Making the Change
When Andrea Wolfe was younger, her mother would buy a Dr. Pepper every time they were at a grocery store. The caffeine provided relief from her constant headaches.
Wolfe watched her mom suffer, knowing that these particular headaches were hereditary and that she was next.
Wolfe, an assistant professor in the Department of English at Ball State University, first noticed her one and off headaches in her 20s. By the time she reached her 30s, on and off became almost every day.
Wolfe took Advil almost every time she had a headache and eventually doubled the amount. The medication was helping, but she started experiencing stomach pains.
During her pregnancy with her son in 2008, the headaches became more frequent. Her doctor told her not to take Advil, making her pregnancy miserable.
“That was the point when I said ‘Oh my gosh. This is really happening all the time,’” she said.
Wolfe wanted to get a second opinion and met with two neurologists. Both concluded that she was experiencing daily chronic headaches.
The headaches typically occur 15 or more days a month and are less severe than migraines. Katherine Lee, a writer for Every Health website, explained in an article that around 5 percent of people in the world experience the headaches. Forty-five million of those people are American, most of which are women.
Eighty percent of people who have the condition use medication daily. Wolfe was prescribed a few different medicines.
Barbara Moss, health educator for the Indiana University Health Center, says daily chronic headaches require long-term management in order for an individual to control his or her condition. Antidepressants, change of diet and massages are options in managing the headaches.
After meeting the neurologists and learning of her condition, a friend suggested a functional medicine practitioner in Indianapolis.
“If you go to him, he’s going to change your whole life,” she said. “You have to be prepared to change your whole lifestyle: the way you eat.”
When Wolfe met with the practitioner, he took blood samples and determined that she was intolerant to sulfur. He recommended that she try a low-sulfur diet to help with the headaches.
Two years into the diet, Wolfe has created a daily routine. She wakes up, heads downstairs to get a full glass of water with lemon or lime and takes her first set of supplements. Unable to drink tap water because of the sulfur, she has her own faucet with reverse osmosis.
Wolfe said she couldn’t have caffeine on her diet, something she enjoys and her mother once used as a remedy.
After taking supplements, she has to wait an hour before eating, so she helps her son get ready for school. She prepares rice or oats cereal with a small amount of meat for breakfast.
Wolfe now tries to eat all her meals at home, because she finds it more convenient.
Dietitian Joan Breakey said food is one of several possible factors to chronic daily headaches, but it varies with each person.
“It is more difficult to know when a headache starts in relation to a particular food. Research on headache treatments has shown that food additives, natural chemicals and whole foods may all be contributors,” Breakey wrote in her article “Chronic headaches and diet.”
When Wolfe changed her diet, she said her husband became her biggest supporter. He too started a diet to stabilize his chronic stomach pain, and they motivate each other.
“There’s a lot of things we figured out we both can [eat,]” she said.
She began using a sauna when she was told she had large amounts of lead in her system, possibly contributing to her headaches. When driving to a center to use one became challenging, her husband bought her a sauna for their home.
Wolfe says she does not receive the same amount of support from her other family members.
Her mother tried the diet, but realized that she could not handle food limitations for a long period of time.
“If I have to live like that, life wouldn’t be worth living,” she said to Wolfe.
Wolfe said she understands that altering eating habits can be a difficult task, but the benefits are worth it.
With the help of her change, Wolfe produced a documentary entitled “Down to Earth,” which looked into sustainable farming. She worked with 14 students, talking to a local farmer.
“Being on the diet made me have to start investigating foods,” she said. “I don’t know what is in my food at all and I need to figure that out in order to follow this diet.”
Wolfe said if it weren’t for her diet change, the film wouldn’t have been made.
She still has headaches, but they occur every other week rather than every day. She does not know what is actually helping: whether it is the change in food, change in water or the use of a sauna. She only knows her health has improved.
“What I’m doing is drastic,” Wolfe said. “Changing the way you eat to restrictive diet is hard. But I think it has helped me. I feel like it’s the only thing I can do. It’s better than having a headache all of the time.”