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How Doing a Whole30 Cured My Migraines

**Disclosure: This is NOT a paid or endorsed post. No we do not have a formal working relationship with the great folks at Whole30. Yes there are Amazon affiliate links in this post.

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So many people think that Whole30 is just another fad diet. A quick way to drop pounds in an endless effort to lose weight. Nothing could be further from the truth, actually. One read of It Starts with Food and you begin to understand that Whole30 is about understanding, dissecting and altering your RELATIONSHIP with food and the effect food has on YOU.

When I began, I really thought I knew how food affected me and where it brought comfort to me. What I didn’t know was that there was much more to understand and that by controlling what I put in my body for a disciplined 30 days, I would unearth the secret to one of my life-long ailments: migraines!

I’m 37 as I write this, and I have suffered from headaches and frequent migraines (1-3 a month) my entire life. I have carried a bottle of ibuprofen with me since junior high. I have missed countless life events and celebrations to this illness. I have had seasons of my life where they were more debilitating than others. I have been hospitalized on many an occasion. I have researched and studied and tried to no avail to pinpoint a cause. I’ve given up caffeine, wine and certain cheeses and anything else known to trigger migraines. So you can imagine my surprise when 30 days of food discipline revealed the buried treasure I was looking for!

What do I mean? How did a whole30 reveal THAT of all things? And what was my underlying trigger?

The discovery:

I started the whole30 caffeine free first off. We were 2 weeks in and past most of the initial sugar detox headaches, etc. In hindsight, I was disappointed I wasn’t feeling more of the “tiger blood” everyone else spoke of as I was still experiencing dull headaches occasionally.

My husband was participating with me, and one of the things he really missed about life before Whole30 was going to lunch with coworkers. Chipotle was a frequent stop for them, and he could eat some things at Chipotle, but what he really wanted was the chicken which was a Whole30 no-no. So as any good wife would do, I roasted a chicken at home in a copycat Chipotle chicken recipe for dinner leaving the extras for him to take to work.

Just 2 hours after consuming that meal I was crippled in bed with a full on migraine. It was so bad I almost had them take me to the hospital (headache, digestive upset, vomiting, dehydration). This was NOT what I expected on the Whole30, so the first red flag went up.

I started thinking back to what I had eaten that day. Since I was on the Whole30 there wasn’t a vast amount of variety, so the Adobo peppers in the Chipotle chicken quickly emerged as a front runner. But I sort of dismissed that as a possibility, for after all, I’d had them many a time before.

Fast forward several days to when I cautiously put some of that left over chicken onto a salad as it was the only protein readily available. I say cautiously because even then I was suspicious. So I only ate a little. Sure enough, a couple hours later came the raging headache. Not nearly like the one before it but a headache none-the-less. That’s when I turned to Dr. Google.

A search of red pepper allergies revealed reactions that mirror migraines (as the histamine in your body fight against the imposter), diarrhea, vomiting, etc. This sounded exactly like me. So I decided no more chipotle peppers. It turns out it didn’t stop there though.

Over the course of the last two weeks of doing the Whole30, after I eliminated chipotle peppers, I was still getting periodic headaches and stomach upset. The week following Whole30 being one of the worst. But I understood at this point that my migraines WERE related to something. That when my body behaved like that it was trying to tell me to STOP, to listen to it, that there was something causing that pain, and it was my mission to find it and root it out. So I listened to my body for the first time and treated my headaches as a warning sign and began to study my food as it related to my headaches.

Through a series of events/foods it came to light that chipotle peppers are relatives of red peppers which are relatives to jalapeños which all contain capsaicinoids that gives them their hot properties. This includes: adobo peppers, jalapeños, cayenne pepper, crushed red peppers, paprika, and many more. And consuming any of those results in my body fighting against them.

Guess what? They ALL give me headaches, and the degree to which I consume them in a short period of time causes the accelerated action to a migraine headache.

Do you even realize how many products on your shelves right  now or your recipes include one or more of these spices/peppers? Go ahead, and take a look! I’ll help you out with a few of the most notable and those I commonly ate in the last 30 years: chili powder, chili, tacos, marinade, French dressing, Italian dressing, BBQ sauce, ketchup, buffalo wing sauce, Franks Red Hot, salsa and the list goes on. People, I have a Pinterest board simply dedicated to my love of BUFFALO anything

For 30 years I have literally been poisoning my body with food that doesn’t agree with me and medicines to try to heal me. This has been earth-shattering. Life changing. Freeing.

