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How I got rid of my never-ending headache in 15 minutes

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.

Aha!

(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.

Stay curious!

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:

grass-fed-beef-rib-roast
I had never cooked a rib roast and all the recipes suggested searing first before roasting. Too much work, time and mess. So, I ignored it all and prepped it in the slow cooker and served it with sauteed baby broccoli. It was super tender, flavorful, and I had meals for days.
carnitas-lettuce-wraps
Carnitas lettuce wraps with avocado and marinated yellow zucchini “slaw”.
beef-rib-roast
Grass-fed beef rib roast with celery, carrot, and onion. You would not believe the flavor in this simple dish seasoned only with salt and pepper.

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.

Until then,

lily-name

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!

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Lily Nichols is a Registered Dietitian/Nutritionist, Certified Diabetes Educator, researcher, and author with a passion for evidence-based prenatal nutrition and exercise. Her work is known for being research-focused, thorough, and unapologetically critical of outdated dietary guidelines. She is the author of two bestselling books, Real Food for Pregnancy and Real Food for Gestational Diabetes.

16 Comments

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  1. Awesome, Lily. And i know this isnt the place for it, but just want to say that i made my own chicken broth last week after finding a large crockpot at the thrift store (theres a place in Detroit almost as good as Sun Thrift!). … all this so i could try out your delicious-sounding carrot ginger squash soup… I used butternut squash, and it was so good. Been eating it all day! (And just in time because now im fighting the flu.) Thank you for your inspiring power-recipes and great emails/blog. love, j

    • Nice! This is the place to share anything and everything, even thrift store finds. So glad to hear you’re enjoying the Carrot Ginger Squash Soup. It must be perfect for the frigid Detroit winter weather. 🙂 Hope you can fight off the flu quickly!

  2. Lily, that is amazing that you figured that out. I have a headache just thinking about the thought process of figuring it out. Good job! Now I’m going to go take an aspirin. 😉
    I have put my crock pot back into use! Thanks!!

    • You’re telling me, Carol! My brain was on overdrive, but I’ve always enjoyed this kind of nutrition detective work.

  3. I want to try your homemade broth recipe. I bet it smells amazing! So glad you don’t have headaches anymore. 🙂

    • Give it a whirl, Melissa. I’m equally relieved to be headache-free!

  4. Hi, I too recently discovered almost the last trigger for my daily migraines. Not so easy to avoid though as it is flourescent lighting which is everywhere. I no longer go shopping, to my embroidery classes etc and even my doctors surgery( I do telephone consultations). However, I now have whole weeks without a migraine, the first in 4 years! Not sure of the answer yet but I am hoping eventually my threshold will diminish and my life will normalise again. I avoid all the usual triggers and have worked out others but this was the final key. Ps I love your web site, although I am in England and cannot attend a meeting with you. I see a herbalist who is helping me and I know that this is slow but I am healing with good organic food and Chinese herbs.

    • What a great detective you are, Angela! So happy to hear you’re migraine-free. Finding out your triggers is the biggest challenge of all, because they vary so much individual to individual.

      PS – I do help clients all over the world via Skype consultations in case you’re wondering. 🙂

  5. My MRT results showed Salicylic acid as only moderate yet I am highly allergic to it and things like motrin…actually anaphylactic reactions in the past. During my elimination diet of 1 month now, eating lots of grapes, walnuts, zucchini, blueberries..all high in salicylic acid. headaches persisted even into week three. AHa was my wife doing the reseach that I was getting too much of those things. I was gluetin free, dairy free, sugar free, caffeine free, alcohol free and following Fodmap. Miserable is how I felt.
    Since reducing the more highly salicylic acid foods and adding back in a bit of wheat I am having less headaches and not so weak. I have lost about 10 pounds in a month which is just fine. You are spot on about how unique we all are, even the MRT is just the very beginning of the journey. I almost gave up last week.
    kevin

    • Yes, without expert guidance, navigating the MRT results and the elimination diet, especially reactive chemicals, can be a big challenge. That’s part of why I designed my food sensitivity program to offer a much higher level of support than is standard in my field and to customize the elimination diet much further; so people get results quickly. Having gone though this myself, I can completely relate to your frustrations.

      Sounds like the puzzle pieces are coming together more each day, Kevin. Don’t give up!

  6. I just read a few of your articles for the first time. They are awesome! I’ve been following a strict AIP diet for about a month. I was doing paleo for about a year because all my symptoms made me so uncomfortable, it forced me to change my diet. But it just wasn’t helping me. So I found Mickey Trescotts AIP paleo cookbook. It’s been alot of fun, but also hard. It took awhile to transition to cooking everything myself, learning how to ferment, etc. I experienced relief within a week of starting it. But I still have lots of healing to do.
    Part of my problem is that I have cheated a few times. And it doesn’t seem to matter what I cheat with, I immediately have a bad reaction. In fact, my reactions have worsened to the point I vomit all the cheat food within 30 minutes and develop a fever.
    It’s intense. And definitely has provided a negative enough anchor to keep me from cheating. I feel like I need to learn more about what my body is reacting to, and what is even safe to add back in later on.

    I’m really interested in the food and chemical sensitivity testing. And actually having someone like you to help guide me through this.
    How would I go about finding someone like you to help me with the testing and guidance?

    • Hi Ashley, Sounds like quite the journey! I work with people all over the world, so location is no barrier. You can learn more about food sensitivity testing here.

  7. I need your help desperately! I was MRT Tested in 2002 and have lived by the results pretty religiously. If not, I have suffered with mild to severe migraine headaches. Recently things have become drastically worse. I’m down to about 4 ‘safe’ foods. Maybe! I’m in the process of being retested. Don’t know where to go or what to do! Can you help?

    • Oh my! I agree to get retested, work with someone highly trained in interpreting MRT, guiding you through the elimination diet, and helping to heal your gut. Phase 6 of the program is designed to prevent new food sensitivities from developing, but is tricky to navigate alone.

      Please reach out via my contact page if you’re interested in working together. At the time of writing, I have a waiting list, however I’m accepting applications for 2017 clients as we speak.

  8. my child has migraine. I just wanted to share that migraineurs might want to try, and you need to give it 3-6 months, sodium or cal-mag butyrate supplements. Research shows that butyrate heals the gut lining and equally importantly teaches tolerance to food proteins to your immune system. It increases T-regs. Decreases inflammatory cytokines. we were on a fully vegetarian and low-histamine diet at one point because EVERYTHING was causing migraine. after two months, chicken and poultry and fish were ok, then dairy was ok again, eggs in baked goods. Still off gluten, but just about everything else is better.

    Interestingly, glycine AND glutamate are needed to activate the NMDA receptor. Glycine generally in other functions is an inhibitory neurotransmitter and glutamate is excitatory. NMDA receptors are indicated in migraine.

  9. What make is the pure Glycine you took? I followed your advice and ordered Glycine caps and found it had magnesium stearate in it. One Dr said take 8-10 grams. On my bottle it said 2x 500mg a day. I am taking four but have still had a couple of migraines. Thanks

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