Welcome back. I want to talk about something a bit off-topic today: migraine headaches. Maybe only a little off-topic, because over the years, many children were referred to me for “sinus surgery” that actually did not have sinusitis. They had migraine headaches; I talked a bit about that in this post, The Single Most Common Misconception About Sinus Headaches. Because migraine headaches are so common, because migraine headaches can be triggered by rhinitis, sinusitis, and allergies, and because I have personally struggled with migraine headaches for decades, I thought that I would share what I have learned about living with migraines and – more importantly – what I have learned about reducing or eliminating them.
To some extent, most people with migraine headaches struggle with a sense of loss of control in their lives: it’s nearly impossible to predict when you will get a migraine; it’s impossible to know how long it will last or how severe it will be. And a migraine commonly attacks when we can least afford to be incapacitated – when we are already stressed by work or life challenges. For my own life, one of my primary goals for dealing with migraine headaches – in addition to getting rid of them, of course – was to regain a sense of control. I wanted to improve my level of coping, so that my life is less affected, less interrupted.
In order to develop my own “migraine-reduction program,” I did what I always do to find a solution: I read to become educated. The best books I read on dealing with migraines (and I have a recommendation for one in particular), led to this brief list of essential lifestyle changes:
- Stress management / Relaxation techniques
- Physical activity and fitness
- Proper diet based on sensitivities and suspected triggers
- Preventive supplements / Medications
- Proper sleep
Now, you may not need to change every one of these areas of your lifestyle. But chances are, you can improve at least a couple of these areas.
The question is: where to begin? Where to focus? Do you focus on your diet? On your physical activity and fitness? On reducing and managing stress? And how can you tell which of these areas of your life is having the greatest negative impact on your symptoms, whether migraine headaches, or something else? This is where your health journal comes in. Keep reading to find out how to keep a health journal …
Your Health Journal
As implied above, many people who deal with migraine headaches know that stress is a common trigger. But it’s not the only possible trigger. I learned that the best way to find out what triggers my migraines is to keep a “Health Journal.” A health journal is a great way to find out what lifestyle choices are causing your headaches, or making them worse.
According to Dr. Lawrence Leung, “Knowing what happens in your daily life can help you understand the basis of your headaches. An accumulation of irregular events – missed meals, lack of sleep, going without fluids, stress, wine with dinner – can add up to a major headache a few days later.”
So what, you may ask, is a health journal? How do I keep a health journal? What things should I record?
What is a Health Journal?
A health journal is a daily log of everything that you do: what you eat; when you eat; where you eat; how you sleep; when you get up in the morning and go to bed at night; what your activities are; where you spend your time; what the weather is like; etc. You get the idea. Everything about your life, every day. It’s easier than it sounds. And it makes a difference when you can look back at it and see that a combination of triggers leads to your migraine headaches. Understanding is the first step to correcting and eliminating.
How to Keep a Health Journal?
Here are some items to include in your health journal, with a focus on headaches. Note that the value of a health journal is not limited to headaches: it can be useful to address other symptoms as well. For example, a health journal is a powerful tool for those with allergies or food sensitivities (more on this below). For each headache, record the following:
- Date / time of episode
- Location of headache
- Pain severity / consistency
- Environment: weather conditions, temperature, environmental conditions (noise, etc)
- Social context: interactions, alone time, etc.
- Activity at the time
- Stage in menstrual cycle
- Symptoms before, during, and after
- Details of foods: what, when, where, how much
- Relation to exercise, intensity, activity
- Sleep: bedtime, how much, sleep habits
- Stress events, stressors
- Noted triggers?
- Medications / herbals / supplements
After a few weeks you may begin to see relationships between your symptoms and your lifestyle patterns from the history of your headaches in your journal. It is important that you continue keeping your journal even after you start treatment so you can see which treatments are most effective.
What to Use for the Journal?
It doesn’t matter what form your health journal takes: draw out a table on sheets of paper; use a ledger notebook; use a computer spreadsheet; use an app on your smartphone or tablet. The “technology” is not important, only that you record the details. I have found that it’s best to keep my journal in the kitchen, at the kitchen table. That way you’re likely to be with your journal a couple times every day and more likely to use it.
Not Just for Headaches
Now, the above is obviously focused on migraine headaches. But note that a health journal can help you identify triggers for other annoying symptoms. This is especially true for allergies and sensitivities. One of the frustrations I commonly hear from parents is when they receive the “negative allergy test” results for their child who “clearly has allergies.” A health journal is the perfect diagnostic tool to track down those triggers.
As just one example, for people who have allergy-like symptoms (itching, nasal congestion, swelling around the eyes, etc.) but negative allergy testing, they may have “histamine intolerance.” In that case, there are many potential foods and activities that can elevate histamine levels and trigger their symptoms. A health journal can define those events and triggers; it can help develop lifestyle changes that can eliminate those symptoms.
Try keeping a health journal to define your own triggers, whether for headaches, allergy symptoms, or other ailments. Use the results for your own lifestyle changes to achieve optimal health! I will address the other lifestyle improvements – stress management, optimal sleep habits, optimal physical and mental fitness, and other issues – in future articles, either here or on one of my other blogs. Until then, go journal.
Your Turn: Do YOU keep a health journal? If so, how do you do it? Share your tricks: tell us about any great apps or other tools that make it easier! Leave a comment below!!
The Complete Migraine Health, Diet Guide & Cookbook, by Susan Hannah, Lawrence Leung, and Elizabeth Dares-Dobbie (Amazon affiliate link)
Thanks for visiting, and see you here next time. Until then, remember … you can pick your friends, and you can pick your nose, but you can’t pick your friend’s nose (unless you’re a boogor doctor ;~D)
Hi, I’m Russell Faust, author of this medical education blog. That wonderful photo of me is by Chris Stranad; here is his site: http://www.chrisstranadphotography.com/Index.html
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