It is difficult – don’t get me wrong. In fact, I am laid up in bed writing this post as I recover from my recent accidental run in with jalapeños in a product where I wasn’t expecting them. My husband and I LOVE eating out at new restaurants and EVERYONE seasons with one of these spices. It isn’t a common allergy, so they look at me like I have three heads when I ask about these items. But it is all worth it to be holding the keys to lock away my physical misery. Totally worth it.

I am very aware that allergists have tests for these kind of things. I am also very aware that I go into anaphylactic shock when consuming strawberries but when tested at the allergist the tests all come up negative. Even the medical professionals understand that medicine is not always conclusive when they recommend that despite their tests I should listen to my bodies reaction and not eat them. So yes, I believe whole-heartedly in modern medicine, but not at the expense of ignoring the communication my God-given body is speaking to me.

It has been three months since I first made this discovery, and I didn’t write about it sooner because I wanted to be certain that my findings were the root cause. In the past, I’ve believed my headaches and digestive upset to be weather and hormone related. Would that still also be true? Turns out, it is not. I’ve gone through three cycles and a back and forth Ohio Spring, and every one of my headaches can be traced back to accidental consumption of one or more of those ingredients. Again, I am in awe.

I’m not saying that Whole30 will cure your migraines. I am saying that it will help you to dissect your eating habits and discover how those could be contributing to your migraines. I am saying that there IS a reason for your migraines. Your body is trying to speak to you. I am certain of that much. And I am saying it will take determination and discipline to endure the process.

Here are some of my best tips for approaching a Whole30 with migraines:

  • Caffeine is legal on the Whole30 but very much a migraine rebound reaction, you may want to consider also giving up caffeine before or during your Whole30 to alleviate any “mixed signals”.
  • Keep a food journal/diary while on the Whole30 that includes foods, spices, etc that you are consuming as well as how you are feeling and any headaches you experience.
  • Choose your 30 day Whole30 strategically. Do you notice migraines in conjunction with your menstrual cycle, with a season, with life events? If so, consider scheduling your Whole30 for those things to fall during the last two weeks of your dietary challenge so that you are beyond the difficult first two weeks. (For example, I believed my menstrual cycle to be the cause of my headaches, therefore I did the Whole30 in a way that it would fall at the end so that my body had time to properly heal before I hit that time period).

So yes, I do tell people that Whole30 will change your life. I encourage it for everyone I know. Not because it is good business, but because it changed my life in unexpected ways. As a brand, we will continue to produce paleo and Whole30 compliant menus because we believe in helping you to have the resources you need to navigate some of these difficult dietary transitions. Doing something like this is most definitely a challenge, but as with all things in life, it is that which is most difficult that reaps the most rewards.

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39 Responses to “How Doing a Whole30 Cured My Migraines”

  1. jen says:

    Thanks for this post! I hadn’t heard of Whole30. I recently gave up gluten/wheat after the worst migraine of my life. A friend told me she gave up gluten/wheat and never had another migraine (3 yrs). I decided that day to give it a try because I would have literally TRIED ANYTHING after that killer headache that landed me in urgent care. So far, 10 weeks in, no migraines. I am heartened, but thinking of using it as a catalyst for eating even cleaner. I like this Whole30 approach and thanks to you I am going to give it a try…

  2. Cindy Richwine says:

    HI! Good for you! I’ve done a whole 30 as well and have seen remarkable results. I’m curious, though, what is not Whole 30 about Chipolte’s chicken? I eat it in their salad with their guacamole. Thank you!

  3. Evan says:

    Just a point of clarification. Headaches and migraines are not a symptom of an allergic reaction. Neither are stomach upset, nausea, vomiting or a host of other symptoms people point when saying they are ‘allergic’ to something. An allergic reaction is a specific body response that involves the realease of certain chemicals in response to an allergen, most important of these is histamine. A true allergic reaction usually involves hives, itching, swelling of the face, lips tongue and/or throat, swelling of the airways and respiratory distress. These can be mild to severe and in extreme cases even deadly. The other types of responses oftern refered to as allergic reactions are in fact sensitivities. The reaction you describe in response to capsaicin sounds more like a sensitivity respone, not an allergy.

    • Tricia says:

      I most certainly don’t disagree with your explanation but I also know that my strawberry allergy started as a strawberry sensitivity. I also know that when I go to a restaurant and inquire about items that I am “sensitive” to they don’t take me near as seriously as if I refer to it as an allergy, therefore, I refer to it as an allergy. Because a true allergic reaction may be in the future and the severity of the headaches I have don’t warrant I carry an epi pen but could just as easily land me in the hospital.

