They are debilitating, and if you’re a migraine sufferer, you know how they can completely take over your life.
Interestingly, reports estimate that women are 2 to 3 times more likely to suffer migraines than men. Some experts even estimate that up to 85% of migraine sufferers are women. Migraines are most common in women between 20 and 45 years old. However, girls just entering puberty and women well along in menopause also experience migraines.
Apart from more frequent migraines, women also report that their migraines last longer and have more symptoms than men, including nausea and vomiting.
Migraines disrupt every part of life, from career advancements to family obligations to social endeavors and beyond.
While researchers are constantly searching for new treatments for migraines, it’s better to understand the mechanisms of migraine and what’s causing them in the first place. Preventing migraines before they start is always a better solution than treating them after the fact, and it also gives us insight into why women are so much more susceptible to them.
What’s Happening in Your Body During a Migraine?
Scientists still can’t agree on what causes migraines or what exactly is happening in the body when you experience a migraine. Still, we know that a migraine starts as a burst of electrical activity in the brain’s vision center.
This explains why many people experience an aura or vision obstruction when a migraine sets in.
The electrical activity then travels across the brain to the areas that interpret sensations which is why you may feel tingling or numbness. The brain activity then moves to the part of your brain that controls communication.
The pounding pain experienced during a migraine is thought to come from deep inside the brain. Some scientists believe this wave of electrical activity causes the pain, while others believe the pain coincides with brain activity.
What triggers this electrical storm? It can be different for everyone, but the process is the same. Incoming sensory information like light, exercise, food, or certain smells sends your stimuli into overdrive, essentially causing your body to overreact. Your body’s electrical system starts misfiring, changing the blood flow in your brain, affecting your brain’s nerves, and causing pain.
You might think of these triggers as allergies. Why does someone’s body sense freshly mowed grass as a danger, thus triggering allergies? Because the body’s systems are not functioning optimally.
The same can be said of migraines. Your body is mistakenly reacting to specific triggers because it is not operating correctly.
The key is to find out why your body is reacting the way it is so you can address those and prevent future migraine episodes.
How does this phenomenon differ between men and women?
The Differences in Female and Male Physiology
Migraines, while more prevalent today, are not new to human ailments. In fact, there is evidence of migraine research dating back to the 17th Century.
Even then, women were the majority when it came to suffering migraines. Not surprisingly, it was thought to be a headache of hysteria with little to no explanations or treatments available.
Today, while many claim that hormone fluctuations during menstruation, pregnancy, post-partum, and menopause play a role in the occurrence of migraines, little-to-no research has been done on women.
In fact, even though migraines occur primarily in females, most studies on migraine-related pain have been done on male mice. One study showed that from 2001 to 2011, 80% of the studies published on pain included only male subjects, and only 4% had female subjects in their test design.
Why does this matter? When studies finally started to include female subjects, the results showed a significant difference.
Why Women are More Susceptible to Migraines
Clearly, there is a difference in a woman’s physiology that makes her more prone to migraines and even causes her to react differently to specific migraine treatments. What factors contribute to these differences?
As a female, your hormones cycle monthly. Every day is different from the last, with varying levels of hormones, energy, strengths, and weaknesses, and as those hormones fluctuate, our bodies respond differently to our surroundings. In fact, a woman’s hormones only reset once monthly.
Men, on the other hand, have a 24-hour cycle. Their hormones peak in the morning, get them through the day, drop in the evening and start over again the next day.
Those two differences in how our bodies function significantly impact how we respond to our environments, foods, stressors, and treatments. It also means that what you do today could affect your hormonal wellbeing two weeks from now or a month from now, so it makes tracking migraine triggers even harder for women.
With that in mind, we can see why research is so crucial on female subjects to fully understand why migraines are so common in women.
To clarify, it is not necessarily the hormones themselves that cause migraines. Rather the fluctuation in hormones, specifically estrogen, can trigger migraines and affect how the electrical activity of the brain is perceived as pain.
Around half of all women who experience migraines have them a day or two before their period starts. During this time, estrogen levels drop drastically. Estrogen is thought to impact serotonin levels, which regulate pain and mood. It can also alter our blood pressure and affects the blood vessels, both of which are thought to influence migraine attacks.
Estrogen helps our body respond to pain by releasing endorphins or enkephalins to dull the pain signals our brain receives. So we are less sensitive to pain when estrogen is at its highest during ovulation and most sensitive to pain when it is at its lowest just before our periods start.
Interestingly, women are more likely to experience migraines during their menstruating years and often stop having migraines altogether after menopause.
