Have you ever had a headache that just wouldn’t go away? Man is that frustrating. It’s like someone is taking a vice to your head and no matter how hard you try to ignore it… it. just. won’t. go. away.
It’s a bit like sitting in grid lock on the 110 in Friday night traffic (which I happily soared over in a helicopter ride recently! That’s where I snapped the photo above!).
I dove head-first into a headache nightmare a few weeks ago and I hope I never go back. Here’s what happened and how I got rid of my never-ending headache in 15 minutes.
As most of you know, I got tested for food sensitivities last month and have been following a customized elimination diet for 3 weeks now (I’m still going strong and eating like a king, by the way! I’ve got proof in the photos below.)
Before I get into it, let me just say this. With my background, people expect that I have all of the health answers in the world, but sometimes, it’s through our own struggles that we learn something new and boy did I discover something fascinating about my body.
In the first week on my elimination diet, I started experiencing headaches.
These weren’t debilitating headaches, but they were annoying and interfered with my work and focus.
Now my initial response was that this is a normal side effect of the first week on the LEAP elimination diet. When your body is accustomed to seeing certain reactive chemicals/foods on a daily basis, it develops a means to deal with them and expects this daily assault. So when you suddenly cut out a reactive food/chemical, your body can go through a withdrawal period. It’s kind of like when a habitual coffee drinker skips it for 2 days in a row. Eventually the headaches will go away. You just have to stay strong, drink plenty of fluids, and wait it out.
Only, I did wait it out and I was still having headaches by day 6.
I had made this huge dietary shift and was cooking all of my foods from scratch and here I was, stuck with a headache. I knew there were no sneaky ingredients hiding in my meals. I was only eating real food that I had blood test results to confirm are the right foods for my body. I had this “why me?!” moment, where I recalled how less than half of my clients experience these symptoms.
I checked and re-checked my food-symptom journal and could not identify a culprit. Usually if this happens with a client, I’m able to help them track down the offending food in a few minutes and voila, omit the food and the headache goes away.
But, I just couldn’t figure it out.
I went back to my MRT results, which is the food sensitivity blood test I used. I searched for clues in my reaction levels to the 150 foods and chemicals that are tested.
What stood out to me was that I came up reactive to two chemicals that are kind of like close cousins: salicylic acid and benzoic acid. This seemed odd when I first reviewed my results because a) I don’t take aspirin or use acne face products (both of which have salicylic acid) and b) I always avoid preservatives, including benzoic acid (By the way, benzoic acid often comes up reactive in people who regularly drink soda. Another reason to avoid them).
Now beyond their use as additives in foods and products, both of these chemicals naturally occur in many foods, particularly those high in antioxidants, because their chemical structure is very similar to some antioxidants, particularly polyphenols. (I try to avoid all the jargon, but that sentence just reeked of science geek and I had to go there. I apologize. Moving along…)
After carefully reviewing my food journal again, digging around on PubMed, and sifting through all the lists of foods high in salicylic & benzoic acid (which really make you feel like you can’t eat anything, by the way), my diet just seemed too low in both of these to be provoking headaches.
Something was up.
I even consulted with a fellow nutritionist who specializes in this area to see if I was missing something. Everything looked fine to her as well. (And yes, even nutritionists hire nutritionists sometimes.)
So I started getting curious.
Sure I wasn’t ingesting much of these chemicals and by now they should’ve been out of my system, but perhaps my body wasn’t detoxifying them. Of course, this moment of genius hit right before bed (the best ideas always do), so I jumped up and scoured my bookshelf for all of the integrative and functional medicine textbooks and finally, I had an answer.
Bare with me as I nerd out again.
Salicylic acid has a well-studied detoxification pathway and is dependent on one specific amino acid. If you don’t have enough of this amino acid, salicylic acid cannot be excreted and instead gets converted into… wait for it… a type of benzoic acid.
(It’s brief moments like these that I’m reminded why I had to take organic chemistry and biochemistry.)
The amino acid in question is called glycine and is most highly concentrated in the connective tissue, skin, and bones of animals. For this reason, slow-cooked or braised meats (especially tough cuts) are a rich source as well was bone broth. Glycine is also used by the body to create a key detoxification enzyme, glutathione.