    • Candice says:

      My daughter has a milk allergy – she has tested positive to four of the proteins in milk and has a documented IgE elevated response – and her symptoms are all gastrointestinal. The definition of a true anaphylactic reaction is when it involves more than one bodily symptom. Her allergist has her on a strict avoidance diet because she also has asthma, so the likelihood that it would affect her breathing at some point is high. But her consumption of milk products is immediate pains in her stomach.

    • Paula says:

      Sorry, but allergies CAN and DO cause headaches, gastrointestinal issues and a whole host of other symptoms. I have dealt with allergies (and allergists) my entire life, and while I’ve had more than my fair share of hives and throat swelling (I carry an epipen with me at all times), that is not the only allergic response.

    • Kate says:

      Any pharmacist can tell you that some medications for heartburn (i.e. Pepcid) and migraine (i.e. Imitrex) act by affecting histamine receptors. So actually ‘side effects’ such as nausea, vomiting and headaches could in fact be allergy related. In the medical professions we separate ‘true’ allergic reactions (swelling, anaphylaxis) from side effects basically as a way to help determine risk vs. benefit. Each individual is unique and without further assessment and knowledge determining whether a reaction is simply a side effect or an allergy is difficult if not impossible.

  4. Jennifer says:

    Have you done any reading about nightshade foods and a sensitivity to them?

    I’m new to this myself, but it certainly sounds like something similar.

    Hope this helps!

    http://www.whfoods.com/genpage.php?tname=george&dbid=62

  5. Jilll says:

    I just completed Whole 30 to try and deal with my thyroid issues and after years of rolling my eyes at the no gluten trend everyone and their dog is doing I have come to the annoying conclusion that a lot of my exhaustion and fatigue seems to be tied to gluten. So i will continue on an 80% Whole 30 diet. I am traveling this week so the whole system is getting shot to hell but will be back to clean eating next week and avoiding gluten. Sigh. I hate it when bandwagons are right….

    • Tricia says:

      Yes, traveling makes that HARD. So interesting to hear that it has helped you. And you know I know all about bandwagons, you jumped on the whole foods one before me. :) Glad you are feeling better.

  6. Lori says:

    While no medical doctor had verified any true allergies that they could test for in both the case of my kids, and that of a friend, we found out through Nutritional Response Testing what triggers caused issues. For my kids wheat and dairy lead to their eczema and a very reduced diet of both items led to clear skin. This after even steroid cream couldn’t clear it up. For a friend, while not medically diagnosed with celiac disease, is now free from her severe IBS after eliminating gluten, which was identified as a trigger/sensitivity with NRT. It is amazing what we can heal ourselves from with nutrition! Great story!

    • Kelly says:

      Lori, both of my sons have eczema but no diagnosed allergy. I switched them to no gluten and only raw dairy products and their skin is clear as ever!

  7. Monica says:

    Thanks for the excellent article! I have had the same luck with the Paleo Diet. After a terrible stint of 7 migraines in 11 days, my neurologist recommended going Paleo. It’s been 10 weeks for me and I’ve had 2 migraines … Both of which I can trace back to gluten. It is an incredibly liberating feeling to have some control over these debilitating headaches after so long. I was very skeptical that my diet was my trigger (I am generally sensitive to light changes so I thought that was it) but, like you, I’m relieved to find there is a non-medicine way to cure my migraines! I’m holding out for a few more weeks, too, to make sure I’ve identified the cause, but what a difference a change in diet makes!!

    • Tricia says:

      Yes, light changes were always what I thought too. Long days in the sun. Guess when I look back I would find I ate spicy foods those days too. But yes, so enlightening and freeing.

  8. Candice says:

    I have to say that I have had migraines for nearly 20 years. Severe migraines that lay me up for days and I get about 4-6 a month. My daughter has been diagnosed with a milk allergy and a gluten intolerance. She is on a completely gluten and dairy free diet (for which your site has been a lifesaver with freezer meals!) and so are all of the rest of us at least at home. Since I spend most of my time with her, I have eliminated gluten and dairy from my diet and I have about 1 migraine a month. If that. Its pretty amazing the effects that food has on our bodies – beyond just weight gain and cholesterol build up. I was ready to get put back on some heavy duty migraine meds and now I just stick to this diet. Of course, when I thought about doing this elimination diet in the past, it seemed overwhelming. Ask me to do it because my daughter needs it and I don’t hesitate.

    • Tricia says:

      Yes, it is amazing what we are willing to do for our children that we won’t do for ourselves. I wonder if you have another little something other than dairy or gluten that causes your remaining migraine? So great that you have come this far though and been able to reduce them.

