‘Mindfulness meditation’ as a tactic for migraine relief
by Linda White, CRNP
Mindfulness meditation is the act of focusing one’s attention on the present moment from a non-judgmental mindset. The purpose is to take an inventory of the current state of your mind and body and focus on feeling instead of thinking. In the context of migraine treatment, mindfulness meditation is sometimes cited as a method of stress reduction since stress is a common migraine trigger. Many people with migraine seek alternative treatments that may offer relief or prevention without medication. For some, medicine induces intolerable side effects, contributes to Medication Overuse Headache, or is simply ineffective in reducing or halting their attacks.
How Migraine and Meditation Affect the Brain
Researchers are currently trying to learn more about what happens in the body during meditation. Meditation may inhibit the part of the nervous system responsible for stress. Frequent migraine attacks can be triggered by or aggravated by stress, tension, and anxiety, and mind-body techniques like meditation may relieve headaches by alleviating underlying stress.
Brain imaging has found people with migraines to have decreased gray matter volume compared to people who don’t,[1,2] especially in areas of the brain involved in emotion, perception, memory and decision-making, as well as executive functions like self-regulation, working memory, and problem-solving. Changes in gray matter volume in the brainstem correlate with migraine duration and attack frequency.
Functional brain MRI studies have shown that related neurotransmitters dopamine, melatonin, serotonin, cortisol and norepinephrine, all of which relate to the neurologic functions affected by gray matter depletion in people with migraine, respond to meditation in ways that may counteract the adverse effects of migraine. Dopamine, which is responsible for executive functions of the brain, and melatonin, the body’s sleep-wake hormone, are found to increase with meditation, serotonin activity is regulated, and cortisol and norepinephrine (the brain’s “fight or flight” chemicals) have been proven to decrease with the practice of meditation. 
Evidence for meditation as Treatment for Migraines
Meditation (even brief training) is associated with increased gray matter volume in the areas of the brain involved in emotional reactions, memory, decision making, cognitive flexibility and planning. [5,6,7,8,9]
Meditation as a form of stress reduction may lead to improvement in awareness and managing one’s stressors. Experienced meditators show a more extensive activation of executive functions like working memory, planning and cognitive flexibility during sustained attention, but less activation of emotion-related areas.  Manna et al. reported that expert meditators have extensive control of fronto-parietal and insula networks (Which play a role in functions related to perception, motor control, self-awareness and cognitive functioning).
There are a number of ongoing studies utilizing functional brain MRI to better understand how meditation may be helpful in reducing stress as well as migraine. More research is needed since this remains a young research field; so far study sample sizes are small and there are few longitudinal studies (studies which compare data from one or more groups at several times).
Managing your stress to reduce its impact on your migraine includes finding support resources for the stress induced by your migraine. The American Migraine Foundation is here to help. Visit our resource library for free access to guides, workbooks and toolkits that will help you manage your migraine, and join the Move Against Migraine group on Facebook, our support network maintained by and for people with migraine who understand the struggle.
(1) DaSilva AFM, Granziera C, Snyder J, Hadjikhani N (2007) Thickening in the somatosensory cortex of patients with migraine. Neurology 69:1990-1995.
(2) Kim JH, Suh SI, Seol HY, Oh K, Seo WK, Yu SW, Park KW, Koh SB (2008) Regional grey matter changes in patients with migraine: a voxel-based morphometry study. Cephalalgia 28:598-604.
(3) Schmitz N, dmiraal-Behloul F, Arkink EB, Kruit MC, Schoonman GG, Ferrari MD, van Buchem MA (2008b) Attack frequency and disease duration as indicators for brain damage in migraine. Headache 48:1044-1055.
(4) In book: Meditation – Neuroscientific Approaches and Philosophical Implications, Edition: Springer Series: Studies in Neuroscience, Consciousness and Spirituality (Vol. 2 / Edition 2014), Chapter: The Neurobiology of Meditation and Mindfulness, Publisher: Springer International Publishing, Editors: Schmidt S, Walach H, pp.153-173)
(5) Luders E, Toga AW, Lepore N, Gaser C (2009) The underlying anatomical correlates of long-term meditation: larger hippocampal and frontal volumes of gray matter. Neuroimage 45:672-678.
(6) Vestergaard-Poulsen P, van BM, Skewes J, Bjarkam CR, Stubberup M, Bertelsen J, Roepstorff A (2009) Long-term meditation is associated with increased gray matter density in the brain stem. Neuroreport 20:170-174
(7) Lazar SW, Kerr CE, Wasserman RH, Gray JR, Greve DN, Treadway MT, McGarvey M, Quinn BT, Dusek JA, Benson H, Rauch SL, Moore CI, Fischl B (2005) Meditation experience is associated with increased cortical thickness. Neuroreport 16:1893-1897.
(8) Grant JA, Courtemanche J, Duerden EG, Duncan GH, Rainville P (2010) Cortical thickness and pain sensitivity in zen meditators. Emotion 10:43-53
(9) Holzel BK, Carmody J, Vangel M, Congleton C, Yerramsetti SM, Gard T, Lazar SW (2011) Mindfulness practice leads to increases in regional brain gray matter density. Psychiatry Research: Neuroimaging 191:36-43.
(10) Brefczynski-Lewis JA, Lutz A, Schaefer HS, Levinson DB, Davidson RJ (2007) Neural correlates of attentional expertise in long-term meditation practitioners. Proc Natl Acad Sci U S A 104:11483-11488
(11) Manna A, Raffone A, Perrucci MG, Nardo D, Ferretti A, Tartaro A, Londei A, Del Gratta C, Belardinelli MO, Romani GL (2010) Neural correlates of focused attention and cognitive monitoring in meditation. Brain Research Bulletin 82:46-56.
(12)Tang, Holzel & Posner Nature Reviews Neuroscience 2015: 16(213-225).
Reviewed for accuracy by the American Migraine Foundation’s subject matter experts, headache specialists and medical advisers with deep knowledge and training in headache medicine. Click here to read about our editorial board members.