There’s nothing more paradoxical than trying to heal from a chronic illness when you have a hard time assimilating food. The dilemma is exacerbated by the complexity of our food systems and food supply. A fair amount of knowledge is required to have the basic literacy to navigate the food aisles and food labels in such a way that you actually know what you’re putting in your body.  Our grocery stores are packed with “food-like” items, and mega-corporations spend enormous amounts of money making sure that they don’t have to label products accurately, especially genetically-engineered products.

To add to the mayhem, we live in an information age in which myriad food philosophies and approaches are at our fingertips. Trends in foods and fad diets run their course. Because virtually no-one in the so-called “developed” world produces their own food anymore, confusion about what to eat is the norm.  At the same time – and perhaps because of our confusion – food ideologies and dogmas can seem temporarily appealing as we seek to get a grip on how to eat for optimal wellness.

My aunt has had a weekly Sunday dinner with her neighbors for the past few decades, and she said it can be hard to keep up with their daughter’s constant changes in dietary preferences.  One week she’s vegan, the next week she’s all about organ meats.

You can tell how complex food has become when you attend a modern-day potluck.  At least in my community, all items have to be labelled explicitly so that no-one accidentally eats something that is contrary to their dietary preferences at the time.  I remember going to a potluck in Vermont in which it was customary for everyone to hold hands in an opening circle before the meal, as each person described what they had brought – partially to share their excitement at the local ingredients they were able to procure, partially as a means to warn anyone of any ingredients that might not fit their dietary needs.

This is our world now.  Almost everyone has been on a long circuitous journey trying to figure out how to eat.

Those with migraine are on an especially intense journey, and my experience was no exception.

I did the vegan thing.  I’ve cut out dairy and wheat, coffee and sweets.  I’ve cut down on grains and eaten more or less paleo at times, and eaten many a ketogenic meal as I tried to accommodate my husband’s keto fasts which he does from time to time.  I’ve avoided high histamine and glutamate-rich foods and all fermented foods.  I’ve avoided cinnamon and cayenne and spicy foods.  I’ve eliminated expeller-pressed oils from my diet.  I’ve gone through phases of being hypervigilant about avoiding GMO foods, even foods that are not GMO crops but which could have cross-pollinated with nearby GMO crops (such as beets and chard crossing with GMO sugar beets). I’ve been a vigilant label reader. I’ve done juice fasts and intermittent fasting and fruit fasts.

I’ve never done FODMAP or low lectin diets, and I probably never will.  I don’t have to.  I’m well again.  I can eat chocolate and citrus and yogurt and cured meat, I can drink wine and eat sugar and eat spicy enchiladas and not get a migraine. I can just eat food and live my life.  No, I didn’t have orthorexia.  I had a copper and zinc mineral imbalance. Amazing how those two beloved minerals have saved my life.

I don’t say any of this to rub it in that I got my life back and you’re still having to deprive yourself of so many good things.  I say this to point out that there wasn’t really anything wrong with any of the foods I once had to avoid to feel well.

I had a metabolic disorder caused by mineral deficiencies, plain and simple. My inability to process food was not foods fault, and it was also not a failure on my body’s part. My body was doing great, it just needed the right kind of specific nutritional support: copper and zinc in proper balance.

I’m writing this post because sadly, I’ve found that some people in my practice are less afraid of supplements and pharmaceuticals than they are of food. So I want to share the simple food philosophy that I’ve arrived at over the years after trying so many things out and finally healing myself. Food IS medicine.

My food philosophy comes down to this:

  • If my ancestors ate it 100 years ago, I consider it food.
  • If my ancestors ate it and I no longer do, I should reconsider eating it.
  • I source my food as locally as possible, especially meat and dairy, and I eat organic.
  • I eat a minimum of processed foods, especially expeller-pressed vegetable oils.
  • I focus on appropriate quality and quantity for each food group.
  • I don’t believe in food ideologies or demonizing ANY food group.
  • “Food-like” substances are not food (GMOs or any kind of industrialized food that didn’t exist 100 years ago)
  • The goal is to be able to integrate food, rather than figure out how to exclude culprit foods.
  • If I can’t digest a food well, I focus on balancing my minerals (especially copper and zinc).

