Anywhere from 2 to 12.5 million people are experiencing a migraine at this very instant. Sounds unbelievable? It’s true!
Migraine sufferers live in all corners of world, but are represented disproportionately by women. Nearly 75% of chronic migraine sufferers are women!
Why does this ratio not surprise me?
A woman’s hormones are designed to undulate throughout the month and respond to the changing demands of pregnancy and menopause. Like a grandfather clock, they are all set to be working together and tuned “just-so”. An outside factor that pushes one system out of balance can throw the whole train off the tracks (think a lifetime of exposure to toxins in our food, water and air or a parasite infestation).
Can I digress for a classic chemical engineering analogy? (feel free to skip down…)
When I worked as an engineer doing chromatography scale-up experiments, we had a brand new (a.k.a. not optimized yet) heat-exchanger that worked perfectly well as long as we were always running the process at approximately the same flow rate. But let’s say we had it tuned for a medium flow rate and then ran a slower one, the temperature would overshoot the setpoint and then wildly oscillate as the control loop tried to achieve stability. We would have to run over and override the automation to prevent damage to the product.
At commercial scale, the team quickly got the tuning on that sucker dialed in so that the process temperature was well-controlled. But since we were a pilot plant, we had to accommodate a big range of flow rates from process run to process run. It was much more difficult to perfect the tuning and we had to keep an eagle-eye out for temperature excursions lest we need to manually intervene.
In my mind, a man’s hormone systems are like our commercial scale process. A few key things need to be maintained for proper function, but generally they are pretty steady. A woman’s hormones are like the pilot plant heat-exchanger. We are just dealing with more variability in inputs and demands and thus more prone to imbalances. Yes, our bodies were brilliantly designed to handle interruptions and heal – but we seem to be pushing the limits of the delicate, intricate design these days.
OK- If your eyes glazed over, I am done with engineering talk now:
Recap: A hidden hormone imbalance can make you more likely to experience migraines and with the undulating hormone cycles in a woman’s month and lifetime – we seem to suffer with out of whack hormones more frequently.
In the rest of this article we’ll talk about how hormonal imbalances cause migraine and what you can do to balance hormones naturally to remove this potential trigger. So, here goes…
As you probably know, the little messengers we call hormones are produced and secreted by various endocrine glands within our bodies to regulate a large number of bodily functions and organs.
Hormones secreted by the pituitary, the thyroid, the adrenal glands, the pancreas and the sex glands may all result in migraines if not present in the just-right Goldilocks amounts in the body.
Let’s look at these one at a time…
- The pituitary, also called the master gland, secretes many of the hormones that control other glands. Some of the pituitary hormones that result in headaches include the follicle-stimulating hormone (FSH), the luteinizing hormone (LH), the adrenal cortex stimulating hormone (ACTH), the thyroid stimulating hormone (TSH) and Prolactin. During migraine attacks, many women have a dysfunction in their prolactin-regulating systems, resulting in the production of too much prolactin.
- Thyroid hormones are critical to the functioning of nearly every organ of your body. The thyroid hormones that result in migraines include triiodothyronine, thyroxin and calcitonin. If these hormones are deficient or overproduced within the body, you may be more sensitive to migraines. Hypothyroidism or reduced thyroid hormone production is often correlated with chronic migraines, so be sure to have your thyroid hormones checked and be sure you understand the difference between a reference range and an optimal range for the results (yes, I am asking you to be an informed consumer of healthcare).
- The adrenal glands synthesize 3 categories of hormones, including stress hormones (such as adrenaline and noradrenaline), glucocorticoids (such as cortisol and cortisone) and androgens that are converted into sex hormones in other organs. Adrenal dysfunction is often linked with migraines and quite easy to identify with an at-home saliva test (not sure how to do this? Just ask me).
- The pancreas plays a major role in maintaining glucose levels. It secretes hormones such as insulin, glucagon and somatostatin. When you skip meals or consume alcohol, you stress the pancreas (and in turn the adrenals) and set of a cascade of hormonal response that can contribute to migraines.
- Imbalance in the sex hormones progesterone and estrogen is a common migraine trigger for women. Hormonal changes in estrogen and progesterone have also been linked to insomnia – which in itself can be a risk factor for migraines! Migraines are most commonly associated with premenstrual syndrome (PMS), pregnancy and menopause. Also note that long term use of opioid pain medications have been associated with depleted testosterone, so that is something to check.
Now that you know that hormonal imbalance can trigger your migraines, you probably want to know how to support hormone balance.
Natural ways to identify and correct hormone imbalances that contribute to migraine
If you suffer from migraines due to hormonal imbalance, there are things you can do right away to help:
- Have your hormones correctly tested: Blood tests (serum tests) for hormones are useless for many reasons. Saliva testing has become outdated. The gold standard in hormones testing is the DUTCH test from Precision Analytical, which is the starting point for testing we recommend to all of our coaching clients.
- Talk to your migraine specialist: Have your migraine specialist take a closer look at your estrogen/progesterone balance, as well as your adrenal levels. Based on these levels you can then decide on a clear self-treatment plan.
- Follow the right diet: Eliminate processed foods, sugar, caffeine and alcohol for about 90 days, and you will very likely notice a significant change in your migraine symptoms.
- Consider taking nutritional supplements: Once you have a better understanding of your hidden causes in your hormone & digestive systems, you can take supplements such as magnesium or bio-available B vitamines, to eliminate nutritional deficiencies that are causing your migraines.
- Avoid stress when you are most sensitive to it: Mental/emotional stress can directly cause your migraine headaches. Find ways of proactively coping with PMS-related mood fluctuations. You can do this by yoga, meditation, and exercise.
- Assess RX list: Investigate the known side-effects of any medications that you are taking and talk to your doctor if you think they are contributing to hormone imbalances.
Did you know migraines often get worse when a woman hits her early 40's due to Perimenopause?
Learn more about the causes for hormonal migraines and how to balance hormones gently in our Masterclass with Maria Claps, FDN-P: Beating Migraines in Perimenopause.