      • Candice Barter says:

        I suspect that my remaining migraine is a result of my occasional “treat” when I am out to eat or traveling. I often feel guilty making a fuss over eating gluten and dairy free when visiting my family, for instance, and I will eat a little something. Or sometimes I just eat a burger with a bun at a restaurant because I’m not actually allergic. I really do have to try a couple months where I don’t eat any dairy or gluten ever to see if I can get rid of them completely.

        • Tricia says:

          Oh Candice, I do the same thing. I am SURE my relatives think I am a nuisance with my restrictions but most of them have never suffered with migraines. I just have to push past it and sometimes bring my own foods. And I also let them know it isn’t their cooking I am rejecting but my health I am embracing. But yea, I struggle with that a lot.

  9. This is a very informative article! I am currently doing the Whole 30 and headaches/migraines have been a common issue for me and I get it more frequently if its too hot or if i’ve been staring at my screen at work for hours. Thank you for sharing your experience, I would start to look more closely at the food I am eating on the Whole 30 to find potential triggers to my migraines.

    • Tricia says:

      Yes, definitely look closely, especially since Whole30 relies on spices a lot if you are still getting them the answer could be right there. Hope you figure it out. Eye strain can be a culprit too. I am assuming you have had your eyes checked?

  10. joel says:

    my story is the same as yours except I did a cleansing diet vs whole30 abot 10 years ago. I found out chicken was one of my top triggers, not the spices (which I had originally thought).

    I found this post while tracking down what I think is a sensitivity to hot peppers. I will have to experiment a bit. thanks for posting this.

    Joel

    • Tricia says:

      You are most welcome. Chicken, wow, that is a BIG one. Good luck with the spices experiment. I would love to know what you end up discovering.

  11. Alison says:

    Thank you so much for this! It never occurred to me that peppers/adobo might be the source of my migraines. I always associated them with gluten and/or TOM. But last week I had the worst migraine – it lasted for DAYS. And looking back that week I had Chipotle one night, taco salads for a couple lunches, fajitas w/ red peppers one night, and a chicken w/ adobo sauce another night. (Um, I kinda like mexican food) Something to think about…

    • Tricia says:

      Ha ha ha, that is A LOT of Mexican foods. I couldn’t say if your is for sure that but it sounds like you most certainly could use to look into your eating patterns and hidden items. It does sound like those peppers could definitely be a trigger though. If you find that to be the case, I would definitely like to know!

  12. Teresa says:

    Congratulations on finding the true trigger for your migraines! Isn’t it awesome when that happens. I am delighted for you, more so because my experience is so similar, but the cause was completely different!

    Years ago I was having 1-3 severe migraines a week, a headache constantly, and living on Excedrin. I was seeing a neurologist and he tried every med known to man and a few that were possibly unknown. All to no avail (although my insurance company thought I had depression and hypertension among many other diseases… ha!)

    One day I was reading something online about people with fibromyalgia having some success by dropping artificial sweeteners and some other additive from their diets. Well, headaches are a smaller bit of the entire body pain and so I started reading further.

    I have never used artificial sweeteners (hate them) but the additives… I developed an entire list of additives (basically anything man-made including listings on jars and cans that say “spices” or “natural flavors”). Once I dropped all of those, my headaches nearly completely disappeared. All that was left was the monthly cycle headaches that were easily handled by ibuprofen.

    Like you, I have to listen to my body. If I get headaches now, I look to see what I have been eating. I don’t eat much that is pre-packaged but often I will find that ingredients change (companies love adding malto-dextrine to things and this one is a killer for me). I am able to eat out once a week without a problem as long as I keep the choices simple with no sauces.

    Conclusion: if you get migraines, seriously look at your diet. It can turn your life around. Your catalyst may be one of these or something else altogether!

    Then have a wonderful time actually doing all the things you used to miss! If Whole 30 is the catalyst that helps you get there, it’s the most wonderful thing ever!

    • Tricia says:

      Yes, that evilness known as “spices” is definitely a no-no for me too. Too often that means one of my bad spices. So glad you figured yours out too.

  13. Congrats on completing the Whole30!!! It has profoundly changed not only relationship with food but my eating habits. So happy you cured your migraines!!!

  14. Raquel says:

    Congrats on completing a Whole30 and for the revelations. I’ve done it 4 times now, after first eating Paleo for several months. Just curious will this change your once-a-month menus or will you be adding a Whole 30 option?

  15. jen says:

    for me, I get terrible gastrointestinal upset very easily. I thought it was gluten related because it was often triggered by bread, but I LOVE bread so I was willing to be sick for it. imagine how surprised and happy I was when I started making my own bread for my family ( to save money) and found out it’s the extra preservatives and fillers in commercial bread! now I can eat all the bread things I want as long as I make them myself. finding out which specific ingredient is so freeing! kudos to you for researching it down to peppers, rather than avoiding all Mexican food forever!

