Research suggests that, in addition to some common causes of migraines, the result of fluctuating oestrogen levels can trigger migraines in women more often.
People often like to say, “‘Such-and-such’ illness doesn’t discriminate.” But in the case of migraines, the condition appears to do exactly that, according to experts from several research institutes.
Numbers from the Mayo Clinic in the United States indicate that 17% of women surveyed develop migraines, compared to 6% of men.
Additionally, both the US National Medical Library and the Migraine Research Foundation in the US concluded in studies, that women are three times more likely to be afflicted by the condition.
Based on this, there looks to be a consensus across the board that migraines are a bigger issue for women than they are for men.
Contrary to popular belief, migraines are not milder versions of headaches.
Rather, it is a chronic neurological ailment that affects more than one billion people all over the world, and according to the World Health Organization (WHO), it is listed among the top 20 “most debilitating illnesses in the world”.
Causes in women
Let’s take a look at some of the leading causes of migraines.
It’s only possible to diagnose the causes of stress by analysing a patient’s daily routine, which includes work, sleep, recreation, food, relationships and other lifestyle patterns.
Other times, psychological trauma might be involved and will require long-term counselling as part of the treatment.
Women tend to suffer more easily from changes in weather, as it can create an imbalance in serotonin levels – a hormone whose many functions include regulating mood.
In cold climates, you might find women suffering from migraines more easily during the winter.
The reverse is also true: when temperatures in hot climates rise to extreme numbers, that could also serve as a trigger for migraines.
Excessive consumption of alcohol causes dehydration, which encourages migraines.
Many types of alcohol also contain high amounts of tyramine – a naturally-occurring compound.
It is a by-product of the tyrosine amino acid, which is found in many foods, including alcohol.
Tyramine is akin to a panic-inducing element, elevating heart rate, spiking blood pressure and triggering migraines.
Several studies indicate that changes in levels of the female hormone, oestrogen, is a key cause of migraines.
The cells that surround nerves inside the head, as well as nearby blood vessels, are quick to detect migraine triggers, and a drop in levels of oestrogen is viewed as a “flip of a switch”.
Dr Soma Sahai-Srivastava, associate professor of neurology at the University of Southern California’s Keck School of Medicine in the US, describes it like this: “Once this (switch) is flipped on, it spills toxic, inflammatory chemicals on the roadmap of the brain.
“Then the blood vessels start acting out, which produces throbbing; it’s like an orchestra on the surface of the brain.”
There is still much more work to be done in understanding the role of oestrogen in migraines.
What we do know presently, are four important scenarios where drastic changes in oestrogen levels have an impact on migraines:
• Pre-mentrual symptoms
Headaches are a common complaint women have before they are about to get their period.
This is when oestrogen levels are low, allowing painful migraines to attack.
• During pregnancy
For all the other inconveniences one experiences during pregnancy, you can rejoice to know that pregnancy helps to reduce migraine attacks.
This is because an expecting mother’s oestrogen levels are high, and remain that way throughout pregnancy.
Unfortunately, good things come to an end. With the end of a pregnancy, your hormone levels fluctuate downwards, including oestrogen levels.
Now, with a baby at home to adjust to and care for, it’s best to have the husband and your family to support you, in order to not let stress or hormones trigger the migraines again.
This is a challenging period for women who suffer from migraines, as your hormone levels become the most unbalanced.
Some seek hormone replacement therapy (HRT), but the results differ for every individual.
But for many, the headaches tend to go away post-menopause.
Paracetamol, ibuprofen and other similar drugs are the typical over-the-counter medications that are prescribed most often for migraines, but you can try natural remedies to alleviate migraines too:
This is a good alternative to try for your migraines, as well as for other ailments.
The method involves applying pressure to various points on the body, to reduce symptoms of a condition. It has been studied and found to be an effective alternative treatment.
• Lavender oil
Aromatherapy works differently on everyone, but a joint study by German and Iranian researchers found that study participants who applied lavender oil reported that their symptoms were reduced much faster than those who applied a placebo.
It is always a good idea to invest in high-quality, 100% natural essential oils, and preferably organic ones.
Deficiency in magnesium has been linked to increased migraines.
You can add more magnesium to your diet by consuming foods like milk, peanut butter, eggs, oatmeal, almonds, cashew nuts and sunflower seeds.
• B Vitamins
Vitamins B6 and B12, as well as folic acid, may reduce the frequency, severity and disability of migraines, according to new research.
Fruits, whole grains, veggies, beans, fortified and whole grain products, poultry, meat, fish and dairy are excellent sources.
Working on your posture, stretching and breathing exercises may reduce the intensity of migraines, studies show.
It can ease stress by promoting vascular health and relieving the tension in your muscles.
In any case, it is a great complementary therapy to encourage overall health.
This anti-inflammatory root is well-known for reducing nausea, and because migraines are a linked symptom, ginger may be able to help with that as well.
Take a small amount of ginger powder – one-eighth of a teaspoon in hot water – or crush some sliced ginger root and steep in hot water to make tea.
In looking at solutions for migraines, it would be tremendously helpful to examine one’s overall lifestyle and any impact it may have on health.
You’ll be surprised to find that sometimes, changes in your routine, such as cutting out poor lifestyle habits like late nights and excessive alcohol, can make a difference.
Discuss your symptoms with your doctor, and for whatever the underlying causes, whether it is stress, nutritional deficiencies or hormonal imbalances, find the solutions that work best for you.
Datuk Dr Nor Ashikin Mokhtar is a consultant obstetrician and gynaecologist, and a functional medicine practitioner. For further information, email firstname.lastname@example.org. The information provided is for educational and communication purposes only and it should not be construed as personal medical advice. Information published in this article is not intended to replace, supplant or augment a consultation with a health professional regarding the reader’s own medical care. The Star does not give any warranty on accuracy, completeness, functionality, usefulness or other assurances as to the content appearing in this column. The Star disclaims all responsibility for any losses, damage to property or personal injury suffered directly or indirectly from reliance on such information.