This has been a challenging post to write because diet is a huge part of the way that I manage both chronic migraines and Crohn’s Disease. However, each condition requires unique dietary changes and they don’t necessarily fit one specific, easy to follow diet.
I have been living on healing diets since 2001 which means that I have spent the past 14 years learning how to stick with a gut-healing diet while using migraine-friendly foods.
In honesty, I can’t make this a short post. I feel like the only way to describe my diet is to tell you how I got here. I have tried to pick the highlights and I have included resources and lists that will be helpful to you.
I had never heard of a healing diet until I got sick.
Have you tried to follow one yet? They can feel overwhelming , annoying, isolating. It is easy to feel like you are missing out on what other people get to eat.
In defense of healing diets: They give you some control over your life and illness. They provide a way for you to do something, anything, to feel better and if you are sick enough to be looking into healing diets then we all know how desperately you want to feel better.
This is where the quote by Author Unknown rings true with my soul:
“In order to change, we must be sick and tired of being sick and tired”
I have been doing this for 14 years and I have found something that works for me. Of course I have kicked sand, I have cried, and even given up.
However, in the end, no matter how badly I wish I could I could change it, despite my prayers for healing, the reality of my life is that I live with Chron’s Disease and migraines.
I have 2 choices:
- I can eat what I “want” and end up in a lot pain only to find myself in the ER and hospital more often than not.
- I can decide to look at healing diets as a positive way to help manage the symptoms of disease.
I go with option 2.
I use a 90%-10% rule when it comes to following the diet. This is something that I have come to after years of giving it my best. I have had years when I did not stray from the diet one bit and I have had times when I have given up completely.
For me, allowing myself 10% of time to not worry about food preparation, to go out to dinner or eat at friends’ houses keeps me sane. It lowers my stress levels, and keeping stress in check is just as important as proper diet. It all works together.
I have also found that by following a healing diet 90% of the time, I can occasionally veer off of it, and be alright. I don’t end up in the ER, I don’t flare.
That is my personal approach, everyone has to find what works for them.
I do encourage you to find some way to use diet and lifestyle to manage illness because you can feel much better than you feel when you rely on medication alone.
When I started getting migraines in my 20’s the doctors mentioned foods that I should try to avoid. Back then, the migraines were not severe enough for me to make changes. I remember that I started popping Excedrin migraine tablets like candy. I worked in a large medical center and my days were high paced, exciting and stressful in a way that I loved. To keep up, I just took Excedrin, and when the headaches started to come back, I would drink more coffee, or take more Excedrin (my poor intestines).
My pivotal change happened on July 3, 2001.
That was the night that hemorrhaging intestines and a fever of 104.7 flipped my life upside down forever. After my father and I spent the night pushing me through grueling tests in the ER, we found ourselves in a place called the TCU (transitional care unit) which is where patients have temporary rooms until hospital rooms open for admission. My mother was on her way to the hospital.
It was the morning of July 4th. There is a famous 10K race in Atlanta called The Peachtree Roadrace which runs right past the hospital where I was hooked up to IV’s. I had run in that fun race just a few years before the nightmare that I suddenly found myself living.
I felt so disoriented from my life. A large part of me kept expecting to “feel better soon” because until then, that is how I understood illness. I did not know that you could hurt horrifically and continue in that state, and then learn to live in it.
My GI doctor came in and told us that I either had Crohn’s Disease or Ulcerative Colitis and I honestly thought “oh, I can’t eat corn” because at some point in my life I had known a person who could not eat corn due to colitis. At that moment, I did not connect the fact that the doctor was giving me a diagnosis, a name for my new reality.
He was giving me a name for the reason that I was in so much pain.
During the following weeks of my hospitalizations, I lay in that hospital and was fed through IV’s and eventually a line that went directly into my heart.
While I was in the hospital, one of my best friends from college wrote to me and told me about a diet called the Specific Carbohydrate Diet (SCD) and a book called Breaking The Viscous Cycle. My parents went to the bookstore and purchased it for me, I laid in the hospital and read it cover to cover; I underlined it. I memorized it.
