Migraines are somewhat of a mystery to those who have had the pleasure of experiencing them. I’ve had them for as long as I can remember but I didn’t know that they were migraines. Just headaches. There are different kinds of headaches and they have their own characteristics. For example the classic hangover headache typically involves the entire skull and it manifests itself by pounding the inside of your skull, especially when you move or exert yourself. Then there are the sinus headaches that feel like there is a little man trying to push your eye out of your head. There is also the blood pressure headache that manifests itself like a clamp on the back of the head (MSG syndrome) There are other types of headaches but most respond to a couple of Advils and just go away. Not migraines.
And then there are the different types of migraines. Some women have hormonal headaches in response to hormonal fluctuations. Men, like me, don’t really have that issue. But I still get migraines. My migraines are nowhere near as bad as I have heard others describe their migraines. Descriptions of people having to sit in a dark, silent room for hours until the symptoms diminish. People being reduced to tears while they suffer in silence. Not me. My headaches are annoying but not debilitating. But there are still times that I could get one every few days or not get one for six months. Fortunately there is a pill, Sumatriptan, that gets rid of migraines, at least for me, in about an hour.
But what causes the migraines? What are they? How do I avoid them. It is not simply a cause and effect issue. It is complex. At least for me. I am writing this incase others share this condition and perhaps this can help them. A migraine starts out as an imbalance in the head. One side of the head feels different than the other. Heavier, inflated, more sensitive. The migraine, in the beginning is like a sore spot, like an old bruise, that you are lightly touching. With time as the headache progresses, that touch becomes heavier and heavier until you are really bearing down on the bruise. Which happens to be on the side of your head.
I have a polyp in my right nostril. I have had it most of my life but did not know that. I though my breathing difficulty through my right nostril was due to a deviated septum because I broke my nose when I was 13 years old. When I am about to get a migraine the right nostril starts to shutdown. It feels like there is a stone stuck up my nose that I can’t get rid of. Blowing my nose hard, picking, saline spray, obsessing over it because its so fucking annoying. The pressure in the nose typically spreads gradually to the side of the head, in front of the ear and to the temple. Eventually that pressure engulfs the entire one side of the head (definition of migraine). This condition, without medication, could last for days. So for most of my life I thought that the headache, the migraine, was caused by my working on trying to clear my nostril of the stone that got stuck in there.
In the last several years I have been using Nasonex to control the polyp. And it works. I am able to go through the night without my nostrils closing down. My polyp still shrinks and grows but not to the extent that it used to. But I still get migraines. So, obviously it is not a cause and effect. My polyp does not cause the migraine. What ever is causing the migraine is also swelling the polyp. Some research on the internet brought some fresh air to the subject.
Serotonin, a brain hormone that is mostly produced in the gut, appears to be the main cause of migraines. Therefore, anything that increases serotonin can cause migraines. There are several ways to increase serotonin levels. One way is indigestion and/or constipation. If your gut is under stress it produces serotonin and histamines and thus a potential migraine. Many years ago when I was visiting Sicily I had a migraine while driving. I stopped at a pharmacy and asked if they had anything I could buy for a headache. The pharmacist, they have doctorates in Italy, offered me some laxatives. I took the ibuprofen instead. I eventually developed an ulcer because of all the ibuprofen I took over the years.
Further internet research showed me that there are certain triggers that cause migraines. A class of amino acids known as tyramines. What are they? Rotten proteins. Fermented proteins can produce tryamines. Foods like cured meats and aged cheese. There are also foods that mimic tryamines. One example is tannin such as you find in certain red wines. People who get headaches from red wine may have this problem. What complicates matters is that tryamines don’t always cause migraines. They are the trigger but your system has to be receptive to the trigger, the bullet has to be in the chamber. There are times when you could eat all the cheese you want and not get a headache and there are times that just the thought of a blue cheese gives you a pounder.
While in France we ate quite a bit of cheese but I didn’t get more than the normal number of migraines. Here in Tuscany I can not eat cheese without getting a migraine. The cheeses I chose in France were mostly cows milk cheeses while here in Tuscany most cheese is from Ewes milk. It’s not the sheep so much that cause the migraines but the way the sheep’s milk cheese is made. The type of cultures that are used to inoculate the cheese curds. Pecorino typically has a sharp taste as opposed to the mild cows mild cheeses of France. That sharpness is due to the bacteria in the cheese breaking down the milk proteins into tryamines. Pecorino is load with tryamines. When we first moved here I went through many cheeses to asses what was available. I had many migraines the first month in Tuscany. Now I am staying away from Ewes cheese altogether as well as limiting the amount of cured meats I eat. Tuscany is famous for their cured meats but I mustn’t indulge.
Avoiding triggers is no guarantee that you will not get a migraine. As I said it is a complex issue. The trigger alone is not giving you a headache but if your system is on the edge of getting a headache the trigger will push you the rest of the way.
Not to be confused with migraines there are blood pressure headaches that could be just as severe and, in fact, quite dangerous. Not everyone gets these. Most people who have high blood pressure don’t have symptoms. Some, me, do. If my blood pressure rises above 140 I start to get a headache at the back of my head. It feels like my head and the back of my neck are in a tight clamp. I get these when I eat certain foods that cause my blood pressure to rise quickly. Those foods are foods rich in natural or synthetic MSG. Soy sauce for example. I could eat small quantities of these foods with no problem but when the amounts increase then there are issues to deal with.
Food researchers, mostly paid by the food industry, claim that there is not correlation between msg and headaches. They do their studies using average people and feed them average foods containing normal amounts of msg. And yes most people do not get headaches from that. But what happens when you buy a “veal cutlet” sandwich at a deli that the cook spilled extra accent into the sauce. It actually makes the processed meat taste better but the consequences could be severe. I once did just that and within a 1/2 hour had a headache that was so bad that I had to leave my job site and drive 45 minutes to my house to try to recover. My blood pressure had spiked to 160 over 105 and I thought I was going to stroke out. My blood pressure is normally within normal range. This also happened to me when I used a cup of soy sauce in a stir-fry along with other high MSG Chinese ingredients like Fish Sauce.
In summary, if you get headaches it helps to know what kind of headache you’re getting and what to do to alleviate the symptoms. With migraines you need to reduce the serotonin by taking anti-migraine medication such as Sumatriptan. For MSG headaches you need to reduce your blood pressure before bad things happen. If your headache is from drinking too much then you need some hydration and some foods to keep you gut busy and some Advil. If you don’t get headaches, then fuck you.