  16. Holly S. says:

    I’m so glad you posted this! I’ve currently doing my 4th Whole 30 in the last year. As someone who also got migraines 2-5 times a month, I was desperate for something. I found out after my first Whole 30 that dairy and gluten were both the culprits for my migraines, along with refined sugar. When I cut these out I only get the occasional sinus headache, but no migraines! I believe that a lot of chronic migrain sufferers actually have food allergies. I’ve missed weddings, funerals, birthday parties, and many many more life events because of migraines. Thank goodness for the Whole 30 because it gave me a weapon on my arsenal that I can use to take control of my life!

  17. Kathy says:

    Thanks for the posting. It is important for people to find out just why they could feel like crap. This past January, I did was is called an elimination diet (eliminate about 10 common foods that most people are allergic to). After three weeks of not eating these foods, begin to bring them back into your diet one at a time. If you are fine you can consume, however….if not you decide “am I allergic? Never eat?” or “am I just sensitive? Eat sparingly”.

    Well, the first item we brought back into our diet was soy. *I* discovered I got headaches and my other half….his stomach bloated up. We decided to eliminate soy from our diet [do you know how MANY things have soy in them? Tuna packed in water (!) Chocolate chips .. I forgot to read the label on that one]

    The gluten, the dairy, the corn…we were ok, but I have read enough about gluten to cut down on that as well…..even though I still have my beer. :-)

  18. Felicia says:

    I’m so frustrated with my migraines. I have suffered with more than 10 migraines per month, the past 5-7 years have just been a struggle. 3 years ago I decided to go off birth control and started the diet from “Heal Your Headache the 123 Approach.” I followed it for 9 months. It is supposed to help after 2-4 months. I never got better. I gave up caffeine and Maxalt during this time so all the migraines I got, I just suffered until they went away. I have been on SO many prescriptions to PREVENT migraines and the beta-blocker worked for 2-3 years but then it stops (as I’ve been told by my neurologist) and there’s really nothing you can do about it. So at that point, it became my personal endeavor to figure out what CAUSES my migraines. So after the very strict diet from the book didn’t work (which includes giving up certain medications) I added back coffee (because I freakin’ love it). I will admit I know I would probably be better off without it. I don’t think it really causes my migraines though. I still got the migraines when I was off caffeine for 9 months. So after I gave up on that diet, I tried a diet of no MSG and eat only organic chicken, oats, vegetables, and fruits. That didn’t work either. Then I tried natural bio-identical progesterone cream. That worked amazingly, FINALLY. I got to the point where I was having maybe 1-3 migraines per month, all during my period. So that was fine. The only problem is I chose to do this on my own and I don’t really get tested like I should, I read books by Michael Platt and John Lee, and how to do it yourself. Well now 2 years later, I am having a hard time again. Way too many migraines in a month, Maxalt isn’t working as well anymore (I added it back in once I started having infrequent migraines), and I have an almost-constant dull headache. The only thing that is different lately is that I’ve been exercising (running and weights) and I recently started eating Paleo. I used to avoid dried fruit d/t the possibility that the sulfites would cause migraine, now I’ve been eating it almost daily with Paleo. So is it that? Is it the running? Is it unrelated? I’m so frustrated. I’ve read that it could be gluten or wheat but I’ve given those things up, so if they were the culprit, I should feel better, not worse. I am so tired of this, and I don’t want to get back to the awful place I was before, where migraines and headaches RULED my life.

    Maybe Whole 30 would help. I don’t know. The only difference with that and what I’m doing now is that I have a little bit of sugar (coconut sugar or raw honey). That’s about the only different. :( The hardest thing I ever did was give up caffeine, and the desire for it never went away. Harder than giving up chocolate. Wow.

    • Tricia says:

      Felicia,
      As you can see from this post, my migraines were very much about a food I would have never in a million years pinpointed on my own. It was through the strict nature of the diet, really being intune with my body and what was happening, and tracking my food intake that I was able to really identify them. It sounds like you have tried many things and I can’t guarantee that trying the Whole30 way would definitely be a solution for you, but having been a migraine sufferer myself, I can tell you it won’t hurt. It was a HARD 30 days, but it has been 30 of the most powerful days in my life. I know more about my body, its triggers and how to avoid migraines than ever in my past. I would encourage you to find a friend or family member that can support you and/or go through it with you. If you do it, please let us know, we want to cheer you on!

  19. […] Challenge. (Hugely due to the support from fellow OAMM staffers who had previously done Whole 30)  Our goal was to hopefully reset our systems and jumpstart a healthier lifestyle.  In doing so, […]

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