Migraines, Part 1

The first of three parts about what sparked my interest in herbalism—and about my migraine journey. Please note that nothing here is intended to be taken as medical advice or suggestions. Every person is different. If you suffer migraines, please consult with someone qualified to help you with them.

I am sometimes asked how I came to herbalism. The long and short of it: I was searching, consciously and subconsciously, for an end to the migraines that have been my constant companion for the last 24-plus years.

This is not to minimize the need for any migraneur to find immediate relief from pain. In fact, maybe the most effective quick-fix I ever tried was a neuroleptic suppository given me by a doctor when I was 17 and having an attack. It let me sleep almost immediately, putting an end to the endless cycle of wake up/vomit/enjoy the head pounding/go back to bed/sleep/repeat—a cycle that lasted from seven to 12 hours. But at the time, I had no idea about the effects of neuroleptics and would in no way suggest that anyone use them for help with migraines. Despite the pain and nausea, using such things is overkill. Literally.

I’ve been the route of trying to just block symptoms: Imitrex oral and nasal forms and Midrin worsened the migraine sensation. (I was missing work at least one day a month, sometimes two, because of migraines and my employer wanted a physician’s note, so off to the neurologist I went.) Midrin, for example, made me feel as though my head were being crushed in a vise. The neurologist who gave me these things offered this: Well, just be glad that by the time you have kids, you may be able to genetically-engineer the migraine gene out. To my knowledge, modern medicine cannot do that. And genes don’t operate in isolation of one another, so I always had to wonder what good things I have also inherited that are tied to the migraines. Because I did not have kids, I will never know about this, but my inclination would have been to leave well enough alone.

Aside from disliking the Midrin and Imitrex, I also wondered: What would the drugs do to my liver? This preceded by a couple of years the period in which I began to shift my diet—from fast and heavily processed foods to foods that were closer, both in form and in distance, to how and where they were grown. Whole foods, in other words, including fresh greens and eggs from pastured chickens, and grassfed beef and lamb, even raw milk, when I could get it.

Still, I got migraines. Mine always seemed to be associated with menstrual cycles, coming about a week before the onset of menstruation. Little things I did—or sometimes big things, like eliminating gluten—seemed to help to decrease the frequency and severity. I raised feverfew, but did not like the taste—and was not into tinctures at the time; taking a leaf of feverfew every day did not appeal. And on some level, I sensed that it was like the drugs—more masking of symptoms than addressing the underlying causes.

I saw a nutritionist and we worked on my cycles—using licorice extract and chaste tree (Vitex agnus-castus) tablets along with cod liver oil and high-fat butter oil while, at the same time, going off coffee. Those things did help decrease menstrual pain and PMS, but did not seem to have a direct influence on the migraines. At a weekend herb workshop, I spoke with an herbalist who suggested butterbur (Petasites), but when I read up on it, I just didn’t feel it was right for me. I felt I needed something deeper to address underlying causes.

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