Women and migraines: the hormone connection
This article was refreshed in June 2022 to reflect recent information.
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In this article:
Women are three times more likely than men to get migraines.
Fluctuations in estrogen hormones could trigger a migraine attack for many women, especially just before their periods.
June is National Migraine and Headache Awareness Month, putting the spotlight on the impact severe headaches and migraine attacks have on your life without effective treatment.
People of all ages and backgrounds get migraines. But if you're a woman, you’re three times more likely than a man to suffer from this condition. Hormones could be the reason, but the result is the same – intense head pain. June is National Migraine and Headache Awareness Month, making it the ideal time to take a closer look at migraines, their causes and how they can be prevented.
What causes migraines?
Experts don’t fully understand what causes migraines. Most studies suggest they could be linked to abnormal substances produced in the brain. When those substance levels rise, they cause inflammation. The inflammation leads to swollen blood vessels in the brain that press on nearby nerves.
Abnormal genes may also trigger migraines. These genes may control the way certain brain cells function and can lead to migraines. Fluctuations in hormone levels could also play a leading role.
The hormone connection
Research shows hormones and headaches are linked to many women who experience the piercing head pain, light sensitivity, and extreme exhaustion common to migraines. Studies show that when estrogen levels drop quickly just before their menstrual periods, women can develop migraine headaches.
Pregnancy may offer some respite for migraine sufferers. Women have fewer migraine headaches when estrogen levels increase and stay elevated throughout pregnancy. For some pregnant women, migraines disappear entirely. After pregnancy, however, the abrupt drop in estrogen levels may revive the tendency for migraine attacks.
During perimenopause, when women begin to transition to menopause, migraines may happen more often and be more severe. That's because of the sharp rise and fall of hormone levels during this time. But once they reach menopause, many women see an improvement in their migraine headaches.
Not all migraines are caused by hormones. A wide range of factors and events called triggers affect people who get migraines. Everyone has different triggers and they don’t cause migraines every time they occur. Usually, a mix of triggers and not just one thing or event is more likely to cause a migraine attack.
According to the Office on Women’s Health, women who get migraines tend to have attacks triggered by:
- Lack of sleep or too much sleep
- Skipped meals
- Bright lights, loud noises, or strong odors
- Stress and anxiety, or relaxation after stress
- Weather changes
- Alcohol (often red wine)
- Caffeine (too much or withdrawal from it)
- Foods that contain nitrates, such as hot dogs and lunch meats
- Foods that contain MSG (monosodium glutamate), which is a flavor enhancer found in fast foods, broths, seasonings, and spices
- Foods that contain tyramine, such as aged cheeses, soy products, fava beans, hard sausages, smoked fish, and Chianti wine
- Aspartame, found in sweeteners like Equal®
Limit your risk
There is no specific cure for migraines, but avoiding your triggers is a vital step in controlling their impact on your life. Use these tips to get started.
- Stay on top of your medicine supply. If you suffer from migraines, the last thing you want is to run out of medicine. Make sure you have any rescue medicines or preventive medicines on hand.
- Stay on track with your schedule. While you can’t completely control all disruptions to your schedule, try to address what you can. That means sticking with a routine for staying hydrated, eating well (avoid those food triggers!), and getting enough sleep.
- Stay calm and avoid stress. Stress and anxiety can trigger migraines. To help manage stress, reach out for support and learn ways to practice self-care.
- Stay in touch with your doctor. Reach out to your doctor for help when you need it to control your pain and manage your symptoms. If you’re more comfortable with virtual visits, see if your doctor and health plan provide telemedicine resources.
Is it time to call your doctor?
You don’t have to suffer from migraines and the disruption they bring to your life. Talk to your doctor if:
- Your headaches change in frequency or intensity.
- Once-effective treatments no longer offer relief.
- Your medication causes side effects.
- Your headaches are more severe when you’re lying down.
- You develop migraines when taking birth control pills.
Some migraines and extreme headaches indicate a medical emergency. Call 911 and get immediate care if you:
- Develop the worst headache of your life.
- Experience loss of balance, speech issues, mental confusion or blurred vision.
- Get a sudden, severe headache.
Find a doctor
If you are looking for a primary care doctor or mental health provider, you can search for one who’s right for you in our provider directory.
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This information is not intended as a substitute for professional medical care. Always follow your health care professional's instructions.