Why Do Women Have More Migraines?

Why Do Women Have More Migraines?

By Charlotte Falkner Published at May 16 Views 2,352

Maybe you woke up with it, or maybe you feel one creeping up on you during the workday. Maybe you only get one a few times a year, or maybe you suffer from three to five a week. Maybe your mother had them, or maybe your daughter has them. But if you are a woman, there are no maybes about the fact that you are three times more likely than men to have migraines, according to Mayo Clinic.

The Migraine Research Foundation estimates that “of the more than 36 million Americans afflicted with migraine, 27 million are women.” This is an astonishing statistic, and researchers are just beginning to dig deeper into gender studies for migraines. Other migraine risk factors are many and varied, including genetics and such changing or unpredictable circumstances as age, environment, and lifestyle. Add the complication of migraine triggers (which vary from individual to individual and also within the same individual over time), and you get something that is difficult for studies to measure and even more difficult for migraine sufferers to understand. Over the years, however, researchers have been able to pinpoint a couple of reasons for the disparity between genders.

Women are more affected by hormonal migraines

Perhaps the most well known reason (and one you, unfortunately, cannot change if you are a woman) is that migraines are simply more prevalent in women after adolescence. In an article for National Public Radio’s website, neurologist Jan Lewis Brandes says migraines “can be triggered by hormonal fluctuation.” She goes on to state “migraines are slightly more common in boys than girls until girls begin menstruation. And once girls begin to menstruate, and hormones begin to fluctuate up and down, the number of their migraines increases dramatically.” Additionally, pregnancy and nursing can cause an entirely different set of problems for women with migraines. The Migraine Trust says that most female migraine sufferers experience fewer migraines during pregnancy and breastfeeding due to increased hormone levels. They state that “for some women, migraine can go on unchanged, or more rarely even get worse.” During breastfeeding, stable estrogen levels may reduce the number of migraines, but most women eventually return to their pre-pregnancy migraine levels after breastfeeding ceases. The Help for Headaches website posits that hormonal headaches in women are likely caused by “estrogen withdrawal [as] the migraine trigger.”

Women experience pain differently from men

Numerous studies confirm this basic biological fact. For example, in an article on Sciencemag.org, researchers confirm that women perceive headache pain more emotionally and intensely than men. The study states, “The brains of women with migraines appear to be built differently than those of their male counterparts.” In this study, researchers measured volunteers’ brain response when they touched a small cube that was painfully hot. Medical physicist Nasim Maleki found that MRIs revealed most of the structures that responded stronger in women were part of the emotional network. “In men, the pain comes in, and the brain says 'ouch,' " Maleki says. "In women, the brain says 'OUCHHHHH!' " Overall, the results suggest that it is “not just one area that underlies the sex differences in migraines, but a network of areas, a system that leads to the problem or progression.”

What can women do to avoid migraines?

As most studies show, a certain amount of your propensity to get migraines is genetic, meaning it is passed on from your parents and grandparents. The best way to avoid migraines is to recognize and control (as best you can) potential migraine triggers, such as diet, temperature, and stress. Once you can learn to anticipate your migraine causes a little better, you may be able to prevent some of them, or at least plan accordingly if you know one is likely.

Here are additional tips for women prone to migraines:
• Get the right amount of sleep (not too little but not too much, either)
• Don’t skip meals or snacks
• Reevaluate your medicines (both over-the-counter and prescription) with your doctor to ensure they aren’t causing rebound headaches
• Learn how to relax and reduce your stress levels naturally
• Avoid alcohol (especially red wine)
• Limit your caffeine and artificial sweetener consumption
• Consider avoiding nitrate-containing foods such as processed meats
• Talk to your healthcare provider for advice on recent migraine treatments such as anti-seizure medicines, Botox injections, and myofascial massage

Share your experience as a woman with migraines below. How many migraines do you get a month, on average? Do you find they are worse at certain times? What have you found are the best ways to handle your migraines?

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