I followed a migraine elimination diet and here are my thoughts on if it's worth it. #migraine #migraines #migraineremedies
Diet,  Heal Your Headache,  Migraine,  Vestibular Migraine

I Followed a Migraine Elimination Diet: Here’s What Happened

What is an Elimination Diet?

Diet affects the frequency and severity of migraine symptoms in some people. The purpose of an elimination diet is to reduce your exposure to controllable triggers. I’m certain you know there are some common triggers that are unavoidable like hormones, weather, sensory stimulus and so on. Yet common food triggers can be avoided in an attempt to reduce our trigger load and to raise our migraine threshold resulting in better control over symptoms for some.   

There are many elimination diets out there to choose from. Most members of Migraine Strong follow The Heal Your Headache Diet created by David Buchholz or The Charleston Diet (which is a bit more restrictive) created by Carol Foster.

When looking at elimination diets it’s important that you stick to just one.  Don’t try to avoid every food listed on every foods to avoid list.  Choose one diet that you are most likely to stick to and give just that one your all!

How Does an Elimination Diet Work?

All food triggers listed on the avoid list of the diet you choose should be strictly avoided for at least for months or until you see a reduction in frequency and severity of symptoms. Elimination diets are short term. You are not meant to exclude these foods forever. Once you reach baseline, plan to reintroduce foods slowly one by one.

Foods listed on the avoid list are there for a couple of reasons, 1) They have a high level of byproducts of food aging like red wine, yeast, yogurt, leftovers and aged cheese. 2) They contain chemicals similar to the neurotransmitters our brain uses and can excite brain cells & create cranky neurons when consumed for some people. A few examples are coffee, chocolate, MSG and nitrates.  Elimination diets remove those known foods giving things like tyramine, histamine, glutamate, tannins and sulfites the boot. Removing them helps calm down hyper responsive migraine brains. I had chronic vestibular migraine with 24/7 dizziness so it was my goal in life to calm my dizzy brain down.

The Diet I Chose

With the help of my neurotologist, I chose to follow the Heal Your Headache diet. It’s important to add that this was not my only treatment.  I was dealing with chronic, intractable vestibular migraine. I was dizzy all day every day and housebound for many months. My migraine switch was literally turned on overnight and I needed a multi modal approach to turn it off. You can read more about what I was dealing with back then in my VM story here.

My HYH Process

The first thing I eliminated was coffee.  Slowly weaning yourself off is best but, I quit cold turkey because I desperately needed to feel better. I’m happy to say that it wasn’t even a little bit tough.  That in itself is sort of a miracle because if you knew me before VM, then you know I pretty much always had an iced mocha coffee in my hand. But, I was dizzy every minute of every day and I couldn’t stand it.  Eliminating coffee immediately reduced the intensity of my dizziness.  Yes, I was still dizzy but, that slight improvement was enough to not make me miss coffee even a little. 

I did not give up sugar, wheat, dairy or gluten.  Instead Istuck strictly to avoiding just foods on the HYH avoid list.  I did give up nearly all processed food.  Some processed foods are considered safe on HYH, but it took a while for me to get a handle on what ingredients were safe in premade foods and which ones were to be avoided.  I felt so terrible in the beginning it was just easier to know that everything I was eating came from the safe foods list rather than scouring ingredient labels.  I prepared every single thing I ate. My friends joked that I ate like it was 1900 and that’s a pretty accurate description.  If I wanted a cookie or a muffin, I baked it myself with ingredients I knew were safe.  Keep in mind, this was short term!

A couple of months into the diet, preparing everything I ate started to get harder. I was dying to have a little candy, a safe bowl of cereal and a cookie that I could eat right out of the box. That lead me to Ginger Snaps and an organic cereal with safe ingredients. I ate those ginger snaps nearly every day until I ran out. That’s when I noticed the daily feeling of rocking I was experiencing was gone. When I ate the cookies, the rocking came back. I wasn’t sure what was causing it, but gave up the cookies for good. Soon after I tried my fancy organic cereal and began feeling that rocking sensation again. I compared ingredients and realized that molasses was a trigger for me. When I ate them, I felt the rocking.

