Why women suffer from migraine three times as often as men

·Contributor
·5-min read

Contrary to popular belief, Migraine is much more than just a bad headache. It’s an extremely incapacitating collection of neurological symptoms that usually includes a severe throbbing recurring pain on one side of the head, sometimes on both sides. Attacks last between 4 to 72 hours and are often accompanied by one or more of symptoms like visual disturbances, nausea, vomiting, dizziness, extreme sensitivity to sound, light, touch and smell, and tingling or numbness in the extremities or face.

Migraine is also one of the leading serious health problems affecting women.

According to the US Migraine Research Foundation, women experience migraine differently than men. Women report episodic pain (often for a longer duration) and chronic pain more frequently than men. Research has connected hormones to migraine, but not all migraines are hormonal.

The prevalence of migraine starts to rise in females once the influence of Estrogen begins. This provides the basic understanding of why migraines are more common, longer- lasting and frequent in women
The prevalence of migraine starts to rise in females once the influence of Estrogen begins. This provides the basic understanding of why migraines are more common, longer- lasting and frequent in women

The Foundation also found that women suffer from migraine three times as often as men - 85% of chronic migraine sufferers are women. In the US, 18% of women suffer compared to 6% of men. But during the reproductive years, as many as 43% of women suffer. While 50% have more than 1 attack each month, 25% have 4 or more severe attacks a month.

Blame it on Estrogen

Dr M Wasim Ghori, Director for Healthcare at Indian Economic Trade Organisation (IETO); Medical Director for a chain of Specialty Clinics in Mumbai, and a Diabetologist, says, “The prevalence of migraine starts to rise in females once the influence of Estrogen begins. This provides the basic understanding of why migraines are more common, longer- lasting and frequent in women reaching peak prevalence between ages 30-39, at a time when many women are balancing work, family, and social obligations.”

Estrogen hormone regulates the female reproductive system and it also happens to control chemicals in the brain that impact the sensation of pain. A drop in estrogen levels can cause a headache, typically in the form of a migraine, which lasts anywhere from four to 72 hours.

Most common in women between the ages of 20 and 45, stress, anxiety and shock can be key triggers for migraines. Shift work, low blood pressure and diet can also be key contributors
Most common in women between the ages of 20 and 45, stress, anxiety and shock can be key triggers for migraines. Shift work, low blood pressure and diet can also be key contributors

Hormone levels fluctuate for a number of reasons and these include:

  • To prepare the uterus for menstruation, estrogen levels drop shortly before the menstrual cycle begins contributing to migraine headaches.

  • During pregnancy - estrogen level rises quickly, particularly in the first trimester to help the uterus and placenta better transfer nutrients and support the development of the baby.

  • After giving birth to the baby, the level of estrogen drops because it is no longer needed to support a pregnancy.

  • During perimenopause and menopause, as the body prepares to shut down the ovaries, it undergoes fluctuations in hormone levels.

  • In women who are taking oral contraceptives.

  • Most common in women between the ages of 20 and 45, stress, anxiety and shock can be key triggers for migraines. Shift work, low blood pressure and diet can also be key contributors.

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There’s hope

However women migraine sufferers needn’t lose heart. Dr Ghori explains that Migraines are one of the most modifiable disorders. “There is hope for seeking relief and they’re very simple things. For example, lifestyle changes may help prevent headaches. Maintain a healthy lifestyle that includes nutritious foods, adequate hydration, frequent exercise and proper sleep. Daily vitamins supplements such as Vitamin B, Magnesium are also helpful,” he says.

He recommends:

  • While experiencing a headache, seek a quiet, dark place to rest.

  • Use a damp cloth on the forehead to provide additional relief. Gently rub the area with the forefingers.

  • If headaches persist, keep a journal to better identify triggers to discuss with the healthcare provider.

Use a damp cloth on the forehead to provide additional relief. Gently rub the area with the forefingers.
Use a damp cloth on the forehead to provide additional relief. Gently rub the area with the forefingers.

Treatment

In her book, The Complete Guide to Migraine Headaches, Alice Peart explains it's not enough to pop a pill to kill the pain but also understand the factors that trigger the migraine. These factors can be anything from stress and lack of sleep to the kind of food you eat.

There are a number of options available if lifestyle changes do not provide adequate relief. Treatments can include nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs), Triptans and the most recent addition, calcitonin gene-related peptide (CGRP) inhibitors. These block the effect of CGRP, a small protein found in the sensory nerves that supply to the head and neck and can prevent migraines from occurring. The healthcare provider will help determine what treatment is right for you.

Natural remedies

Recent studies have also shown that holistic care and natural remedies can go a long way in reducing both the frequency and intensity of migraine attacks. Essential oils can be extremely effective remedies, in the context of holistic care.

One study on essential oils and migraine concluded that, inhalation of Lavender essential oil may be an effective and safe treatment modality in acute management of migraine headaches.

Peppermint oil is another commonly used essential oil to treat headaches and migraine attacks. It contains menthol, which can help relax muscles and ease pain.

Rosemary oil also has powerful analgesic (pain-relieving) properties - even the scent of rosemary oil in a hot bath can provide pain relief.

Remember that Essential oils must never be applied directly to the skin or ingested. They must be diluted in a carrier oil such as coconut oil, jojoba oil, olive oil or sweet almond oil before use. Add five drops of essential oil to 1 ounce of carrier oil.

Please note that Essential oils can also cause complications if you have preexisting conditions like asthma or heart problems. Check with your doctor before using any essential oils to make sure they won’t aggravate any existing health problems.

More stories on Women & Health and Women & Wealth — Yahoo India's special on International Women's Day 2021, here.

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