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April 19, 2011 1:31 PM   Subscribe

Is my diet triggering migraines?

I know YANAD, but I have noticed that for the past 3 weeks while I've been on a reduced-calorie diet, I've been getting bad headaches that often turn to migraines almost daily, usually in the afternoon. Could my reduced consumption be playing a part in this?

Background: I'm fat. I need to lose about 30-40 lbs. I've always been about the same size, regardless of my diet, exercise etc. At most, I have lost 10-15 lbs, but I usually plateau hard there. I had limited success on a reduced-calorie diet before I started a stressful new job that caused me to slip up and regain. I'm back on this method, but it has a pretty big drawback of causing me major headaches. I have gotten treatment for migraines, which now consists of a daily pill to lower my blood pressure (which is not usually high). I'm also on The Pill. I'm eating under 1500 calories. Not working out much right now. The migraines make sleeping difficult and I'm chronically exhausted. I normally need a full 8 to function well.

Regarding what I eat, I do avoid certain foods I know cause migraines for me. I'm having a protein shake with a cup of berries for breakfast. Salad + chicken for lunch. Also chicken or salmon + salad for dinner. No bread, no sugar, no wheat/rice/pasta, very little dairy. I don't really have much room for snacks in my diet. I might eat an apple occasionally. I drink only water or tea.

Honestly, this diet isn't different from what I eat when I'm not dieting, just much less of what I'd eat. I like bread but I'm careful to eat it only when I can get high-quality stuff.

Could a difference of a few hundred calories really be triggering daily migraines? Have any of you experienced major differences in frequency/intensity of migraines when dieting?

Also: I'm going to go see a Dr as soon as I can find one that will take me. I had an appointment today, but at the last minute, the Dr decided not to see me because I don't have health insurance.
posted by Kitty Stardust to Health & Fitness (25 answers total)
Response by poster: Oh, also wanted to mention that the blood pressure med is Propranolol. I used to have a daily Excedrin habit that I kicked thanks to the Propranolol. I did take some Excedrin yesterday because the pain was awful.
posted by Kitty Stardust at 1:39 PM on April 19, 2011

Are you sure they are migraines? You should see a neurologist to verify that what you are getting are actually migraines and not cluster headaches or something else.
posted by TheBones at 1:40 PM on April 19, 2011

My first thought is your sodium level may be contributing to migraines. Some protein shakes (do you buy the already canned or make your own?) contain a lot of sodium. And I don't know what salad dressing you use, or if any of the salads are already prepared or you are making them yourself, but that could also be adding to your sodium levels.
posted by misha at 1:43 PM on April 19, 2011

What's in your protein shake? Processed soy is a major migraine trigger for me.

Long shot, but ... where do you live? Some people get migraines triggered by the barometric pressure, and the highly stormy and variable spring weather in the northeast US has made me unusually headachy these past 3 weeks.
posted by Jeanne at 1:51 PM on April 19, 2011

I had really bad headaches for a number of days when I went on the master cleanse.
posted by phaedon at 2:03 PM on April 19, 2011

Are you drinking just water? Or diet drinks? I found that the artificial sweeteners in diet sodas and other drinks were a major contributing factor to my migraines. I gave them up, and the frequency of migraines is less, and the ones I still get aren't as painful.

If that's not it, I'd try adding a few hundred calories back for a couple of weeks and see if the migraines go away. If they do, you may need to look into only curtailing your calories a little bit and adding more exercise (which, as a bonus, should help you manage stress). Resistance exercise will build muscle, which will make your metabolism faster, which allows you to eat more calories - it's a much slower weight-loss situation, but may be a better one for you.
posted by telophase at 2:11 PM on April 19, 2011

Excedrin, if I recall correctly, contains caffeine. You may be dealing with caffeine withdrawal of some sort.
posted by sciencegeek at 2:17 PM on April 19, 2011 [2 favorites]

If you're using store bought dressings, you might want to check for artificial sweeteners. Like telophase, those are a major trigger for me (especially aspartame). It's possible the protein powder might have sweetener in it, too. Likewise, make sure there isn't MSG in any prepared foods - even things like rice pilafs in a box or chicken stock in a can will have MSG, and that always sets off a migraine for me.
posted by katie at 2:34 PM on April 19, 2011