My Results

I believe following HYH allowed me to figure out difficult to pinpoint food triggers like molasses mentioned above. Before HYH I was feeling symptoms every day and when you’re feeling symptoms 24/7, it’s impossible to notice problematic foods.

In the end it took my brain waaaaay longer than four months to calm down from daily dizziness.  I followed the HYH diet strictly for about a year before I began feeling good enough to trial adding foods back in.  This isn’t uncommon for chronic VMers. I had many failed trials back then.  Many foods provoked dizziness or head pain.  The good news is I never gave up trying.  Two years into the diet I gained so much control over my symptoms that I was able to successfully add back coffee (just one cup), nitrate free bacon, avocado and even chocolate. 

Two years might sound crazy to you but, I was eating better than I ever had in my whole life. Fresh fruits and vegetables, organic and grass fed meats and eggs, wild salmon, fresh baked goods and very little processed food were my staples.  I never found the diet to be that limiting except when it came to parties where most dishes are made with processed foods.  When I attended gatherings, I always brought a dish I knew I could eat with me. When I went to restaurants I stuck with safe options like steak or fish with fresh vegetables on the side.

For me the longer I was on the diet, the more food triggers I was able to tolerate. I’m now three years into what I call a liberated Heal Your Headache diet. I still follow the general idea of it but, my avoid list is much smaller and more personalized as I’ve figured out my triggers. I can cheat occasionally (within reason) and eat whatever I want (except a handful of things like msg, yeast and yogurt) without repercussions. If the weather is bad or if I am close to my cycle an attack is possible and I can only do that here and there. If I eat common food triggers too many days in a row symptoms kick back in. It’s delightful to have occasional free days though.

Final Thoughts

There is a common misconception that food triggers will cause symptoms within an hour but, in fact, some effects will come immediately and some can come days later. So you can’t just avoid a few things on the list and expect to see if it’s a trigger for you.  We call that an avoidance diet and that just doesn’t work. You need to go all in for at least four months and then slowly add foods back in one by one eating them every day for at least five days to see if symptoms arise for you. 

Heal Your Headache did what it promised to do and helped me to reduce my trigger load and raise my migraine threshold.  It now takes more trigger exposure to cause symptoms than it did early on. I believe this is why I can occasionally eat ALL the things.

In the end I identified my personal food triggers but, admittedly they’re a little complicated. I only have a few big guys.  The rest seem to be little guys that I can eat for a bit. If I eat them too often or if I combine them with too many other little guys they become big. For example, I eat strawberries and spinach alone without issue but, if I combine them, I get symptoms every time. 

The diet alone was not enough treatment for me to find relief. Along with diet I also exercise, take a variety of supplements recommended for migraine and take a daily preventative medication. A huge benefit of watching my dietary trigger intake is that I believe following the HYY diet has helped my preventative medication to be effective at a very low dose.  I am not anti-medication but, because I still consider myself to be young, I’d like to keep my dose low for as long as I possibly can. 

Everyone is different, and it may be that not every one of the foods that commonly cause symptoms are personal triggers for you. In fact, if you find that you have food triggers, you most likely only have a few. It’s also possible that your personal food triggers will not be listed on the elimination diet list you choose, like molasses for me. There is no question that finding out whether or not you have personal food triggers is tricky but, you just might be rewarded for your efforts with fewer attacks and more symptom free days. How will you know if an elimination diet will help you if you don’t try it?

I feel compelled to mention that elimination diets are not about blaming the patient. You don’t have migraine because of something you’re eating. Elimination diets are also not a cure. Your neurological disease is not going to magically go away by eliminating food triggers. However, many CAN gain control over symptoms and lessen attacks through dietary changes making them well worth trying in my book.