Quantity and Quality

Determining how much to eat of any given food is highly individualistic, but I believe that in order to digest food properly, we need to eat some of it.  Otherwise, our body gets less efficient at digesting it. For migraineurs, it is necessary to avoid high histamine and glutamate-rich foods until mineral balancing makes this unnecessary.  Until then, I think that that is enough of a limitation.  In the meantime, focus primarily on quantity and quality of ingredients, which means cooking your own meals. 

My point here is that you could be feeling crappy eating dairy, for example, but it might be because you are eating too much of it, or the quality of the dairy you have access to is quite low.  I’ve been pleasantly surprised to find out that many of the ideological truths about the problems a certain food group may cause don’t hold up when I eat a higher quality version of that food in sane amounts.

Humans are funny – we tend to go overboard when we think something is healthy for us.  A good example is the extreme amount of kale juicing and green drinks that are common with migraineurs (adding a lot of important minerals but also a huge nitrate load). Vegans can often tend to eat a lot of nuts for protein – and unknowingly add a ton of copper to a body that may already be overburdened with it or can’t convert it due to lack of vitamin A in the vegan diet.  Sometimes people eat loads of fermented foods like kimchi trying to rehabilitate their gut flora, which will exacerbate migraines and raise histamine and glutamate levels.

With supplements, people get even more extreme.  B12 injections, huge doses of vitamin D, even too much magnesium can contribute to migraine (because it lowers sodium, often low in migraineurs).  So it’s valuable to not go overboard or too extreme with anything we put in our mouth.

My personal balance

I eat meat about 3 times a week. I eat a lot of broths – now that I can tolerate the glutamate in there.  I eat liver 3 times a week – but not much.  Just 1Tablespoon of beef liver offers PLENTY of vitamin A.

I drink coffee, yes!  But any more than a single cup two or three times a week is not good for me. I truly love my dandelion, chaga, and chicory faux coffee on other days.

I eat dairy.  Definitely yes. I live in dairy country.  I make my own cottage cheese from 100% grassfed raw milk and it’s delicious a few times a week. I make my own cultured butter – it’s full of vitamin A and insanely good. 

I eat pulses and beans, absolutely.  All that prebiotic fiber and those minerals are so good. Beans are our friends.  A little gas is normal at first, as it indicates healthy gut flora are making headway.

I eat grains, of course!  Including wheat.  I buy 100% organic flour from Tabor Bread in Portland, which is freshly milled every week and contains no added iron, bromides, etc. I like to make the occasional quiche or ginger molasses cookies for my boys, but don’t eat wheat often.  I fully enjoy it when I do. I prefer my grains soaked.

I love rice, especially black rice, and I frequently eat rice noodles from Lotus Foods in a broth with some organic coconut milk and sauteed vegetables. I also love quinoa, especially in my healing carrot porridge in the morning. I eat organic corn as well.  I order organic corn masa online and make delicious tamales.

I do eat nuts, and even tolerated them well when I had migraines.  This is probably because my migraines were from copper deficiency, not excess. Nuts are high in copper. I believe that for those with migraine who are triggered by nuts this may be indicating a copper excess. I make sure my nuts are fresh and raw, not rancid or roasted in expeller-pressed oils. Recently I’ve been cutting back on nuts because too many of them make my gallbladder a little sluggish.

I eat fats – saturated fats especially. For cooking oils I use red palm oil, coconut oil, olive oil, lard, tallow, butter, or duck fat.  I have a hand-cranked oil press when I want to press some fresh flax or sunflower oil for salad dressing, so as to avoid expeller-pressed oils.

I love sugar, who doesn’t? I eat citrus fruits and mangos and grapes, bannanas and apples and plantains. I use maple syrup and honey. I also eat chocolate, frequently. That’s no longer a problem now that my copper and zinc are balanced (chocolate is full of magnesium, copper and zinc – no wonder migraineurs crave it!).

I’m mostly bringing up the items that have been vilified by one food ideology or another (dairy, wheat, meat, sugar, grains).  But of course I eat a lot of vegetables as well. I can even eat pickled veggies again. 

While I eat from all food groups, I know that I don’t feel great if I eat a lot of wheat, drink a lot of coffee, overdo it on chocolate, gorge on dairy, or rely too much on grains for convenience or nuts for snacks.  However just because these items don’t feel good in excess doesn’t mean they’re not healthful in the right quantities.

