Richard G. Petty, MD

Migraine and Hormones

Migraine (can be a frightfully difficult problem to treat. It is such an interesting puzzle, that the first book that I ever wrote was on migraine and other types of headache. Migraine is a great deal more than just a severe headache. It is can also be associated with neurological symptoms, and people often become exquisitely sensitive to light and sound. Additionally, at the beginning of the attack, the stomach stops working properly, which can make the absorption of medicines very difficult. Then comes the vomiting and sometimes diarrhea.

Although migraine is usually described as a “vascular” headache, there are strong reasons for thinking that it is more than that. People who suffer from the classic type of migraine often have spreading visual problems or partial visual loss, which goes on for between ten and sixty minutes. These visual problems are likely the result of a spreading wave of neurological depression spreading over the visual cortex at the back of the brain. The sensitivity to light and sound suggests that something is going wrong in the neurological systems that normally filter sensations, and the gastrointestinal problems indicate that something is going wrong in some of the control centers of the brain. There are some real oddities about migraine: it is exceptionally uncommon in people with diabetes; appears to be slightly more common in people who are left handed and is one of the only illnesses that tends to gets better as we get older.

There are a number of well-known triggers to migraine attacks. Though the scientific literature on triggers is not conclusive, here are some of the more common ones, that if avoided, have helped a great many people:

  • Stress (either during stress, or when the pressure comes off)
  • Cheese
  • Chocolate
  • Coffee
  • Citrus fruit
  • Red wine
  • Changes in the weather (especially when there are a lot of positive ions in the atmosphere)
  • Mono-sodium glutamate (MSG)

One of the best-known features of migraine is that it is considerably more common in women and that there is often a relationship between headaches and phases of the menstrual cycle, in particular during the pre-menstrual days. There have been many small studies that have indicated that oral contraceptives might increase the risk of suffering from migraine. A new study from Trondheim in Norway, has confirmed a link between oral contraceptive and migraine. The Nord-Trøndelag Health Study was done between 1995 and 1997. It included 14,353 pre-menopausal women, of whom 13,944 (97%) responded to questions regarding their use of contraceptives. There was a significant association between migrainous and non-migrainous headaches and the women’s reported use of estrogen-containing oral contraceptives. An important finding was that there was no relationship between the number of headaches and the amount of estrogen in the contraceptive pill.

There is one more thing to factor into the equation. Over the last two decades, there have been many reports of an association between certain types of migraine and cerebrovascular accidents (“strokes”). In the largest analysis of the data, that was published in the British Medical Journal, there was indeed a higher rate of strokes in women who had migraine and who were taking oral contraceptives. These studies included some of the older ones done in the days when the doses of hormones were higher than they are today, but when making decisions, it is important to be aware of this rare association.

An editorial in the British Medical Journal made these recommendations, with which I agree:

1. In an otherwise healthy young person, there is little cause for concern because the absolute risk of stroke is very low.

2. People with migraine who are on oral contraceptives have another reason for not smoking

3. Use low dose estrogen or progesterone only contraceptives in young women with migraine.

4. Although there isn’t much good evidence, many neurologists suggest stopping oral contraceptive pills if the migraine becomes more frequent or changes in character.

5. The risk of stroke gradually increases over age, particularly in smokers, so a slightly older smoking woman with migraine, should probably not be taking an oral contraceptive, unless it is the only option for her.

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About Richard G. Petty, MD
Dr. Richard G. Petty, MD is a world-renowned authority on the brain, and his revolutionary work on human energy systems has been acclaimed around the globe. He is also an accredited specialist in internal and metabolic medicine, endocrinology, psychiatry, acupuncture and homeopathy. He has been an innovator and leader of the human potential movement for over thirty years and is also an active researcher, teacher, writer, professional speaker and broadcaster. He is the author of five books, including the groundbreaking and best selling CD series Healing, Meaning and Purpose. He has taught in over 45 countries and 48 states in the last ten years, but spends as much time as possible on his horse farm in Georgia.

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