If you’ve been playing along at home, congratulations on a month of living preservative free. It’s a huge first step on the road to managing the complexity of migraine triggers. The simple lifestyle changes that you’ve committed to have started to stop feeding the migraine beast. You may be starting to feel better, but more likely you are not yet starting to feel better. This is because you are probably inadvertently poking the beast into action. This contributes to the apparent randomness of the migraines.
Stuart would be going along fine, then all of a sudden out of nowhere – bam a migraine would strike. We’d examine the previous 24 hours together and more often than not we would identify a migraine trigger that had snuck it’s way into his day. Sometimes we just couldn’t track it down to a single thing. Either way we had poked the sleeping beast.
Something in your day has resulted in an acute activation of the nitric oxide (NO) pathway. Some of these you have control over, like drinking alcohol, but let’s face it no one can control the weather or if they’re getting the flu.
The migraine trigger may not be the ingredients per se, but how it is prepared. Here are just a few ways that you are inadvertently poking the migraine beast into action through the process of cooking.
Cooking in Aluminum Foil
It may not be the dish that is causing the migraine, but what you are cooking it in. A study in 2016 found that a single serve of a dish cooked in aluminum foil increases the amount of aluminum in your diet to 10 times that recommended by the World Health Organization. It’s not just cooking that does it, any time hot food is against aluminum foil significant amounts are transferred into the food. The authors of the study recommend never allowing hot food to touch aluminum foil and to instead cook in glass or porcelain dishes.
Yes, the fact that the foil is actually disintegrating into the top of your lasagna is bad for you. It’s your first serving of 10 times the recommended daily allowance of aluminum. While you are at it, put down that garlic bread that was warmed up in aluminum foil because that’s your second dose of 10 times the recommended daily allowance. Shall we go for the trifecta with pie for dessert from a foil pie tin? See how quickly it all adds up.
Excess aluminum is bad for all of us, not just migraineurs. There is no known use for aluminum in the body, so it must be expelled. Whilst most of it moves through the gut without entering the bloodstream, that which does is neutralized using nitric oxide (NO). So if you intake an extra large amount in a single meal you send the NO system into overdrive potentially triggering a migraine.
As for the general populace, there is no scientific evidence of the correlation between aluminum intake with degenerative brain diseases such as Alzheimer’s and dementia. However, a study from 2016 with rats found that feeding them the World Health Organization recommended daily allowance for their body weight of aluminum for 60 days resulted in significant memory impairment over aluminum free controls. That in itself is enough to keep me from adding any more aluminum to my diet.
In Stuart’s case we found that suddenly foods that he had eaten for years would trigger migraines. We would carefully reverse engineer the day looking for changes in any ingredients to find the trigger. If we couldn’t find anything he would just have to strike that dish off his menu.
When this study came out last year I realized that many of the dishes that were off his plate could be put back on if I stopped allowing aluminum foil to touch the food. Ribs, Kleftiko, things cooked on the BBQ, resting meat, keeping the edges of pastry from burning. Every time I reached for the aluminum foil I had to ask myself is there a different way to do this. If not, I simply put a barrier of baking paper between the food and aluminum foil. Yes, those foil cooking trays should also be avoided.
Problem solved, no more poking the beast with foil swords. Ribs are back on the menu!
Well Seasoned Pots, Pans and Utensils
Just as aluminum foil can impart itself into your food during cooking, so can the constituents of your pots, pans and cooking utensils. The previous study recommends moving away from aluminum cookware, but understands that for much of the world that might be cost prohibitive.
But there are other things you need to consider. Are your pots, pans and utensils well seasoned? Cast iron and carbon steel pans are seasoned with oil to prevent rusting and food from sticking. The process works like this. The heating of the metal causes it to expand then whatever liquid (oils, fats, cooking juices) that is in the pan fills the micro-spaces created within the metal. As the metal cools it contracts and the liquid that moved into the spaces is trapped there. The next time you heat the pan the metal expands so a little bit of that liquid comes out.
A well seasoned pan is a thing of joy.
It could also be a source of nitrates and nitrites. Every time you cook in a pan, a little bit of what you are cooking gets incorporated into the pan. So if you’ve spent a decade or two cooking let’s say bacon in the same cast iron skillet, you’ve been slowly incorporating nitrates and nitrites into the pan to be passed onto every dish you then cook in that pan.
This happened to us with one of those stone pans. In our house, teenagers cook their own breakfast while I make the lunches. They have a hot breakfast to set them up nutritionally for a long day of learning. It’s usually bacon and eggs, so to facilitate this they got to pick their own pan to make this in. Basically I didn’t want them ruining my well seasoned pans as they experimented with heat and cooking bacon. Plus it needed to be something to go in the dishwasher.
They chose a stone fry pan because they were trendy and in the perfect size for one person. Every day they went about perfecting their bacon and eggs through trial and error.
One day Stuart wanted just an egg for breakfast so I grabbed the boy’s stone pan. Within an hour of eating the fried egg he had a migraine. The nitrates and nitrates from the boy’s bacon experimentation had impregnated the pan subsequently poisoning his fried egg. This is despite the pan being washed on a long, hot cycle in the dishwasher. The pan had to be thrown away.
I encourage you to carefully consider all your cookware that over time has taken on the essence of the food itself. Wooden spoons, seasoned pans, roasting and baking trays have a food history that might be inadvertently imparting migraine triggers into your food. Unfortunately the only way to solve this problem is to replace the items.
