100 Days of Vitamin Sea

by Beth Francis

At the start of the second year of my PhD in Ocean Sciences at Bangor University, I was diagnosed with chronic migraine, and I felt as though my whole world collapsed in upon itself. I went from being healthy, active and enjoying my life and PhD, to what felt like a shell of the person I was. When I experience a migraine, I am completely bed-bound for up to a few days, barely able to go to the bathroom by myself - never mind working on my PhD. Even the thought of going into the office to work, or out and about by myself on a good day now scares me, because I fear I will get a migraine and be stuck. Over the last year, I have tried to regain control of my health and my life by embarking on a challenge to swim in the seas around North Wales for 100 days, and along the way shared my journey of living with a chronic illness.

Regaining control of my health and wellbeing on the beaches of North Wales

Migraine – not just a headache

For those of you who are lucky not to know what a migraine is, let me start by saying it is definitely not “just a headache” (you would be surprised by how often migraineurs hear that!). Migraine is the most common and most disabling neurological disorder in the UK, and affects 1 in 7 people [1].

Migraine can be broken down into four distinct phases:
  • The first of these phases – the prodrome, is the most difficult to identify, but includes things such as fatigue, mood changes and food cravings for up to a few days before the headache phase begins. 
  • The second phase is not experienced by all migraineurs. It is known as the aura phase. It is usually less than an hour in length and people may experience things such as changes to their senses (such as blind spots or zigzag lines, smelling and hearing things which aren’t there), confusion, tingling/numbness, partial paralysis, vertigo and difficulty speaking.
  • The headache phase, which people most associate with migraines, then lasts between 4-72 hours (although some can last indefinite lengths of time, this is known as status migrainosus) and during this time sufferers will experience a number of symptoms including (but not limited to): severe head pain, nausea and vomiting, stomach pain, increased sensitivity to stimuli (including light, sound, smell and touch), and an altered state of consciousness. 
  • Finally, the postdrome, once the headache phase has finished, which I can best describe as feeling like a hangover. This phase includes symptoms such as extreme fatigue, muscle pain and weakness, dizziness and poor concentration. [2,3]
Migraines can be triggered by a number of different factors including light, smell, sound and specific sensitivities to certain things, but sometimes you can have no idea what caused it to happen.

My diagnosis and the discovery of “Vitamin Sea”

I was diagnosed with migraine with aura at the age of nine, the fifth generation of women in my family to be affected by the disease, but honestly, it didn’t ever feel like a huge part of my identity. That is not to say that the attacks weren’t excruciating - I was hospitalised with migraines several times during my childhood, teenage years and early twenties, but they were mercifully infrequent. All of that changed in the first year of my PhD, around May 2017, when I suddenly went from getting, at most, a few attacks per month, to experiencing a migraine almost every single day. Chronic migraine is defined as being more than 15 headache days per month of which 8 are migraineous. The World Health Organisation (WHO) has recognised the impact of migraine worldwide and categorised it as the same level of disability as dementia, quadriplegia and acute psychosis [4].

By October 2017, I had tried and failed three different types of preventative medication, had steroid injections into my occipital nerves (which also failed) and taken almost every suggested supplement imaginable. Nothing was working. So my partner, Andy, who is an independent filmmaker, and I decided to set ourselves a challenge. We had read a paper by Depledge and Bird (2009) discussing a concept known as “Blue Gym” [5] and how being active around the water could be good for health and wellbeing. So we decided to swim in the cold waters around Anglesey, Wales, for 100 days to see how it made us feel. Along the way we filmed our efforts and documented the journey through social media and quickly found how incredible being active in nature was for the way we were able to cope to this enormous change in our identities as a result of chronic migraine. At the time we weren’t expecting the swims to help with the migraines themselves, but more that they would just make us feel better about ourselves. However, we quickly found that the cold water had an amazing pain-relieving effect and are now working on research looking into this with Portsmouth University. Our project gained national media attention, and we found ourselves suddenly speaking on the radio, publishing articles discussing what we were doing on BBC News, speaking live on BBC Breakfast, and most recently winning an international award for patient advocacy at the WEGO Health Awards in Boston, USA.

Andy and I swimming in the cold winter sea (left), as guests on BBC Breakfast (middle), and after winning Best Team Performance at WEGO Health Awards (right)

Despite all of this, chronic migraine is still a huge part of my life. Cold water swimming has been amazing for our general wellbeing and for relieving pain during a migraine attack, but I am still getting about 15 per month. Unfortunately this meant that I had to drop down to part-time study on my PhD and I am still struggling to keep up. I’m not alone in this, through social media I have met others studying with chronic migraine, including other PhD students, and sadly many who suffer this condition are forced to pause or leave their education and accept that many opportunities are now closed to us because of this disease.

What I have learned from chronic illness

Although this condition is extremely difficult to live with, and I often feel that it has taken so much from me, I am grateful for the experiences it has opened to me and in particular that it has enabled me to connect with an incredible community of fellow chronic illness sufferers and learn so much more about wellbeing. So my advice to all of you, whether you are struggling with your health, or just the pressures of a PhD, is:
  1. Make time to focus on your health and wellbeing. Whether this be things such as mindfulness, pursuing hobbies or just taking the time to unwind in whatever way best helps you. If you take energy from being in nature, check out the Blue Gym and Green Gym concepts on how beneficial being active outdoors can be.
  2. It is easy during a PhD to isolate yourself. Make sure that you have people you can turn to if things get difficult, and look for warning signs that others are struggling.
  3. Move at your own pace. I have always been someone who feels like they are racing against the world, but this experience of suddenly losing that ability has really taught me that it doesn’t matter how fast you are moving, so long as you keep going to the best of your abilities.

Follow Our Journey
Website · Facebook · Twitter · Instagram · YouTube

Beth Francis
School of Ocean Sciences, Bangor University, UK

If you have questions or comments concerning Beth's post, please leave a comment below. You can also send her an email or connect with her and Andy on their channels mentioned above


[1] https://www.migrainetrust.org/
[2] https://www.verywellhealth.com/anatomy-of-a-migraine-1718209
[3] https://www.nhs.uk/conditions/migraine/symptoms/
[4] https://www.migrainetrust.org/about-migraine/types-of-migraine/chronic-migraine/
[5] Depledge, M.H. and Bird, W.J., 2009. The Blue Gym: health and wellbeing from our coasts. Marine Pollution Bulletin58(7), p.947.


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