Once I figured this out, all the pieces of the puzzle came together.
I realized I hadn’t been having my homemade chicken broth. I wasn’t cooking meat on the bone, but was opting for skinless, boneless chicken instead (‘cause it’s fast and I was too lazy to roast chicken on the bone). And I hadn’t had any slow-cooked meats in a while, so the glycine content of my diet was pretty dismal.
Knowing all of this, I had to test out my theory (with a very scientific, purely anecdotal study group of myself). But, I didn’t want to spend another 12 hours with a headache waiting for my slow cooker to work its magic. So I took a small dose of pure glycine and within 15 minutes my 6 day headache-of-doom was gone.
Victory at last!
Turns out I was eating the right foods all along, but was just missing that one nutrient. Since my discovery, I’ve resumed making homemade broth and put my slow cooker back into service. Luckily, the slow cooker makes everything taste amazing and cuts way down on kitchen prep time.
Dinner the next day was slow-cooker carnitas (so good!). And I haven’t had a headache since.
I share this story not because I’m preaching that glycine is the headache cure for the world. It’s not.
I share this to help you appreciate how complicated our physiology is and how individual we all are. Had I not had my MRT results to guide me, I would have given up on the elimination diet by the 3rd day (seriously) and assumed all of the foods I was eating were problematic (another reason that generic elimination diets fail time and time again). In fact, I was eating the perfect foods for my body (minus adequate glycine) and because I chose to dig a little deeper rather than quit, I uncovered something I never would have known otherwise.
So, rather than look at this as a failure or an “I shoulda known that” moment, I find this to be a perfect example of why figuring out the best foods for your body is some of the most powerful medicine we have. In my case, an OTC painkiller would have been a big mistake, especially had I chosen aspirin (I can only imagine the headache that would have induced. Yikes!).
It’s funny to think that a month ago, when I first got my MRT results, I questioned whether I wanted to follow through with the LEAP elimination diet. I reserve this service only for clients who are willing to go 110%. (Honestly, I turn away more than half of people who ask about it if I sense they cannot follow through. I have no interest in wasting their money or wasting my time.)
I was on the fence. I figured I didn’t feel bad enough to go through the hassle of cooking ALL of my own food (hey, I’m human too!). But what compelled me to follow through (beyond wanting better digestion and clearer skin) is all the clients I’ve seen make major breakthroughs in their health. Looking back now, I see there was room for improvement and the lessons I’ve learned so far have been invaluable.
And while this story might not be my usual recipe or health tip, it’s important to understand that improved health is an exploratory journey.
One size (or diet) does not fit all.
Kale might be my thing, but it might leave you bloated for hours.
Eggs might be my favorite breakfast, but they might make you nauseous.
Aspirin might fix your headache, but it gives me one.
Our bodies are complex beautiful systems that have needs based on what we eat, don’t eat, where we live, medicines we take, stress levels, exercise, etc. That is why it is critical to listen to your body, especially when things feel off.
The answers are out there, you just have to put your sleuth hat on and stay on the hunt.
If you’ve enjoyed following my food sensitivity journey, be sure to sign up for email updates below.
One thing that’s become crystal clear during my first few weeks of healing from food sensitivities is that your support system is crucial. All of your emails, Facebook comments, Twitter messages, and comments right here on the blog have kept me accountable and on track. Plus, it forces me to take the extra time to garnish my food and get it camera ready for its close-up. (If you want healthy food porn showing up on your Facebook feed, like my page.)
Here’s a visual taste of what my slow cooker helped create:
Before you leave – Have you ever had an “aha moment” with food or your health? Like a realization that one simple little thing was getting in the way of feeling good? I’d love to hear about it in the comments below. Or if you’d rather not share that publicly, you can simply continue being my cheer leading squad. Looking forward to reading your comments, as always.
I’ll be back next week with a delicious recipe.
P.S. – Did you get a chance to read my FREE guide: “Why you’re not losing belly fat doing Pilates + 5 steps to make it happen”? I’ve spent too many hours overhearing bad advice being shared at Pilates studios and seen too many clients quit because they didn’t get what they were looking for. Maybe you’re a Pilates teacher yourself who could use a few tips. So, I wrote this little gem. Grab your FREE copy today!