and should be part of the healing plan.

Detox: It is important to lower your toxic exposure by eating organic when possible or shopping with the Dirty Dozen and Clean 15 guides. Healthy detoxification is important for the reduction of all diseases, including migraines, and chemical exposure from cookware, food storage containers, cleaning supplies, personal care products, home-building supplies, and new furniture off-gassing can impair the body’s ability to detoxify. Consider if any of these areas need to be addressed in your home, work, or school environment. The Environmental Working Group is a great resource to learn more about this.

Support: Reach out to your community, friends, and family for support and encouragement. Social isolation is a common and devastating experience for someone who has migraines. Often, commitments and plans are canceled due to migraines. Add the social isolation of the pandemic to this and it’s easy to slip into a lonely place where you feel no one understands and that there is no hope left for you to regain your life and start dreaming about the plans God has for you (Jeremiah 29:11). It is important to stay connected with your community as you seek healing. If you are in need of support, I suggest you reach out to your local church, find an online migraine support group, or send me an email at josette(at)fxmigraine.com. I would be honored to share my hope and encouragement with you as someone who has been through this journey.

It is important to investigate the unique and specific causes of an individual’s migraines in order to address them as part of a comprehensive plan. This can be accomplished through a variety of options, such as a functional medicine or integrative medicine health care practitioner who is trained in identifying and addressing the root causes of illness.

The important thing is to remember that there is hope, help, and support if you are suffering from migraines.

My family and I know that first-hand.

Josette Herdell, MS CNS LDN, is executive director at Herdell Migraine Institute LLC (HerdellMigraine.org) and a nutritionist at Functional Wellness for Migraines. She can be reached at josette(at)fxmigraine.com.

The information provided in this article is for educational purposes and is not meant as medical advice. It is the opinion of the writer. The information is not meant to replace a one-on-one relationship with a qualified health care professional.