Migraines Held Me Back for Decades, Until I Went Plant-Based

Originally posted on Jul 9 2020

I can barely remember a time when I didn’t hate the word “migraine” and its little sister, “headache.” I had my first migraine when I was 9 years old. After a few doctor visits and undergoing the necessary scans, I was diagnosed with migraines. This news didn’t surprise my family; my father, two aunts, and a cousin also had the occasional migraine. “She’ll grow out of it,” I remember them saying. I was too young to really grasp what any of it meant. All I knew was that I’d periodically get excruciating pain on one side of my head, and I’d have to lie in a dark, quiet room until the pain subsided.

Hurting and desperate

Throughout my childhood, I was dragged to more doctors and had more scans, but the treatment options remained the same: painkillers and patience. I hated migraines for having taken over my life. I sought refuge in tasty treats whenever I felt a migraine coming on. I stuffed myself with doughnuts or muffins, finding temporary pleasure in the sweet taste. Sadly, this troublesome relationship with food soon turned into something dangerous. A doctor who believed that yeast was the root of many ailments told me to stick my finger down my throat and induce vomiting in order to prevent a migraine attack whenever I had eaten any food containing yeast. I ultimately employed this strategy as a way to avoid gaining weight, and I developed bulimia.

Even though doctors hadn’t helped me resolve my health conditions, I still pursued a career in medicine. I studied the body while I battled my own. In my first year as a medical student, I was admitted to the hospital for analgesia withdrawal and detox. The regular use of vomiting and analgesia led to gastritis, constipation, and medication-overuse headaches. I spent the majority of my fourth year of medical school bedridden and in pain.

After graduation, I moved to the United Kingdom to work as a doctor, hoping to start fresh by hiding my migraines from colleagues. I loved my job, but as time went on, I felt professionally frustrated, since my migraines rendered me incapable of completing my membership exams. My family was wrong; I wouldn’t just grow out of it. Finally, I threw in the towel and stopped practicing medicine as I knew it.

Healing from migraines through a plant-based diet

As food was associated with my greatest downfall, it would soon be the source of my greatest success. In 2018 I happened to attend the Nutrition in Medicine Conference organized by the Plant-Based Health Professionals UK. It was the first time I was introduced to the idea that food could be medicine. That simple truth changed my life forever. I set out on a new journey that harnessed the power of nutrition. I had been vegan since 2014, but now I learned about a no-oil whole-food, plant-based diet, and I started reading articles and watching webinars. I was inspired by the personal stories of how people overcame the greatest odds by modifying the foods they put into their bodies. I allowed myself to wonder whether such a diet could address my life-long attacks of migraines as well. The truth is, I was desperate.

Finally, in April 2018 after a five-day migraine attack, I adopted a whole-food, plant-based diet, which was free of oil. Five days into the new diet my ever-present migraines disappeared. On the 11th day, I did develop a migraine, but it was short and less intense. Over the past two years, I have averaged just two migraine days per month—down from 18. For the first time in years, I have my life back.

Forks Over Knives has been a pivotal part of my journey. In the early months, FOK was my sole source of delicious WFPB recipes. The gorgeous pictures and creative ideas made me believe I could incorporate this diet into my life. Some people call my diet extreme, but the truth is that no food, no matter how delicious and appetizing it may be, is worth sacrificing my life and my dreams for.

My commitment to helping others through nutrition led me to complete T. Colin Campbell’s Plant-Based Nutrition certificate, and then I decided to pursue a postgraduate degree in nutrition. In 2019 I earned a master’s degree with distinction in Clinical and Public Health Nutrition. I can’t regain the years I’ve lost to migraines, but it is comforting to know that I am now equipped with the knowledge and skills to help other chronic disease sufferers reach a better life at the end of the tunnel.

How I Stopped My Migraines & What I Wish I Had Known as a Doctor

Originally posted on Oct 31 2018
It was the hardest decision I ever had to make. It wasn’t just that I walked away from a career in medicine, I gave up on my passion, the dream of becoming a pediatrician. But in a sense, it was a choice my body made for me. My migraine attacks would confine me to bed for days on end, escalating from an infrequent nuisance as a medical student to a debilitating burden as a physician. The on-call shifts became more difficult. I couldn’t complete my membership exams or socialize with colleagues. That was no life. I threw in the towel.

Combating my migraines became my new mission. Beyond a formal education as a fitness trainer, I rigorously studied the role of exercise and diet in healing. Even with a background in medicine, it was only on this unexpected journey that I received structured nutrition training for the first time. Although none of the courses I took were tailored to my needs as a vegan personal trainer, my curiosity was sparked. Luckily, I stumbled on Dr. Campbell’s Plant-Based Nutrition Certificate program. I immediately jumped onboard.