I was horribly allergic to the medications that the doctors used to try and get the crohn’s under control. I spent the majority of that summer and early fall in the hospital. I was so sick.
Early one morning, my doctor came into my room and used a matter of fact tone as he told my father and me that my remaining choices were: surgery to remove part of my colon, which he did not really prefer because he suspected that the crohn’s would just go somewhere else, chemotherapy or to stay on prednisone. He said that the choice as up to me.
The room was silent.
I felt like someone had ripped my heart out and tears streamed down my cheeks. My shoulders began to shake as I cried into my hands.
At 29, when I heard those choices, I was suddenly so far removed from the successful and attractive young woman I had once been. I did not understand this damaged version of me–it just made no sense; I had done so many things “right” in life. I was a good person, I was a Christian, I was very compassionate and loving, I worked hard.
All I heard was chemotherapy. And I did not have cancer. And less than 2 years ago I had been in love with life and had so many friends and what the heck happened?
At that point, my father asked my doctor to step into the hallway.
I could hear my father’s voice defending his first born daughter, and I could hear that his heart was being ripped apart as badly as mine was when he said, “you tell me how you would feel if you were 29, if your life was collapsing and you heard that your last remaining choices were to lose part of your colon or go on chemotherapy?”
Needless to say, the doctor came back in my room with a softer demeanor. He spoke more gently as he explained that the chemo is very light and that his recommendation would be to go on that. He told me that it would take a few months to kick in, so I would stay on the prednisone while we waited to see if the chemo worked for me.
I actually adore this doctor. He and I have weathered the storms of life together. I feel like he is a family member. But, the beginning was gosh-darn hard for us.
So we went with the chemo option and I was on prednisone for a year (which deserves a post unto itself).
Back then, blogs were not really a “thing” but list-serves were. List-serves were email groups that you could join that allowed you to discuss certain topics online. As soon as I was discharged from the hospital, I joined the list-serve focused on the SCD. I learned as much as possible about that diet. I was determined to live as “normal” of a life as possible.
As soon as I could eat, I started the SCD and my family joined me on the dietary adventure.
It was baby steps, I lived off of plain hamburger patties, homemade yogurt and pureed carrots for months.
As my GI tract healed, I was able to add foods to my diet.
By October, my dog and I were taking slow walks through my parent’s neighborhood enjoying the brisk chill in the air, the autumn colored leaves.
Thanksgiving has always been my favorite holiday and that particular year it was extra special. My body was finally starting to cooperate. Joy had found it’s way back into our lives.
We stood around the table which was graced with the traditional Thanksgiving spread along with so many of my SCD additions. We went around and gave thanks aloud then said the blessing. I remember looking up at my dad and he looked at me. He had tears in his eyes as he hugged me and said that he was so happy I could eat again.
You really can’t imagine. Then again, if you are reading this blog, you may have similar moments and memories of your own.
That year, the migraines were gone, It was spectacular. Having worked in healthcare, I knew enough about steroids to suspect that it was because I was on prednisone. And sadly, as we tapered the prednisone, the migraines came back with a vengeance. They were fierce.
In 2002, the book Heal Your Headache was released. It is another book that I devoured. Over the years, I have read copious amounts of books on migraines and this is my favorite. In his book, Dr. David Buchholz provides an excellent education on migraines and different types of headaches, he explains the way that triggers work, and introduces natural and medicinal preventative plus treatment options for migraines. He gives lists of food triggers and he also explains ways to decrease migraine triggers.
The trigger stacking theory is one that is pretty well accepted in the migraine community. Basically, the theory suggests that we have individual migraine thresholds and once we stack enough triggers to reach our individual threshold, we will get a migraine.
There are some triggers which can be controlled such as diet, sleep schedule, caffeine intake, hydration. There are some that cannot be controlled such as weather fronts and hormonal changes.
A migraineur will do best to decrease the triggers which can be controlled.
