Living and Thriving in Spite of Migraines

It’s posture Monday, wherein I normally give a step by step breakdown of a posture or exercise I have found useful in helping to improve some component of proper posture. Thursday I usually tell a little story about how the process of posture correction has improved some other aspect of my life.

Today, Imma flip the script, and talk about one of the benefits.

Recently I joined a Facebook community, Changemakers Thriving Online. I’m not entirely sure I can call myself a changemaker right now, but I’d like to be. In introducing myself to that community I connected with a lady whose focus is helping

…migraine suffers to reclaim their life from chronic pain by transforming their resignation into acceptance and their resentment into taking responsibility for whatever circumstances they find themselves in.

As it happens, one of the benefits I have accrued through my efforts in, “Overcoming Pain, Regaining Mobility and Learning to StandUpRight” is (drumroll, please) overcoming cluster headaches and migraines. When I mentioned this to her, she asked how I did it.

So, Maria, this one’s for you.

For those of you who do not suffer migraines, rest assured, my separation of cluster headaches and migraines is no accident, they are different. You can suffer one, or the other, or (if you’re really lucky like ol’ Andrew here) both.

I will not bore you with the gory details of what separates migraines from regular headaches. If you suffer migraines, you know, if you don’t suffer them, bless you, you don’t.

First rule of migraine club is: Know Your Triggers. Migraine triggers can be (but are not limited to):

  • Dietary factors (hunger, dehydration, alcohol, particular foods)
  • Sleep deprivation
  • Weather changes
  • Stress
  • Sensory stimuli (lights, certain sounds, overstimulation)
  • Hormone changes (particularly in women – menstruation, pregnancy and menopause)
  • Muscle tension in the back/neck (Tech Neck and other posture problems are big here)

My triggers are; stress, weather, illness, sleep deprivation, hunger, dehydration, overstimulation, sugar and poor posture.

Second rule of Migraine club: Avoid Your Triggers. Does red wine trigger your migraines? Dark chocolate? Caffeine? High fructose corn syrup? Remove them from your diet.

Third rule of Migraine club: If You Can’t Avoid a Trigger, Mitigate It. Got stress problems? There are things you can do about that. Got sleep problems? There are things you can do about that. Got posture problems? If only we knew of a guy who started a blog for the specific purpose of talking about that, and then every Monday he posted an exercise to help with posture correction.

And here we circle back to a couple of my recurring themes; living a healthy lifestyle, centred in regular, vigorous exercise, and serendipity. You know, pure, dumb luck.

When my migraines were at their worst I was:

  • Stressed out
  • Eating poorly
  • Sleeping poorly
  • Slouching through life

Hey, there are four of my triggers right there. I lived on the cusp of a migraine, 24/7, all it took was a weather change and BOOM, two days in a darkened room. But then something happened (and stop me if you’ve heard this one), my wife started going to Bikram Yoga four times a week. Shortly after that, I also started going four times a week.

I’ve already written about the glories of the Bikram torture chamber a time or two, so without boring you by repetition, I’ll simply sum up. It’s hard work. And you sweat, a lot. And it acts as “a 90 minute moving meditation”. And there’s some weird thing about doing yoga regularly that gets you to clean up your diet (without you even realizing it).

After several months of Bikram classes I noticed that my migraines were greatly reduced in frequency.


Let’s return to rules two and three. Avoidance and mitigation.

As I ramped up my workouts I found myself always hungry. Being always hungry I was far less likely to skip a meal, and due to that weird property of yoga, far more likely to eat good food rather than crap. After about a year I found that not only did I not eat sugary treats, I actively avoided them, because they made me feel lousy. Bye-bye hunger and sugar triggers.

And the Bikram classes themselves are tough; 90 minutes, 1000 calories or more burned.  Hard exercise and meditation kill stress, so bye-bye stress trigger.

And when I say you sweat a lot, think about 90 minutes of hard exercise in 110 degree heat. I can sweat up to 3 litres (for you Americans out there, that’s over ¾ of a gallon). To be ready for that, I developed the habit of hydrating through the day, and limiting my caffeine intake (caffeine is a diuretic, it removes water from your body). Bye-bye dehydration trigger.

And all that hard exercise? Absolutely exhaustipating. I’d go home, eat a decent dinner, and collapse into bed for a much better night’s sleep. Bye-bye sleep deprivation trigger.

And finally, posture. The years of yoga have done so much to help my posture and back pain that they inspired me to start this little blog. I’ve actually seen people consciously straighten up when walking past me (not just you, Matt). Bye-bye poor posture trigger.

So there it is in a nutshell. From 2nd year university, well into my 40s, I lived with migraines. At their worst, they were debilitating, causing a major reduction in my quality of life. Although I am unfortunate enough to be susceptible to migraines, I am fortunate enough that, through the steps outlined above, I have been able to reduce their frequency from every week (or more) to once in a while. Of all of the marvelous benefits I have received from a regular yoga practice, this one is perhaps the greatest.