I never would have realized what foods were triggers for me without giving my brain the chance to calm down.
Yogurt, parmesan… nuts?! My jaw practically dropped as I read through the list of foods to avoid on a migraine elimination diet.
At the time, I was newly diagnosed with chronic vestibular migraine, a type of migraine that can come with or without head pain but is mostly characterized by dizziness, vertigo, a false sense of movement, and derealization or depersonalization.
Because I was hoping to start a family soon, which meant I would need to wean off some of my migraine medication, I was looking at every natural treatment possible to try to gain control over my symptoms.
This is when I started researching diet as a factor in migraine treatment. There are a few different diets recommended for migraine, but a migraine elimination diet seemed to be the most popular for discovering personal food triggers.
The principals of a migraine elimination diet are pretty simple. Basically, you cut out foods that are found to be common migraine triggers for a few months until you feel better, or notice a significant reduction in migraine days. Then you begin to slowly add in foods again, one by one, testing for a few days to see if an attack is brought on.
Often this can be aided by using a journal or app to keep track of migraine days and help separate what could have been a trigger that day — weather, food, stress, or a combination of all three.
What I didn’t expect was how difficult it would be to incorporate the diet into my everyday life, especially when I was having daily symptoms. Back then, there were really no resources for migraine diet recipes, so I would have to analyze each recipe I used and think of substitutions that might work.
Meal planning was not just an option for organized weeks — but a necessity.
While I already considered myself a healthy eater, I found myself spending hours in the grocery store checking every label for hidden MSG and additives.
When fluorescent lights and crowds are two big migraine triggers for you, it’s a massive challenge to spend so much time in a grocery store. I often went armed with a big hat, earplugs, and my migraine glasses just to get through.
But I was committed, and I knew if I didn’t give this a fair shot that the process would just drag on longer than I needed it to. At that point, I would have probably given my left arm just to feel like I was walking on solid ground again.
The first month was a little bumpy, but as I found my favorite products and some reliable meals, I settled into a groove.
Freezer meals really helped me get through the high symptom days when I could barely stand. I would prep and freeze meatballs, soups, falafels, and enchiladas that could be reheated or thrown into a slow cooker. Using a pressure cooker allowed me to make stocks and broths quickly without having to worry about additives in store-bought varieties.
I began to fall in love with making creative substitutions and exploring ingredients that I would have typically never used, like lemongrass and sumac for adding citrus flavors.
About 2 months into the elimination diet, I became very frustrated with my lack of progress. I had really committed to the diet and put so much time and effort into cooking — and I really missed my daily yogurt.
I had given up so much, yet hardly recognized a break in my daily dizziness. There was a moment when I decided this whole process wouldn’t work for me and that I must just not have any food triggers.
That evening, I made lamb with tzatziki sauce, which contains yogurt and is something not allowed on a migraine elimination diet due to fermentation. I figured if yogurt never noticeably gave me an issue before, it was probably OK to eat.
Within about an hour, I experienced a severe vertigo attack at the dinner table. Everything was swirling around me violently, and I shut my eyes as hard as I could to try to get it to stop.
Could it be that yogurt had been a trigger all along and I was only noticing it after fully eliminating everything? It was then that I decided to give the process a few more months to see where it took me.
It was about 4 months into my elimination diet that I started experiencing breaks in my daily dizziness. At the 6-month mark, I was actually having symptom-free days and felt comfortable enough to reintroduce foods to see which ones, if any, were personal triggers.
This is a process that truly takes hope and trust into account, otherwise it’s so easy to quit. To this day, I’m so thankful I didn’t.
Along the way, I learned how incredibly strong I was to be able to stick to this. Migraine may have robbed me of my career, but it couldn’t stop me from making a beautiful and delicious meal for my family.
Cooking gave me a sense of purpose and passion when most of my days felt incredibly defeating.
Another fascinating observation: My personal triggers didn’t end up being the common ones you hear about, like chocolate or deli meats. They were the things I used to eat almost daily, including yogurt, nuts, and caffeine.
I never would have realized these were triggers for me without giving my brain the chance to calm down on an elimination diet.
Even now, if I ever experience a flare in my migraine symptoms, I get a little more strict with my diet and turn back to the elimination principles. Thankfully, most of my days I’m walking on solid ground again. And (bonus!) I got to keep my left arm.
Alicia Wolf is the Owner of The Dizzy Cook, a diet and lifestyle website for anyone with migraine, and an Ambassador for the Vestibular Disorder Association. After struggling with chronic vestibular migraine, she realized there weren’t many upbeat resources for people following a migraine diet so she created thedizzycook.com. Her new cookbook The Dizzy Cook: Managing Migraine with More Than 90 Comforting Recipes and Lifestyle Tips is available almost everywhere books are sold. You can find her on Instagram, Facebook, and Twitter.