There is much more to migraines, though, than just hormone fluctuations. Otherwise, all women would experience migraines every month. However, if you balance your hormones so that the shifts during your cycle are smoother, it could reduce the frequency and intensity of your migraines.
Cultural Expectations and Stress
I can’t tell you how often I was told I needed to just “relax” and that my migraines were due to stress. If you’ve never heard a doctor tell you, “it’s probably just stress,” you’ve probably never been to a doctor for your migraines. But stress is not that simple. It’s not only a matter of “you’re working too hard” or “you need a vacation.”
Women’s bodies especially hold on to stress that comes in many forms. Think of yourself like a bucket. You can only fill a bucket so full until you reach the rim, and it starts to overflow. Here are the most likely sources of your stress.
Women are under more pressure than ever before in history. We are smart and ambitious and work hard every day, pouring ourselves into our careers. And it’s not just that we’re career-driven, but unfortunately, we still live in a world where if we want the respect and recognition that we deserve, we have to work twice as hard and many times for much less payoff than our male counterparts. Does that sound stressful? The bucket is already almost full.
Maybe you have a partner and children. What kind of expectations do they have for you? What kind of expectations do you have for yourself as a mother? Maybe you work hard in the evenings to make sure you’re feeding your family a thoughtful and nutritious dinner. On the weekends, you’re running errands and cleaning the house. And, of course, you want to set aside quality time with your children and partner. Is your bucket starting to drip over the edge yet?
“Health” and Beauty Standards
What about society’s norms for how women should look? Unfortunately, many of us have fallen into a dangerous cycle of over-exercising and undereating. When we don’t eat enough, often enough, our blood sugar is on a rollercoaster which causes more stress to our body. Also, we don’t get the vitamins and minerals we need to function optimally and keep up with our busy lifestyles.
Now let’s add in environmental stress factors. How many chemicals do you put on your skin or in your hair each day? These chemicals not only burden the liver to detox them from your system, but many of them actually mimic estrogen and contribute to hormonal imbalances.
When you’re getting plenty of rest, restorative time, movement, and nutrient-dense foods, your “bucket” might be deep enough to carry all these loads. However, if you’re coming from a depleted place from undereating, over or under-exercising, taking pain killers or hormonal birth control long-term, and dousing yourself and your home in harmful chemicals, your body can’t keep up, and any little thing like a drop in hormones can trigger a migraine.
Stress comes in many forms, and the expectations for women in our society are higher than ever before, overburdening us physically and emotionally and making us much more susceptible to migraines.
Of course, that doesn’t mean we should abandon our careers, forgo raising a family, or stop caring for our appearances. It just means that we need to give our bodies the right tools to deal with those stressors and reassess our priorities.
Blame It On the X Chromosome
As you probably remember from high school biology class, men have one Y chromosome and one X chromosome while women have two X chromosomes. Research shows that the X chromosome carries the gene that makes us susceptible to migraines.
The study concluded that one factor that could play into the high number of women migraine sufferers could be that we have two X chromosomes making us twice as likely to inherit that gene.
However, just because you may have inherited a gene that could be contributing to it it’s important to note that lifestyle factors and imbalances in the body are truly what trigger the migraines.
There’s a saying that “genes load the gut but lifestyle pulls the trigger.” So it’s important to take a critical look at your lifestyle to see what could be causing the problems.
The image below summarizes what we just discussed above:
Why Preventing Migraines is Better Than Treating Them
While science is just starting to recognize the need for female researched migraine treatments, I’m sure you’d agree that it’s better to prevent them altogether than treat them after the fact.
For starters, finding your migraine triggers will help you make conscious decisions to avoid getting migraines in the first place. And that’s through looking for the root causes that are triggering these episodes. This includes:
- Food sensitivities
- Gut infections like parasites, bacteria, and yeast
- Mold exposure
- Hormone imbalances
- Lack of sleep
- Nutrient deficiencies
The testing I provide through my Migraine-Free Life Method will give you the groundwork for healing your body by identifying and eliminating those triggers and then building resilience to them through diet and lifestyle changes. You can live migraine free!
I know this because I now live migraine free.
After having chronic, debilitating migraines for over 2 decades, I have now lived several years without migraines. And I was able to stop all the medications I was taking to manage them.
I’m not special – this can be true for you too.
If you’re interested in exploring what this could look like for you, book a complementary call with me.
On this call, we’ll get crystal clear on:
- What’s going on with your health
- What you’ve tried that’s worked and what hasn’t
- Where you want to be
- And my recommendations to get you there