It is well known that "low carb" diets produce excruciating, migraine-like headaches in the first few days/weeks - I've experienced them myself.
So, could it be that you're cutting back on carbs that were present in your diet before? You say you don't really eat differently when not on a diet and that you're just eating less of the same stuff, but I'm just wondering whether you usually eat more carbs, maybe rice/bread? Or more fruit? Sodas? Or have you changed your protein powder to a "low sugar" formula recently? In case it really is low-carb headaches - they usually go away after your body gets used to reduced amounts of carbs.
Hope you feel better soon!
posted by The Toad at 2:39 PM on April 19, 2011 [1 favorite]

I had migraine headaches all day, every day for over 15 years. I know from headaches. Mine were luckily attributed to celiac (after 15 years, people!), but there are a ton of triggers out there. Right now I'm doing a cleanse-type thing and the migraines are back. Anytime your body is working to get rid of excess toxins (in this case it sounds like grains, dairy and sugar), it is working harder than usual. And when that happens, you can get headaches, exhaustion, etc.

If you are eating artificial sweeteners, low carby things, nitrates (in bacon, sausages, etc.), some cheese, coffee (esp if you are drinking more to combat the tiredness), then these can all contribute. Even a 1 percent change in normal activity can trigger a migraine.
posted by mrfuga0 at 3:15 PM on April 19, 2011

It could also be dehydration, make sure you're getting enough fluids.
posted by mareli at 3:24 PM on April 19, 2011

Long shot, but ... where do you live?

Barometric pressure *really* bothers my headaches, this could be a reason. I also agree it could be caffeine withdrawal, Excedrin does have some in it.

Bottom line, check with your doctor. It may not be migraines.
posted by 6:1 at 4:10 PM on April 19, 2011

Did you start taking any new supplements or vitamins?
posted by smalls at 4:15 PM on April 19, 2011

this sounds to me like a case of your body getting rid of toxins too. (toxins = metabolic wastes; as your body is undoing its' fat and protein stores, it makes extra waste products like urea (read up on the krebs cycle if you are just dying to know EXACTLY what is going on here). when these float around in your bloodstream, they can cause headaches! it's sort of a good sign (if it IS in fact what is going on) because it means that you are losing the extra stores of glycogen and fat that you don't want hanging around. things should start to settle down. obviously if your headaches are super extreme, you should see a doctor.

fyi - most doctors consider classic migraines to be on just one side of your head, often preceeded by visual symptoms (tunnel vision, bright spots, etc). is this you?

good luck! headaches are no fun.
posted by andreapandrea at 5:02 PM on April 19, 2011

Try for free customized migraine alerts for your area. My migraines are barometric related so I find the service quite useful. Migraines are often caused by the combination of more than one trigger. Hunger/missing meals or irregular eating can trigger migraines. So is dehydration as already suggested. Suggest you keep a diary to help pin down your triggers. Have you ruled out blood sugar issues as a separate cause?
posted by PickeringPete at 5:27 PM on April 19, 2011 [1 favorite]

Try some salt?

I recently changed my diet (low-carb), and got migraines every night until I started 'taking' salt. I ended up doing the "fill shot glass with coarse sea salt and swallow as quickly as possible; chase with water" method, but have also had soy sauce recommended. If it's a sodium-based thing, most of the people I've talked to have gotten relief within 30 minutes of the salt shot.

A food diary is useful for this so you can see if something, like your sodium level, dramatically changes.

In general, my migraines are typically caused by bright/dark contrast and barometric pressure.
posted by bookdragoness at 5:32 PM on April 19, 2011

Anecdata: a couple of years ago, I starting drinking green tea and within a week or so starting getting migraines with residual pain that lasted for days. When I cut out the tea, the migraines stopped.
posted by Majorita at 7:43 PM on April 19, 2011

Sometimes artificial sweeteners trigger my migranes. I could drink a Diet Coke, for example, and be fine, but Sierra Mist Free gave me a migraine both times I drank it. I avoid diet pop now (and in fact have been cutting back on pop in general).
posted by IndigoRain at 7:54 PM on April 19, 2011

Any fluctuations in your diet/routine can trigger headaches and migraines, especially if you're susceptible. I know I first developed migraines when on the pill, so maybe the hormones are acting as a trigger also.

