Researchers do not know the exact cause of typical migraine headaches, and it is almost certain that there are multiple causes, some genetic and some environmental. Some theories discussed irritation or injury to the trigeminal nerve; imbalances in important brain chemicals and neurotransmitters such as serotonin; or an imbalance in certain minerals such as magnesium.
We do know that there are a number of different environmental triggers which can cause a migraine headache. These triggers can cause a migraine in people who are genetically prone to migraines, yet not in others.
Fluctuations in estrogen levels appear to cause migraines headaches in some women who have known predisposition to them. Women sometimes report migraine headaches immediately before or during their periods, when there is a large decrease in the amount of estrogen circulating in the blood. Other women have shown an increase in the number of migraine headaches during pregnancy or menopause, which again would point to a hormonal imbalance.
Given this information, women who suffer from migraine headaches should consider supplementing with hormones such as pregnenolone and progesterone, which are estrogen precursors and are known to help women with certain problems related to hormonal imbalances such as PMS.
Both men and women have found that some foods trigger a migraine headache, including alcohol (especially beer and red wine), aged cheeses, chocolate, aspartame and caffeine. On the other hand, while some foods seem to trigger migraine headaches, others have found that skipping meals or fasting will also trigger a migraine headache, which obviously may have a cause related to a drop in blood sugar. So a diet with an eye towards one’s glycemic index may be indicated. In other words, be cognizant of the sugar content of the particular foods in your diet, which may be triggering an abnormal insulin response. This would also have implications for diabetes.
Other causes of migraine headaches involve stress from sensory stimulation such as the bright florescent lights found in many office settings, sun glare and loud noise from things such as music concerts or construction sites. Other people find that potent smells, even pleasant scents such as perfume, can cais a migraine headache. This may point to a certain oversensitivity in the autonomic nervous system. Migraine headaches have also reportedly been cause by too much or too little sleep. This makes sense, as sleep is a time when many chemicals in the body and brain are produced and brought into balance.
Changes in the weather or barometric pressure can trigger a migraine for some individuals, as this can lead to changes in blood pressure and pressure on certain nerves. Certain medications can also aggravate the condition. Sometimes physical exertion, including sexual activity, can trigger a migraine headache, again possibly related to sudden changes in blood pressure and chemical changes in the body.
As we can see from these aforementioned examples, there seems to be a link between migraine headaches and blood pressure due to abnormal changes in the vascular system. Improvements in imaging technology now allow scientists to better view the brain during a migraine headache. This has lead to important discoveries. During a regular headache, the vasculature or blood vessels of the brain often constrict or get smaller. However, during a migraine headache the vasculature gets larger or dilated. This dilation of the blood vessels, leading to a sudden drop in blood pressure, causes the release of chemicals that cause inflammation, pain and further enlargement of the arteries. In other words, it appears that for people who suffer from migraine headaches, blood vessels, particularly those in the brain, appear to react differently from those in other people.
Migraine headaches can cause the sympathetic nervous system to respond with normal symptoms of illness, such as nausea, diarrhea and vomiting. It can also delay emptying of the small intestines which affects food absorption and a decrease in blood circulation, which leads to cold hands and feet and increases the sensitivity to light and sound.
Recent research has discovered that people afflicted with migraine headaches have a greater risk of magnesium deficiency in the body. Restoring magnesium levels has allowed many people to lead more normal lives with fewer migraine headaches of lesser intensity. Magnesium is an important mineral responsible for hundreds of vital functions in the body, so a deficiency can lead to a wide range of seemingly unrelated conditions such as anxiety, depression, migraines, heart palpitations, temporomandibular joint syndrome, muscle cramps, noise and chemical sensitivity.
The vast majority, or 90% of all migraine sufferers, report that their headaches result in a significant inability to function on a regular basis and complete their daily living tasks. As many as 50% of migraine sufferers also say that school or work productivity was impaired by at least 50%. So this is a very serious medical condition that often disrupts and even destroys people’s lives.
Even though the exact causes of migraine headaches have yet to be discovered, researchers have helped migraine sufferers identify triggers and substantive treatments that help decrease disability due to pain and discomfort, or in some cases prevent the migraine from occuring altogether. There are also certain medications which help to prevent the development of new migraine headaches as well as nutritional and exercise protocols which help both the treatment and the prevention, which we will cover in another article.
Migraine sufferers no longer have to lie in a dark room for days steeped in suffering and depression, hoping for their headaches to disappear. With preventative management as well as healthy lifestyle and dietary changes, along with advice from a medical expert trained in the treatment of migraine headaches, many individuals continue to lead normal and highly productive lives.