After reading his book, I took a long look at my diet and had to admit that the SCD which is filled with gut-friendly foods is also built around fermented foods, nut flours and other foods that are high in tyramine and other migraine triggers for me.
So, I did my own hybrid migraine friendly-SCD diet for years.
When I would have crohn’s flares, I would go back on the intro diet of the SCD and usually the doctors would put me on a medication to stop the flare.
For a while, it was pretty simple.
I got leukemia in 2007 and went into remission in 2008.
This past December, I relapsed and had to change chemotherapy for the leukemia. I had a horrible time with the new chemotherapy. It can cause intestinal hemorrhaging and colitis and it made my body mimic a Crohn’s flare.
I really needed the chemo to work as the other option is a bone marrow transplant.
In a last ditch effort to tolerate the chemo, I decided to try and go back on a strict version of the SCD without the migraine trigger foods (nuts, dairy, ferments).
As I searched the web for recipes, I stumbled across the AIP which is the Autoimmune Protocol of the Paleo Diet. I had heard that people with Crohn’s did well with Paleo and I was desperate. So I gave it a shot. It worked, and it helped me pretty quickly.
The inflammation in my GI tract calmed down and I was able to tolerate the chemo.
The other thing that I love about AIP is that it makes an elimination diet relatively simple. I have done many elimination diets over the years and they can be very difficult to follow/confusing. The AIP is an elimination diet with strict guidelines. For me, it is easier to follow when the guidelines are clear. There is also a great online support group on Instagram, Pinterest and through blogs which makes the diet easier to follow. I followed it strictly for 3 months before adding any foods back in.
I have been on AIP/Paleo for 7 months and have been able to add some foods back into my diet.
There are some foods that I can’t eat because they are migraine triggers for me.
Below I am providing links to charts. This is what you will find: no migraineur is exactly the same….we can tolerate different foods and some of us have the same sensitivities. Migraines are very difficult to treat and part of it is because they are so individual. When you become more familiar with the foods on these charts, you will start to notice what causes problems for you. You can have a reaction up to 72 hours after eating a trigger food.
A very common migraine trigger is tyramine. Here is a very helpful chart from The National Headache Foundation with foods to avoid when lowering tyramine.
*A note about leftovers: tyramine builds up quickly so if you are not going to eat something within 24 hours of cooking, go ahead and freeze it to prevent tyramine from accumulating. People who suffer from migraines should try to not eat leftovers after 48 hours (so use the freezer) 🙂
Sulfites are also common migraine triggers. Here is a list of foods with sulfites that are common migraine triggers (coconut is on this list but it does not give me problems).
MSG is also a common migraine trigger. It occurs naturally and is also a flavor enhancer that is added in cooking. MSG is tricky to avoid because it is listed as many different things and it is not always bad. People have different levels of sensitivity to it. Here is a helpful chart.
Here is another helpful link that lists foods which can be migraine triggers.
Foods that are AIP compliant which I have learned that I must avoid due to migraines: Bacon, Gelatin, Organ Meat, Bananas, Plantains, Avocado, Spinach, Mushrooms, Fish Sauce, Coconut Aminos, Fermented foods, Yeast, Onion (I use shallots instead), Balsamic and Apple Cider Vinegar (I used white distilled), Bone broth.
Bone broth, is a trigger because it cooks for such a long time. The longer something cooks the more tyramine and natural MSG builds up on it. I found a recipe that works for me as a stock. You can read more about my migraine friendly, gut healing broth here.
I feel like I just wrote a dissertation and I have certainly given any reader enough to leave you wondering ~how~?
This is my suggestion: follow the AIP for at least a month maybe give it more time. Get involved in the support community available on Instagram, blogs or Pinterest.
If you are a migraine person, you may need to avoid some of the foods mentioned in this post (but maybe not, some people get on the AIP and their migraines completely disappear).
My biggest word of advice: Take it one day at a time, don’t expect yourself to be perfect.
Try to approach your healing diet from a positive view vs a negative one; I think it helps the body heal more quickly. You will slowly get better and your body will be able to tolerate more foods in the future than you can today.