“You’re Gonna Be So High”

Saturday was a warm and sunny day at Vegoose, the music festival where we spent the weekend. Although everyone around me was standing and dancing, I laid in the grassy field outside of Las Vegas with my eyes closed,
soaking up vitamin D.

I’d been a good patient and remembered to take my Chinese herbs with me to take throughout the day. I needed two doses of four of each of two kinds of herbs. Space in the backpack was at a premium so I crammed all 16 gel caps into an Advil bottle.

I realized my fatal mistake when I remembered to take my first dose — the two different pills are almost identical. To sort them into the two required doses, I had to sniff them all, looking for the ones with the stronger scent.

After a few minutes of this, a friend leaned down to tell me that everyone one around us was staring, trying to figure out what kind of cool new drug I was taking. My hands shaking, as they always do, signaled to onlookers that I was desperate for my fix.

I threw back all eight pills at once and a man said, “You’re gonna be so high.” Little did he know that less headache pain was the only high the herbs could offer.

Lying back on the grass, I couldn’t stop smiling. Everyone around us thought that I was on a massive dose of some mind-altering drug. And there was no way I could convince them otherwise. (“No, really, it’s medicinal Chinese herbs.” Who’d believe that?)

I laugh now imagining the stories told to friends about the drugged-out woman at the Raconteurs show.

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A Long Look at MSG

If MSG is so bad for you, why doesn’t everyone in Asia have a headache?” That headline sure got my attention and the article has me questioning the validity of MSG as a headache or migraine trigger — or its link to any other health problems.

According to the article, current negative attitudes toward the substance, which occurs naturally in many different foods, developed after an article in the New England Journal of Medicine described what has become known as Chinese Restaurant Syndrome. Apparently, the author of the NEJM article didn’t name MSG as the culprit, but because of its common use in Asian food, MSG was assumed to be the cause.

Here’s an excerpt from the recent article that summarizes it’s main points:

Science has still not found a convincing explanation for CRS [Chinese Restaurant Syndrome]: indeed, some researchers suggest it may well be to do with the other things diners have imbibed there — peanuts, shellfish, large amounts of lager. Others say that fear of MSG is a form of mass psychosis — you suffer the symptoms you’ve been told to worry about.

The fact is that, since the eighties, mainstream science has got bored of MSG. Some research continues; in 2002, for example, New Scientist got very excited over a report that MSG might damage your eyesight, after Japanese scientists announced that they had produced retinal thinning in baby rats fed with MSG. It turned out they were putting 20 grams of MSG in every 100g of rat food — an amazing amount, given that, in the UK, we adults consume about four grams of it each a week. (One project took people who were convinced their asthma was caused by MSG and fed them up to six grams of it a day, without ill-effects). However, at no time has any official body, governmental or academic, ever found it necessary to warn humans against consuming MSG.

But popular opinion has travelled — spectacularly — in the opposite direction to science. By the early eighties, fuelled by books like Russell Blaylock’s Excitotoxins: The Taste That Kills, MSG’s name was utter mud. Google MSG today, and you’ll find it blamed for causing asthma attacks, migraines, hypertension and heart disease, dehydration, chest pains, depression, attention deficit disorder, anaphylactic shock, Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s diseases and a host of diverse allergies.

The author also shared his own anecdotal evidence from a “test” he did with foods that have naturally occuring high levels of MSG:

My friend Nic came round. He told me about a Japanese restaurant he’d been to that gave him headaches and a ‘weird tingling in the cheeks’ – until he told them to stop with the MSG. Then he was fine, he said. I nodded and I served him two tomato and chive salads; both were made using the very same ingredients but I told him one plate of tomatoes was ‘organic’, the other ‘factory-farmed’. The organic tomatoes were far better, we agreed. These, of course, were the tomatoes doused with mono sodium glutamate.

Then we ate mascarpone, parma ham and tomato pizza. Nic felt fine. So did I. I had ingested, I reckoned, a good six grams of MSG over the day, and probably the same again in free glutamate from the food — the equivalent of eating two 250g jars of Marmite.

Even though I find the author’s agrument compelling, I’ll continue to avoid MSG that’s been added to foods and eating little of the foods that have naturally occuring MSG. The problem is that I just don’t know whose arguments I can trust.

Wondering if you eat MSG and don’t know it? The author’s list of MSG-containing foods will probably surprise you.

