How running marathons led me to the cure for migraines (Part Two)

(Continued from Part One)

I started researching why people get sick particularly after marathons and discovered that all of my symptoms pointed to a condition called “hyponatremia,” which is caused by low sodium in the blood. Hours of sweating and the intake of a lot of water and sugar (to “fuel” the marathon) both contribute to the loss of sodium, and without being properly replaced, it can cause severe physical reactions like those I experienced, and can even result in death. I was especially at risk for this as I tend to lose a lot of salt in my sweat (I can see it on my skin!) and had always maintained a low-sodium diet. Now I know that I really should have sought medical help after Florence and Frankfurt. I had assumed that I was experiencing a “normal” migraine and that medical personnel would likely misjudge the symptoms as in the past. And then a light bulb went on in my head: What if all of my migraines are somehow related to a lack of sodium?

So I did a Google search on something like “migraines and low sodium” and came across Dr. Angela Stanton and her book, Fighting the Migraine Epidemic: How to Treat and Prevent Migraines without Medicine – An Insider’s View (Bloomington, 2014). As it turns out, Dr. Stanton is a scientist who has been studying the migraine brain and shows that an imbalance of potassium and sodium causes migraines. She proposes a detailed protocol and nutritional guide to achieve a proper balance, which helps to control the onset of migraines in those who are susceptible to them. She was kind enough to communicate with me directly and helped me to understand that in addition to not properly replacing the salt I was losing, other habits that I thought were healthy were actually detrimental. All forms of sugar must be avoided, and this applied to the “nutrition-packed” smoothies I was consuming almost daily and carbs in the form of pasta and other grains that many marathoners have been taught are essential to fuel the marathon distance. The reality is that these foods quickly transform into sugar in the body, which in turn prohibits the proper absorption of salt (Longo DL, et al. Harrison’s Manual of Medicine 18th Edition, McGraw Hill Medical, New York, 2013). Understanding how to change my diet to find the proper balances took months and some trial and error, but the results were immediate. I haven’t taken Imitrex since the day of the Frankfurt marathon last October. That is indeed a major breakthrough for me!

Of course, this had a big impact on my running, as well. While it took some time to train my body to perform on a lower-carb diet, it was amazing to finish a long run or a race and to have a clear head for the rest of the day and then to wake up the next morning feeling fresh. After a few months, I built up enough confidence to run a race one morning and play a concert the same evening, something I would never have risked before. I felt like a different person! Already in 2016, I have run personal best times in 10k, 20k and half-marathon races, and these experiences increased my confidence that I could push myself harder without fear of triggering a debilitating episode. For my long runs and races, I have replaced energy drinks and sugar-packed fuel with salt pills and natural fruits and nuts. I was always told that I couldn’t survive long distance running without “carb-loading,” but now I see that I function even better by consuming no sugar and fewer carbohydrates.

And so I signed up for another marathon – the Helsinki City Marathon on August 13. I’m excited but also nervous. All of this will be put to the test; will I really come through okay this time? The nightmare of Frankfurt still haunts me, but I am hopeful that the experience will remain only a memory that will fade with time. Helsinki will be a difficult route and I’m not sure of what I am capable at this point, but I intend to push myself harder than before, confident that I am now more in tune with what my body needs in order to successfully take on 42.2 km/26.2 mi and stay healthy. Of course, I won’t be setting any world records, but I’m so thankful that I can now pursue this passion without the physical barrier that tormented me for most of my life. I feel more alive than ever!

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3 thoughts on “How running marathons led me to the cure for migraines (Part Two)

  1. alibowenblog says:

    This is so interesting, my wife suffers from body migraines (can never remember the technical term) and its in part triggered by her muscles in her shoulders being too tense, running is helping her relax her shoulders although not quite there yet.

    Good luck in Helsinki 😀

  2. franckgdb007 says:

    Good luck for the 13rd of august!

  3. Joy says:

    It’s so inspiring to read about your perseverance with running even though it resulted in debilitating migraines, and it’s incredible that the answer to eliminating the migraines is a dietary solution. It has to be so hard not to eat sugar or carbs, but being able to feel good after a run and feel so alive makes the efforts very worthwhile. I’m so proud of you, and so thankful that you’re free of the migraines now!!! I’m going to go eat some salt now…;-)

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