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I followed a migraine elimination diet and here are my thoughts on if it's worth it. #migraine #migraines #migraineremedies

I was diagnosed with Vestibular Migraine in 2016 and my neurotologist added a Ménière’s Disease mild diagnosis in 2018. I went from being housebound for months to working full time and living an active full life by following the Migraine Strong treatment pie. Preventive medications, the Heal Your Headache Diet and supplements do a lot of the heavy lifting in relieving my symptoms. You can also find me over on The Dizzy Cook blog baking yummy head safe goodies on a guest post each month.

9 Comments

  • Nancy Panyon Fick

    Jennifer,

    Thank you for your story and this article. Your time line was especially good to hear, because it resonated with me. Thank you for sharing that you were on the diet 1 year before you felt you were able to test trigger foods and that it was not all that uncommon. I kept feeling like I was the only one. Between the dizziness and tinnitus I never know how a trigger food will affect me and I just haven’t felt like jumping into the testing mode yet. I have tried a few things with some good luck and some without. I can handle the dizziness (probably because I’m on nortriptyline), but if it affects my tinnitus I just can’t handle that yet. I am waiting for my bad days to be slightly annoying before I really start to test. I’m slowly getting there and now I feel more at ease with my decision to wait. Thanks! I feel less stressed about it now. You Migraine Strong gals are great!!

  • Kristin Shepherd

    Jennifer – thanks so much for sharing this info!! Love having a list of what I CAN have! An elimination diet list of what to avoid bums me out, because I then focus on what foods I cannot have and it makes me feel like there isn’t much I can have. Turns out there are 11 fruits I like that I can have and 15 veggies! Plus 10 spices. Once I saw that although I can’t have onions I can have green onions (what Mom called scallions.) Also, at least I don’t have to give up garlic! I have daily migraines, some with dizziness and nausea. Sometimes I drive somewhere and then get a migraine and have to have a friend pick me up. Also, I occasionally I feel fine and yet lose my balance and fall in parking lots. Fortunately Ive not fallen in front of a car. Sometimes just tilting my head back to read the thermostat triggers a headache. Thanks for giving me hope!

  • Emma

    Thankyou so much, your the only person who has gotten the same diagnosis as me i have ever really found, 24/7 dizziness for me for going on 4 years, sometimes I didn’t feel like I could keep going if my future would keep going like this.. I asked my Nuero about an elim diet and they said not to bother… I wish o had stuck to my guns years ago… I am on one now but find it super sad i can’t enjoy a lot of things now and it could be a full year, but if it can lower the dizziness I will toughen up! Will research the diet you used!
    Thankyou again, I’m almost in tears just to know I’m not the only one on earth suffering this nightmare (people think you look fine and just discount how bad it is when it is chronic all day every day for years) even family don’t recognise when your day is extra bad and just living through the day and functioning seems like climbing Everest..

    Thankyou!

    • Migraine Strong

      Hi Emma, I’m so happy you found us. You CAN get better. Firm up your treatment plan and stick to it. Once you get your brain to calm down and get your dizziness under control, you can open up your diet and eat more foods. Search the site for my vestibular migraine recovery plan to see the treatment plan I follow. Hope it helps. Wishing you well!
      Best,
      Jenn