Some of the names MSG goes under:

  • monopotassium glutamate
  • glutavene
  • glutacyl
  • glutamic acid
  • autolyzed yeast extract
  • calcium caseinate
  • sodium caseinate
  • E621 (E620-625 are all glutamates)
  • Ajinomoto, Ac’cent
  • Gourmet Powder

The following may also contain MSG:

  • natural flavors or seasonings
  • natural beef or chicken flavoring
  • hydrolyzed milk or plant protein
  • textured protein
  • seasonings
  • soy sauce
  • bouillon
  • broth
  • spices

Free glutamate content of foods (mg per 100g) — aka “naturally occuring”:

  • roquefort cheese 1280
  • parmesan cheese 1200
  • soy sauce 1090
  • walnuts 658
  • fresh tomato juice 260
  • grape juice 258
  • peas 200
  • mushrooms 180
  • broccoli 176
  • tomatoes 140
  • mushrooms 140
  • oysters 137
  • corn 130
  • potatoes 102
  • chicken 44
  • mackerel 36
  • beef 33
  • eggs 23
  • human milk 22

Afterglow Diminished

The glow of Tuesday’s wonderful acupuncture session dimmed after yesterday’s appointment. I went in feeling great, walked out feeling OK but a little foggy, and two hours later was hit with a bad headache. Even worse, I was visited by another migraine in the night and it was accompanied by dizziness.

It’s not like I expected acupuncture to be a miracle treatment (’cause I no longer believe in those), but it was still a letdown. It sucks that what looked so promising on Tuesday was such a disappointment on Wednesday.

It’s funny though. I am disappointed, but not devastated. I’ve accepted that I may never have a headache-free day again. I go into any treatment knowing that the odds are against me. (Don’t be too quick to label me pessimistic. It’s that I recognize the limitations of treatments and accept whatever the outcome may be. Really.) My hopes weren’t too high to begin with.

But now that I’ve glimpsed my former energetic, clear-thinking self, I want her back. Having the goal just out of reach and it’s success out of my control is frustrating. It’s exciting too because now I know that my body still holds the possibility.

My Acupuncturist, My Hero

Superhero2_1Yesterday my acupuncturist tried the third different treatment I’d had in four appointments. Today D, as I’ll call him, is my hero.

First D “grounded” me with needles in my feet and hands. Then he put a needle (or “critter” as he likes to call them), between my eyes, in each temple, above each ear and on both sides of my neck at the base of my skull. After that he pushed on points all over my head. Any spot that was tender, he put a needle in. I didn’t keep track of how many critters were in my head, but it was at least 10. I even had a needle mohawk.

The needles did hurt. In fact, all the treatments he’s done have had at least a couple needles that hurt when they went in. D said this is because he took an aggressive approach because my headaches are so severe and stubborn.

Yesterday’s was the most painful and continued to ache during the time they were left in — about 15 minutes. This was on top of the headache pain. As soon as he put the critters in my temples, my headache changed from throbbing to pressure (unusual for me) then to something like an ice cream headache. (A horrendous headache to have for 15 minutes.)

It was all worth it after D removed the needles and gave me a 30-minute head and neck massage with a product called wood lock oil. A combination of menthol, camphor and “proprietary ingredients,” wood lock is a popular remedy for aches and pains in Hong Kong. It smells and feels like Icy Hot. D and I are both suspicious of what those ingredients really are — with the HeadOn controversy, I know it could be something I don’t want on my body.

Right now I don’t care! I left the appointment with my existing headache, which was escalating when I arrived, stopped in its tracks and pain down to a 2. This is a huge deal because most abortives keep my headaches at the same level they were, not make them better or worse. My headache didn’t change for the rest of the evening. I felt good and was able to make dinner, clean, and laze around watching baseball and crocheting, all before 10 p.m.

Last night was the first in three weeks that I’ve slept well, without a migraine waking me in the night. The morning came and I didn’t even hit the snooze bar. I popped out of bed with lots of energy and ready to take on the day.

(An aside: Since last Thursday I’ve noticed that I have a lot more energy in my low headache periods than I have for at least five years. I’m reluctant to attribute it to any particular treatment, but I’ve caught glimpses of the high-energy person I once was.)

Now the question is if the acupuncture is really the cause of the reduction in my headaches. With how drastic the change was yesterday and having a three-week long migraine cycle broken, It sure seems like it is. Maybe it’s the massage, which has never helped me before, or the wood lock oil. Perhaps the greens drink, fish oil, probiotics or Chinese herbs that I started last week decided yesterday was the day to work.

Like with the wood lock oil, it doesn’t matter to me right now. If the reduced pain continues, I will eventually stop different treatments and see if I still feel good. Right now I’m going to enjoy how I feel today.

Note added 10/25/06 at 2:55 p.m.: Turpentine is used to make camphor and menthol, which are in almost all liniments, including wood lock oil. I hope that isn’t what helped my headache yesterday.

10/26/06: Turpentine is used to make synthetic camphor and menthol. Now the question is if the product contains synthetic or naturally occurring ingredients.

On Having Kids

By now you’ve probably noticed that I’ve never mentioned having kids. That’s because we don’t plan to.

I decided before I met Hart that I didn’t want to and, fortunately, he was indifferent. Everyone told me that I’d change my mind when I got older. There’s a good chance I would have if circumstances were different.

But they aren’t. My head hurts all the time, some days worse than others. Hart works long hours. It’s hard enough to find time to spend together when I feel good and he’s not at the office. Where would the time be to spend with — or even care for — kids?

I worry about the physical effects too: Hormonal changes during pregnancy and their potential to change my future headaches. Headaches triggered by never getting enough sleep. Stress.

