A big part of my mission as an online holistic nutritionist is educating women that their symptoms are caused by a digestive system inflamed by individualized food sensitivities. I get that this may seem like a snore for you but I love sharing this light bulb moment. If I can spread this knowledge one-by-one and help even one person out of pain then it is worth it to me.
So many women are tired and in pain but very few relate this pain to their digestive system – especially when symptoms are not traditionally digestive-related. If you get intense stomach cramping or gas after eating a particular food, it becomes pretty obvious (and quite quickly!) that that food doesn’t jive with your body. You would also identify as someone with digestive problems. But what happens if your symptoms seemingly have nothing to do with your tummy – such as headaches?
Each of us experiences headaches for hundreds of different reasons making headaches one of the most complex symptoms. On top of that, each individual may get a headache for many reasons. While some of us may be aware of common food headache triggers, most of us are caught up in figuring out which drugstore painkiller will provide the fastest relief and very few are considering their digestive health.
My own journey with headaches has been long and confusing. Starting in university, I began experiencing debilitating migraines thanks to my freshman diet of pizza and mac and cheese every week. On top of that, I moved in with a carry-on suitcase full of cake mixes and icing so I could bake cakes to deal with the insane amount of stress that exploded into my life.
Stress plays a massive role in headaches but I was in denial about my level of stress. I thought I was fine and that stress was normal, especially since everyone else was experiencing similar levels of stress. I learned two key lessons here that I hope will save you years of inaction and therefore pain.
First, don’t use your family, coworkers, social circle or society as a marker of health when the bar for health is currently set so low. Just because it is considered normal that everyone is incredibly stressed does not make chronic stress normal. Second, (now that you know normal is not necessarily normal) even though you may tell yourself you are fine, if your body is telling you otherwise via symptoms, don’t ignore her!
Once out of university, all that work and the endless deadlines disappeared and my daily migraines and headaches disappeared but were replaced with 3-5 headaches every week. The disappearance of my migraines and the decrease in frequency proved to me that stress did indeed play a role but also that my headache journey was far from over.
While the reasons and triggers for headaches are endless, I believe it can be boiled down to food and stress – or more simply what we eat and what we think.
Recent studies suggest that migraines may be associated with gastrointestinal (GI) disorders, including irritable bowel syndrome (IBS).1 Even if you don’t have a diagnosis, it proves there’s a connection between headaches/migraines and digestive health indicating that digestive restoration plays a significant role in the prevention of headaches.
Another connection between headaches/migraines and digestive health lies in the fact that migraine attacks involve excitable neurons that are often quieted with the neurotransmitter serotonin. Serotonin is known as the happy hormone in the brain but in actuality, the majority of serotonin is produced in the gut. This signifies that a healthy gut will yield the best production of serotonin.
So how do you achieve a healthy gut?
What I’ve discovered (through both intellectual and personal research) is that it is absolutely crucial for you to avoid food sensitivities. I know, I know… you don’t have food sensitivities right? I used to think this about myself too. But I was still in pain and ultimately I was wrong. See how denial can keep you stuck?
The thing with food sensitivities is that the majority of them are hidden so you don’t even realize the offending food(s) is/are creating an allergy response in your digestive tract especially when you don’t have traditional digestive symptoms such as headaches and migraines. It is becoming extremely prevalent for individuals to have poor digestive health (dysbiosis, intestinal permeability) with no digestive symptoms.
Ok so that was the “fluffy, vague how-to” and since I know you’re like me, you want specific details for the how-to of the how-to. Yea, I am the overly analytical type who likes to take action! The way to achieve a healthy gut is to uncover your hidden food sensitivities and the gold standard way of doing so is by following an elimination diet. You can find the exact steps for following one in this post.
After following an elimination diet my headaches have reduced from as often as daily to less than one per week consistently and I frequently experience them less than twice per month. Are they completely gone? No, because I am human. Gasp! I sometimes let stress get out of hand and I sometimes choose to eat foods that I now know trigger headaches.
The difference is I have the knowledge and the tools to drastically reduce the frequency and severity of my headaches. The clarity that comes with knowing what causes my headaches has been incredibly empowering and I wouldn’t trade my elimination diet experience for anything.
1. Migraine associated with gastrointestinal disorders: review of the literature and clinical implications. Frontiers in neurology. 2014 Nov 21;5:241. doi: 10.3389/fneur.2014.00241