The more I learned about the link between nutrition and health, the more cheated I felt. Why hadn’t I been taught such critical issues in medical school?

Here are three things I wish I had known back then:

1. “Genes are NOT destiny,” says Dr. Neal Barnard, founder of the Physician Committee for Responsible Medicine.

What an eye-opener! I can still remember when as a junior doctor I offered a cookie to a colleague a couple years my senior. “I really should watch my sugar,” he said, “but then again, why bother. Diabetes runs in my family, and I’m getting it anyway.” He devoured the cookie, sealing his genetic destiny.

Even though a number of academic papers have been published on the topic, what my colleague and I failed to appreciate was that our choices influence how our genes are expressed. Nutrition, exercise, and the environment we live in all play significant roles in our overall health.

In the China Project, researchers surveyed a large number of people of Chinese descent who had reasonably similar genes but different dietary and lifestyle habits. The study revealed that chronic diseases and cancer were geographically localized. This meant that nutrition and environmental factors played a more important role than genes in health outcomes. Such findings have been confirmed by numerous migrant studies that uncovered the reason for an increased incidence of chronic disease in migrants compared to their compatriots in the country of origin. In short, the adoption of a western, animal-based diet is the main causative factor – again not genes.

What this means is that genes hadn’t sentenced my colleague to diabetes. I believe knowing that we are not slaves to our genes empowers us to take responsibility for our wellbeing and ultimately make better choices about the food we put in our bodies.

2. “Humans have no requirement for cow’s milk.” This statement was published in JAMA Pediatrics by Harvard-based Drs. David Ludwig and Walter Willett.

Even so, nearly all pediatric doctors I know are trained to advise parents that “babies need all the energy and vitamins milk offers” and to instruct them not to dilute cow’s milk with water, or to settle for semi-fat or low-fat milk. Honestly, it was one of the most repeated instructions I uttered during my placement at Birmingham Children’s Hospital.

For centuries, we’ve been told the myth that milk makes for strong bones and strong bodies; a glass of milk is the first thing many parents reach for to give their children.

Looking back, since 65% of the world population suffers from lactose intolerance, with the prevalence being 50-100% among those of Asian and African descent, we were providing rather harmful advice to most of our non-white patients. Intolerance to cow’s milk has been shown to cause chronic constipation and recurrent ear infections, two of the most common pediatric problems.

For centuries, we’ve been told the myth that milk makes for strong bones and strong bodies. A glass of milk is the first thing many parents reach for to give their children. However, a growing body of evidence shows that cow’s milk can actually increase the risk of bone fractures. This is because animal proteins leach calcium from our bones and increase its excretion. Furthermore, high intake of dairy protein is associated with obesity later in life.

As Dr. Mark Hyman says, dairy might be nature’s perfect food — but only if you’re a calf.

3. “Nutrition can create more health than all pills and medical procedures combined.” These words by Dr. T. Colin Campbell say it best!

I’ve had a longer career as a patient than as a doctor. Even as a teenager, I knew more about what triggers a migraine than some of the doctors I was dragged to see. Throughout my countless doctor appointments, I not only received controversial treatments such as oxygen therapy, but I was also given strange nutrition advice – like to drink a cup of coffee with each analgesic pill. Sadly, it was a doctor who advised me to avoid yeast and to induce vomiting if I had consumed any by accident, guidance that paved the way to my eating disorder.

Simply put, the nutrition and lifestyle advice I was given was outmoded and lacked any scientific basis. What is more, my parents spent a substantial amount of money on specialists – all without any success.

Most healthcare professionals recognize that poor lifestyle choices are both at the root of many chronic diseases and exacerbate the symptoms. However, the majority of physicians are not trained in nutrition and often offer lifestyle advice based on popular science that is not supported by firm evidence. We should expect more considering that health professionals are in a position of such authority. The advice they give goes a long way.

Educating physicians about the power of nutrition as medicine is the best investment we can make.

A randomized, controlled trial in the year 2000 showed that patients were more likely to change their diets when advised by their doctors. In the words of Dr. Michael Kadoch, “educating physicians about the power of nutrition as medicine is the best investment we can make.”

Would I still be a doctor if I had known the role of nutrition in health and disease? This is not a question that I ponder anymore. I am content with where I am right now. Transitioning to a whole food, plant-based diet has put an end to my chronic headaches and given me a new lease on life.

Inspired by what I’ve learned through Dr. Campbell’s Plant-Based Nutrition Certificate program and convinced through my own health recovery, I’m about to start a masters degree in Clinical and Public Health Nutrition.

What air is to life, food is to body – the most powerful medicine.

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