Our most important concern is how it would affect the child. My inability to function for some part of most days. Days or weeks that I can’t get out of bed at all, much less feed a child or take him or her to school. There would be canceled play dates, missed practices, and times I couldn’t go to the school talent show.

When I’ve asked on forums how people cope with having kids and headache, they all tell me it’s worth it. They never tell me how it affects their children. If the topic comes up spontaneously, parents talk about the activities their children miss out on, how much time the kids spend playing alone while their parents lie in bed. And how awful this is for kids and parents.

Some may say that all parents feel guilty for something they’ve done to “damage” their children. I’ll buy that, but our eyes are wide open to the potential for my headaches (and also Hart’s infrequent migraines) to harm a child.

I’m only 30, so we have plenty of time to change our minds. I just don’t think we will.

Please don’t think I’m passing judgment on headache sufferers who have or plan to have children. This is my decision for myself.

“She Never Feels Well”

This week I was supposed visit my sister and her family, who live three hours away. With how bad my headaches have been the past couple weeks, I decided it was better to stay at home.

Last night I called to tell my sister I wasn’t coming and heard my nine-year-old niece ask why. To my sister’s response that I didn’t feel well, my niece said, exasperated, “She never feels well.” All I could say was, “Yep, she’s right” and apologize for canceling my trip.

How do I explain to a nine-year-old (and her 11-year-old sister and 7-year old brother) that the headaches I get when I visit them are with me every minute of every day?

Posted in Coping. 4 Comments »

Cautiously Optimistic

Eliminating triggers, particularly food triggers, is the main headache treatment that all the naturopaths I’ve seen use. While effective for some, only about 25% of people with migraine have food triggers. In recent years, certain supplements — magnesium, riboflavin, coenzyme Q10 and feverfew — have also been added to the naturopaths’ arsenal.

To my immense relief, the naturopath I saw yesterday wanted to move beyond the obvious (and mostly ineffective for me) treatments. The first step is to equalize my elimination pathways. That’s all I’m going to tell you about my bowels, but I think you get the picture.

While I’m glad she wants to treat different pathways (a word she used at least 20 times), I am a little skeptical about her knowledge of and beliefs about migraine. She always referred to a problem, like toxicity in the body or postural alignment, as causing headaches. The cause of headaches is a neurological malfunction, everything else is a trigger.

Foods, stress, weather, toxic blood can all trigger a particular headache, but they are not the underlying cause of the headaches. If they were, it follows that anyone with one of these issues would have headache, particularly migraine in this case. But only people with a neurological predisposition to headaches will actually have them.

But since she’s working on other areas, I’m not too concerned about this. I’m also more lenient because the friend who recommended her will only see excellent health care providers. And this friend’s recommendations, from acupuncturist to general practitioner to restaurants, are always spot on.

Before I tell you my treatment a disclaimer is required. I’m not recommending that you take any particular product, nor do I work for any of these companies. Infomercials and the like are evil and do nothing to persuade me. The more hyped up a claim is, the more skeptical I am of it. But I’m willing to try anything that doesn’t harm my body.

My treatment includes a “greens drink,” which are said to “contain grasses, sprouted grains and green vegetables which infuse your body with easily absorbed vitamins, minerals and amino acids.” The website of the drink I’m using, Greens First, claims that “one serving of Greens First contains more phytonutrients (health promoting chemicals in plants) than ten servings of fruits and vegetables and much more!” In any case, it tastes good and doesn’t appear to be harmful so I’m trying it.

Next I’m taking a probiotic called “Fortefy.” The best description I can find of it is on a website selling the stuff: “. . . contains elite strains of friendly Lactobacillus and bifidobacterium. . . . Proprietary blend of 20 billion organisms: lactobacillus acidophillus, bifidobacterium bifidum, lactobacillus salivarius.” Funny how the description doesn’t explain the product.

The other two things are ones that I’ve taken off and on before, magnesium and fish oil. If you’re interested, I recommend Pharmax fish oil with orange essential oils. It is good mixed in a smoothie and doesn’t make you burp fish oil. Sorry to break my promises by recommending a specific product and also mentioning digestive functions, but the orange makes this oil far superior to any others I’ve tried.

These are on top of Migratrol and Gentiana Complex, which my acupuncturist (who is also a licensed Chinese herbal medicine practitioner) prescribed on Monday. Migratrol is self-explanatory, the connection between gentiana and headache is more complicated. The quick explanation is that a blockage of chi (energy) at the liver contributes to headaches.

The naturopath also recommended having my posture checked and having craniosacral therapy. I’ll probably check these out in the future, but I’m going to focus on acupuncture for now. If I’m shelling out lots of money for all this bodywork, I want to be able to figure out which ones are worth the cost.

I’ve gotten to the point that I know so much about headache and it’s characterization in western medicine that it’s easy for me to understand it in those terms. Even if I don’t understand something I know how to learn about it and which resources are accurate. With “alternative” medicine, I’ve been plunged into the deep end without knowing how to swim. Where are my water wings?