I just saw a headache doctor the other day about my migraines, and he strongly emphasized several lifestyle points:

1) eat protein first thing in the morning. You're already doing this, but might try some real food (hard-boiled eggs, peanut butter toast, etc.) rather than the shakes and see if you notice a difference.
2) Don't let your blood sugar dip. Have small protein rich snacks on hand; Lara bars and small servings of almonds are great.
3) regular sleep is crucial (same time to bed, same time rising - every single day, even wkends)
4) heavy water consumption
5) vitamin supplements (100 grams of B2 taken 2x a day + lots of 200 mg of Magnesium 2x a day, building up gradually to twice that amount of Mag.)

It's quite possible that your body will settle into the new routine and the headaches will subside, but it might be a good idea to support your system in the meantime with some of these steps. Good luck!
posted by cymru_j at 8:28 PM on April 19, 2011

There are a lot of dietary triggers for migraines, and artificial sweeteners and MSG (which is in SO many things, you just wouldn't believe - you have to check for monosodium glutamate on just about every package) are really common ones. I also sometimes get migraines when my blood sugar gets a little low - keep on hand something healthy to munch on in very small amounts during the day, like some dried fruit or granola, and see if nibbling even just a little between meals can help with things.

I strongly recommend keeping a headache diary for a couple of weeks, where you write down what you eat and drink, how much sleep you got, what the weather's like, and what kinds of head pain you experience during the day. It might help to narrow down your list of potential triggers and rule certain things out, or even show that you're experiencing several different kinds of headaches, some of which aren't migraines.
posted by lriG rorriM at 8:42 PM on April 19, 2011

Excedrin, if I recall correctly, contains caffeine. You may be dealing with caffeine withdrawal of some sort.

I was just on my way in to say this. I cut my coffee intake to almost zero on weekends, and if that cut goes on for three days or more, I get incapacitating headaches until I drink a cup of coffee. Also, I had an Excedrin habit for a few years, and during that time, acetaminophen became a trigger for my migraines. I had no idea this was even possible, until a neurologist mentioned that snapback headaches are very common among the NSAID-heavy crowd. I have much better luck with ibuprofen now.

Also, obligatorily: you're not going to nail down the possible causes of chronic headaches from a bunch of random uninformed speculation on the internet. You should talk to your neurologist about this, since s/he will know much more about likely environmental and dietary triggers, and can probably prescribe you some sort of daily prophylactic to keep this from being an issue.
posted by Mayor West at 4:58 AM on April 20, 2011

When did you start taking the BC pill and which one is it?
posted by Pax at 8:43 AM on April 20, 2011

Response by poster: Hi all. Popping in to answer questions and give my recent experiences.
I appreciate the advice so far.

I am pretty sure they are migraine due to visual auras (flashing lights and sometimes great streaks of darkness in my peripheral vision, absolutely cannot focus on objects more than 3 feet away), nausea, intense pain and sensory sensitivity (it "hurts" to smell things, for example). The protein shake I make is with whey powder (soy makes me gain weight), almond milk and berries. I don't think it's the shake since that's been my breakfast almost every day for over 3 years. I don't do artificial sweeteners because they make me ravenous in an hour or so.

I think the lack of salt/low-carb thing is what's triggering me. I make my own dressing out of oil, balsamic vinegar and herbs. I'm going to add a bit of salt to that. I also ate a handful of grapes and washed them down with a huge glass of water yesterday when I felt a headache approaching and I didn't feel as achy as I normally have been feeling. I'm also eating most of my calories for dinner (~350 for breakfast, ~300 for lunch) so I'm going to adjust so that I'm not so starved by the time I get to midafternoon. I'm also going to throw in a vitamin supplement and see if that helps.
posted by Kitty Stardust at 10:21 AM on April 20, 2011

Also please note that you should check with your doctor before taking a birth control pill if you have migraine with aura.
posted by Pax at 12:44 PM on April 20, 2011

Response by poster: Before I add the resolved tag, I'd like to share my results:
A piece of fruit + lots of water around 3:30 has been fending off the migraines. I keep a food diary (how I track all my calories) so I can see that my worst headaches seemed to come on very low carb days. I'm still avoiding added sugar and processed grains, but allowing myself natural sugar in the form of apples, strawberries etc. I'm avoiding all processed food until I can rule out MSG as a trigger.

I'm still in search of a Dr. who will accept self-pay. For some reason, Dr.s in my area only take insured patients.
posted by Kitty Stardust at 9:37 AM on April 25, 2011

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