Stress and Migraine

Mia Minen, MD MPH

Key Points:

  • Stress is correlated with migraine.
  • Stress can have physical and emotional influences on the body, which are thought to influence migraine.
  • Talk to your health care provider if you experience these symptoms.
  • There may be techniques you can employ to lower your stress levels.

Introduction

Research shows that the brains of people with migraine are different from people without migraine. The brains of migraineurs may respond differently to pain, light and smell.

The brain is considered the organ that senses stress, like a car alarm for a car. It identifies what is or may become stressful, and it attempts to manage the stress. Its effects may be beneficial or unhelpful to the individual, and its response may be physical or emotional.

Stress is a trigger for migraine in almost 70% of people, and one study revealed that 50-70% of people had a significant association between their daily stress level and their daily migraine activity. Stressful life circumstances, such as childhood abuse, post-traumatic stress disorder, and poor socio-economic circumstances are known contributors to stress and its impact on migraine. In addition, everyday stressors can also influence migraine.

Research is being done to better understand the brain’s response to stress. Certain internal physical factors can affect the body’s stress load. Such factors include:

  • Issues with blood sugar
  • Dysfunction in the autonomic nervous system (which controls our heart rate, blood pressure, etc.)
  • Increased levels of proinflammatory cytokines (chemicals sometimes produced by the body when there is infection or inflammation)
  • Hormone levels
  • Changes in sleep patterns

It is important to note that medications taken may also influence our body’s physical processes, which can, in turn, affect our body’s balance. For example, research has shown that chronic migraineurs with medication overuse headache have dysfunction of their corticotrophic (a type of hormone) and somatotrophic (another type of hormone) systems compared to people without migraine.

Treatment options

Suggestions for minimizing one’s stress include:

  1. Taking some time for you each day
  2. Trying to identify stressful circumstances and developing practical alternative solutions
  3. Eating healthy
  4. Ensuring adequate sleep
  5. Exercising for about 30 minutes each day
  6. Doing relaxation techniques, such as biofeedback and meditation

It is important to note that sometimes stress can also cause symptoms of anxiety and depression. As noted in the article on migraine, depression, and anxiety—medications and behavioral treatments are available to help with these symptoms. It is important to speak with your doctor if you are also experiencing these symptoms.