I remember when I saw a friend after shed had her first major migraine attack. She looked pale and shaken and thought she was having a stroke – definitely not a normal, everyday tension headache! Migraine symptoms include feeling sick or vomiting, vision problems that make you think youre going blind or seeing stars, and temporary fragility and sensitivity to noise, light and movement that mean you literally cant move and the only option is to lie still in a dark room.
Between puberty and menopause, migraines are THREE TIMES more common in women than men. And womens migraine headaches are often cyclical – meaning theres a pattern to when they occur. However the hormonal connection has often been ignored.
We now know that the main trigger for hormonal headaches is a drop in oestrogen specifically estradiol, the main type of oestrogen made in the ovaries. Just as the cause of PMS is more about the balance of progesterone in relation to oestrogen (rather than the total amount you have of either), its not a low level of oestrogen that triggers a migraine headache – more the sudden drop from one level to another. This happens at lots of points during a womans reproductive life and explains why we’re more prone to migraine headaches than men.
It’s not just being stressed or difficult or a bit over dramatic, as some doctors have been guilty of labelling women in the past.
When Migraines Are Most Likely To Occur
AT OVULATION – or JUST before your period
Oestrogen levels plummet during the second half of your menstrual cycle, when progesterone levels increase to get your body ready for pregnancy (whether or not it needs to), making this a common time for migraine headaches. For some women, this effect starts mid-cycle, at ovulation, rather than immediately before their period.
As you approach the menopause, even though oestrogen is heading in a generally downward direction, your oestrogen levels still tend to go up and down. Many women experience more migraine attacks at this time.
during a pill-free week
For women taking the contraceptive pill, theres typically a fall in the dose of synthetic oestrogen during the break between pill packets. This is usually a week long and allows for a period (withdrawal bleed). The fall in oestrogen at this time, however, may also trigger a menstrual migraine.
When Migraine Headaches Improve
Migraine headaches usually get better if you become pregnant because then there is a constant high level of oestrogen, which generally makes you feel good all round. However, some women find that their migraine headaches come back immediately after theyve given birth. This is the time when high levels of all the key female hormones all drop suddenly, leading to post-natal depression in some cases.
Once past the menopause, women have a constant and stable (low) level of oestrogen meaning that migraine attacks tend to disappear – although this isn’t very comforting if you’re younger and suffering now!
What To Do About Migraine Headaches
As with PMS, the first step to identify the hormone connection is to keep a symptom diary. If you note down your migraine headaches over three months or so, youll be better able to see the pattern of your migraine attacks, whether they’re connected to your menstrual cycle, and what the other triggers might be. Some foods (like alcohol and caffeine) trigger migraine symptoms in some women. Lack of sleep and stress can also be trigger, for example.
Once a migraine has started, the medications usually used are painkillers, anti-sickness medicines or anti-inflammatories (e.g. ibuprofen, mefenamic acid, diclofenac, etc).
Conventional treatment for preventing migraine headaches uses synthetic hormones include oestrogen patches for short term use, or the pill. But if youre a regular reader, youll know that Im keen on natural solutions and lifestyle changes rather than synthetic hormones to achieve hormone balance.
How To Balance Hormones to Prevent Migraine Headaches
Everything I talk about on PMS Warrior contributes to natural hormone balance and this will also help with migraine prevention:
- Plant-based nutrition which delivers all the vitamins, minerals and carbohydrates needed for a woman to thrive and which balances blood sugar levels. Low blood sugar levels (known as hypoglycemia) are a known migraine trigger so you need to eat regularly and ensure enough that you eat enough complex carbohydrates to deliver slow release energy
- Stress reduction is important as the stress response also can also help trigger a migraine
- Exercise boosts circulation and endorphin production and reduces stress by getting rid of excess adrenaline
- Raising serotonin levels also has an impact, as falling oestrogen decreases the amount of available serotonin
- Maca, which is an adaptogen, helps some women. (Adaptogen means that the herb adapts to your bodys need for particular hormones and hence balances hormone levels).
- Regular meditation, yoga deep breathing and acupuncture seem to work on the neurochemical pathways which are involved in migraine headaches and seem to be effective for many women
By following a holistic lifestyle plan for balancing your hormones, you may not be able to totally eliminate migraine headaches, but their severity and frequency should reduce. Let me know what works for you in the comments below, on twitter, or on the PMS Warrior Facebook page.
Thanks for reading!