Commingling of food on surfaces
I was at a Boxing Day barbeque standing around the spit watching the lamb turn while chatting to my friend’s sister. She happened to be a chef by trade and she shared with me the precautions that they take to, in her words “keep from poisoning people with food allergies.”. Because the last thing a chef wants to do is make someone sick, or even worse kill them, with the food that they have skillfully prepared for them.
When a kitchen is informed that a diner has food allergies, they start from scratch. Not just with the ingredients, but knives, cutting boards, surfaces, all pots, pans and utensils are fresh and clean. They have not been touched by any other foods because every stage of a dish leaves small bits of the ingredients behind. These small bits could kill someone with allergies. She said the seriousness of the potential risk and why all these precautions have to be taken is one of the most challenging things to teach an apprentice.
Commingling of foods is a big challenge for migraineurs and those who cook for them. It really makes eating away from home, especially at the home’s of friends and family. Sure Stuart can pick the migraine triggering watermelon out of the fruit salad that was so lovingly prepared because it’s healthy. But did you chop up the watermelon on the cutting board first or last. If you did it first then you contaminated everything after the watermelon with the juices and remaining bits on the knife and cutting board. Picking the watermelon out isn’t going to help.
Barbeques by their nature are commingling of foods. It’s a great Aussie tradition, at the spur of the moment often, to get people together on a warm summer’s day to cook around a fire. Everyone brings something to toss on the grill. It’s in our collective hunter-gather DNA.
You’ve arrived with your trigger free food to cook. It doesn’t matter if you cook it or the barbeque goddess does, it is cooked there in the remnants of marinades, juices, fats and sauces of what has come before it. It’s not just today’s food either, but all the meals since the last soap and water cleaning. Your simple steak or hamburger becomes contaminated with nitrates, nitrites, other preservatives and added MSG from sausages, hot dogs, kebabs, chicken teriyaki….the list is endless.
Then you pile your plate with some vegetables that were grilled on the barbeque as well as those potatoes that were wrapped in aluminum foil for cooking. It’s a migraine on a plate.
The only way we’ve been able to work around this is to have a lot of barbeques at our house. As for dining out, start to make it a practice to inform the kitchen of your needs in advance with a phone call during non-peak times. I know this sounds like a lot of hassle and extra effort, but as the saying goes, an ounce of prevention equals a pound of cure.
Change of Packaging
A change in food packaging usually also signals one thing; a change in the ingredients. The BBQ sauce, ice cream, cereal etc. has fundamentally changed the ingredients, which they are required by law to update the ingredient list. Changing packaging is an expensive process and you can be sure of one thing, there are cost cutting in other areas. It’s sound business practice.
The two easiest ways to save money in processed foods are to add preservatives and/or MSG as a flavour enhancer. Both of these ingredients activate the NO pathway thereby trigger migraines. As the comedian Arj Barker observes about organic and whole foods:
“Why do I have to pay more for food with less things in it?”
Adding preservatives increases the shelf life so there is less wastage of the product and costs associated with distribution. This is why there are even nitrite based preservatives in ice cream, yes really. Seriously, it’s a frozen product. Freezing is a way of preserving food.
Adding MSG in any of it’s forms (yeast extract, flavour enhancer, hydrolysed vegetable protein, soy extract or malted flours) as a flavour enhancer is cheaper than using real ingredients to create flavour. Yeast extracts and their derivatives create a umami taste. Umani, the 5th taste after sweet, salty, sour, and bitter, is defined as corresponding to the flavour of glutamates, especially monosodium glutamate. It evokes a savoury sensation that is indicative of protein rich foods. Foods that have the umami flavour from yeast extract, but are not protein based, say a BBQ flavoured potato chip or using season/chicken salt, trick the body into thinking it’s about to get some protein.
We learned this lesson the hard way with Stuart’s breakfast regime. Stuart is happy to have a bowl of cereal, preferably with a bit of dried fruit and nuts thrown in. Dried fruits were the first problem as they have preservatives on them. That was easily solved by making muesli from preservative free, dried fruit that he could sprinkle on a base cereal.
Once you remove the dried fruit from the list of potential cereals there was still a surprisingly large number of preservative free cereals to choose from. Stuart settled on major cereal brand’s special wheat flake.
Then the packaging changed, I noted that it had gotten smaller but the price remained the same. Grrr. The front of the box as well had been changed to say “Improved flavour”.
After about a month, Stuart started to get cluster migraines. No amount of sleuthing was getting to the bottom of the problem. We would discuss it every morning while he ate his bowl of cereal after his migraine medication kicked in.
One morning it hit me, the packaging had changed on the cereal. I reached into the cupboard, pulled out the offending box and sure enough, they had changed the formula.
They had started using a malted flour. Malting of flours is a fermentation process that creates MSG. Of course it had “improved flavour” per their advertising, they had added MSG.
The box went straight into the bin. It took a week to get Stuart’s physiology sorted out. The moral of the story is that when the packaging changes the first thing to do right there in the store is read the ingredients.
As you can see, it’s easy to poke the migraine beast. What you eat may not necessarily be fueling the beast, but rather poking it into action. Your management of migraine triggers not only requires watching what you eat, but also how it is prepared.
As always, whenever making lifestyle changes be sure and consult your healthcare team. Under no circumstances should you stop or start taking medication and/or supplements without your doctors consent.
Next week I’m going to begin to explore the science behind why added MSG triggers migraines. Oh, she’s a complicated beast. Until then, enjoy my friends.