  • Karen Phelps

    I came upon this article this morning after calling in sick due to vestibular migraine.
    I have had this disease for over three years and it hasn’t been this severe since the its initial onset.
    I have had daily vertigo with migraine for 7 weeks with a multitude of black floaters.
    I was put on medication for a year and the migraines became few and far between.
    Then a year later is then the vestibular migraine set in. I forgot to note I started with migraines in my mid twenties and I am now 64.
    I tried the same medication and it didn’t work wi was put on another and that didn’t work either.
    I ended up trying otc excedrin migraine to stop the migraine as soon as I felt the trigger.
    That brings me to today 7 weeks after a horrific start to a bad migraine with tinnitus roaring blood ran out of my legs with vertigo. I was put on a antibiotic as I was feeling quite sick like ear infection swollen glands severe pain in the right side of my head. All the symptoms of a sinus/ear infection went away but am left with 24/7 vertigo
    I have to hang on to the walls or something nearby
    The slightest tilt of my head sometimes even eye position can get me off balance.😳
    The headaches are daily. I get the issue where it’s hard to think straight like today that is why I’m not working today.
    Your article is amazing and very insightful as it’s hard when you suffer from this debilitating disease.
    Reading your art yard the response from the others that suffer from this was very comforting to me today. I came to a roadblock with my neurologist and have been self medicating my symptoms for some time.
    Really concerned now since it won’t last up.
    I’m going to read your diet and apply it.
    I’ve been without caffeine chocolate alcohol nitrates nitrites real cheese most nightshade plants for at least 4 years.
    I’ve got to figure this out as I feel disabled at this point.
    God Bless you for your story.
    Guess I was supposed to find it while searching vestibular migraine this morning 🙏

    • Migraine Strong

      Hi Karen, I am so sorry you are still struggling. You should definitely NOT be at a road block with your doctor as there is SO much more that can be done. Getting control over vestibular migraine often takes a multi-modal approach of many treatment strategies. Search the site for my vestibular migraine recovery plan to get a better idea of the many strategies I use. I hope you’ll find it helpful and that it will give you ideas to discuss with your doctor. Hard hugs! Jenn

  • Jared

    Hi Jennifer,

    Very informative post, thank you! I am 3 weeks into the Heal Your Headache Diet.

    I noticed you mentioned that strawberries were a trigger when you ate them with spinach. Were strawberries something that you cut out? I see that they are on the allowed list.

    I’m interested because I currently have strawberries with oats regularly for breakfast.

    Jared

    • Migraine Strong

      Hi Jared, I couldn’t tolerate strawberries in the beginning for some strange reason. I am perfectly fine with them now that my symptoms are more controlled. So my advice is to use the list as a guide, but pay attention to how you feel after you eat to help get the most control over symptoms. Molasses was one of my biggest triggers and that’s not on the no list either. Figuring out food triggers is not easy. Stay consistent and you’ll get there. Best, Jenn

  • Karey Spirit

    Jenn,
    I just discovered your blog. I was finally diagnosed Friday after suffering with Vestibular Migraines for more than 4 years. None of my doctors new why I had headaches or why I have been so dizzy. In the beginning the headaches were bad but not daily. They’ve been getting progressively worse. To the point that the condition is finally dangerous. On Thursday I was on my way to see my ENT and made a wrong turn and lost my sense of direction. It took me about 10 minutes to get it back. It had never happened before so I was upset with myself. Then I was at a stop light and lost my focus. Didn’t realize my right foot had moved to above the accelerator. Without realizing it pressed my foot onto the accelerator hitting the car in front of me. Scared me, I screamed and pressed my foot down again and pushed the car in front of me into the car in front of her. I panicked and lifted both feet off the ground and turned off my engine scared to death. Thank God no one was hurt. I am going to be 78 in 7 days so thought all this was due to my age. Then, 2 days later, read that Vestibular Migraines could cause confusion.

    I was so grateful to finally have a name to what I have. Then I started researching what I can have and was shocked that I cannot have my beloved avocado, onions, nuts, and beans, all mainstays of my diet. I have ordered the book How to Heal Your Headaches. I gave away my beautiful organic avocados and red onions this morning. Am perplexed as to what I can have and am fearful that I will gain back weight I lost and I would rather go hungry than do that. But I read skipping meals is a trigger also.

    Like I said, I am at the beginning of diagnosis, although not the beginning of suffering. So on the one hand I am in a hurry to get on with it. But on the other hand frozen as “is this a trigger or not”?

    Although I was dismayed to see you say it took more than a year to get a handle on what were triggers for you. I was also grateful for the knowledge going into this journey. Four years of being blind is enough. Thank you for posting your story.

    I will look up your website.

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