 

“That’s a nice ideal to hold, but so many foods make me ill!” you say

That is indeed the central problem, and it’s not a problem of food.  The problem is that metabolically, your body is inefficient at making the enzymes that break down food properly. 

Another problem is that when our gut flora get out of balance, our gut bacteria produce more amino acids that may contribute to migraine (such as histamine and glutamate) than if you had balanced gut flora.  This means that food is adding to the load of histamine and glutamate that your gut flora are ALREADY producing.  Also, our gut flora normally produce about 1/3 of our B vitamins for us. So when our gut flora are off we won’t have as many of the B vitamins we need as synergistic cofactors in those enzymatic processes that allow our body to efficiently convert or break down histamine and glutamates.

Many clients I see have stopped taking B vitamins because they trigger migraine.  Just this morning I spoke with a client who said she was low in B12 but the methylated B12 always triggered a migraine.  This suggests a methylation issue is going on. But I’ve found my clients do well on a product called B-minus by Seeking Health.  It’s the only B vitamin I know of that has the methyalted B12 and methylfolate removed.  It also doesn’t contain folic acid.  Both folic acid and folate can increase glutamate load in the body, so they need to be avoided.  Some people, including those with SIBO, already produce too much folic acid in their gut due to their particular imbalances of gut flora.

Major leverage with copper and zinc

Of course, there are infinite nutrients we need to complete metabolic processes, and ALL of them are important.  I mean all of them.  That’s the challenge with nutrition.  Nutrients have dynamic relationships to each other.  And not a single nutrient is negligible in importance.  But my experience has shown me that mineral balance is the key foundational support for all nutrient balance.  Minerals, as part of the table of the elements, literally are the building blocks of everything else.  They’re fundamental.  And you can get huge leverage with being able to digest food when you rebuild your minerals according to your own bio-individuality as revealed with a hair tissue mineral analysis

Because copper and zinc specifically are needed for so many enzymatic processes, can offer so much benefit when in balance, and cause so many problems when out of balance, I tend to focus primarily on these two minerals in my practice. However I also look at potassium, sodium, calcium, boron, magnesium, chromium, selenium, and sulfur.  I also look at any heavy metals that may be present which may be playing a role in scrambling the way the body deals with the other minerals. I’ve written more extensively about copper and zinc in this blog post here.

Between the roughly 600 different enzymatic processes that require zinc and copper, these two minerals do A LOT for us (assuming we have enough of them).  I won’t go over all of those here, just run down the top functions they serve as they relate to digestive health:

  • copper is needed to break down histamine and reduce glutamate load
  • copper helps prevent mast cells from degranulating histamine
  • zinc is needed to make stomach acid
  • zinc and copper are both needed for proper bile flow and hence, for toxin removal, synthesis of fats, and gallbladder health
  • copper and zinc are both needed for connective tissue integrity, so the health of your gut lining requires them both
  • zinc is needed for gut flora balance

Summary: how you can get back to just eating food

Stop blaming food, and stop blaming your body.  Get your minerals in balance, get a good B vitamin without methylated Bs, folic acid, or folate. Get vitamin A in your body through Rosita cod liver oil or chicken liver. Seek out the highest quality local ingredients you can find, and don’t overdo it on any one food group.  Don’t deprive yourself overly much for ideological reasons, or put too much weight into believing that any one diet is going to heal your migraines. 

There is enough stress around food already with migraine. It is enough of a job to avoid the high histamine and glutamate foods while you work to heal the deeper underlying mineral imbalances that will allow you to eat those foods again.


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Marya Gendron

Marya Gendron is a biodynamic craniosacral therapist and health coach specializing in chronic migraine headache relief through plant-based solutions and hair tissue mineral analysis. For the past 3 years, Marya has been helping those with chronic migraine to clear their head, heal their digestion, regain their energy, and transform their lives using simple, natural solutions.

Disclaimer

The information in this article is for educational purposes only and not meant to replace diagnosis, treatment, or prescription by a qualified medical professional.

Migraine Relief Coaching with Marya

For the past 3 years, Marya has been helping those with chronic migraine to clear their head, heal their digestion, regain their energy, and transform their lives using simple plant and mineral solutions.

Disclaimer

The information in this article is for educational purposes only and not meant to replace diagnosis, treatment, or prescription by a qualified medical professional.