Theories that Explain the Link Between Obesity and Migraines

How Obesity May Worsen Your Migraines. Dimitri Otis/Getty Images

Did you know that being obese increases your risk of having migraines? Additionally, research has shown that people with obesity tend to have more frequent and more severe, disabling migraine attacks than people who are not obese.

What mediates this connection between being obese and having migraines? It's still a puzzle, but here are some theories that scientists have proposed.

Inflammation Theory

Obesity promotes a chronic low-inflammatory state – as evidenced by the higher levels of inflammatory markers like C-reactive protein, tumor necrosis factor-alpha, and interleukin-6 in people with obesity.

Interestingly, these same inflammatory markers are found in migraineurs during an attack. So, potentially the additive effect of these markers may cause people with obesity to have more migraines than people who are not obese.

Serotonin Theory

Despite the fact that there is a rise of serotonin during a migraine attack, migraines are believed to promote a chronically low serotonin state in the body. Since serotonin is involved in eating behaviors, a low serotonin state could stimulate an increase in eating and lead to weight gain.

Behavioral Theory

Common behaviors between people who are obese and migraineurs may link these two medical conditions. Examples include:

  • Low physical activity has been associated with both obesity, migraine occurrence, and a higher number of migraine attacks.
  • Certain eating habits – like skipping breakfast or eating a high-fat diet – are associated with both obesity and migraines.
  • Sleep habits – especially sleep deprivation – have been associated with both obesity and migraines

Psychiatric Disorder Theory

Psychiatric illnesses – especially anxiety and depression – are associated with both obesity and migraines. Also, psychological stress has been found to promote weight gain, trigger migraines, and precipitate the transformation from episodic to chronic migraine.

Catastrophic Thinking Related to Pain Theory

People with catastrophic thinking related to pain tend to ruminate endlessly about their pain, feel overwhelmed by it, and believe that there is nothing they can do to escape it or make it better.

One study in Headache revealed that of 105 obese women diagnosed with migraine with or without aura, nearly 25% had catastrophic thinking related to pain. These women had higher body mass indexes or BMIs and longer migraine attacks than women who did not have catastrophic thinking.

Conclusion

Many of these theories offer plausible reasons linking obesity to migraines. It's likely that the link is complex and involves multiple factors. Additionally, the link between obesity and migraines is probably individualized – meaning different from person to person.

On the Horizon

Researchers are now looking at the impact of weight loss in obese individuals on migraines. Of course, weight loss has numerous health benefits, besides just headache health. If you are overweight or obese, here are some tips on losing weight that might just help your migraines.

If you are not sure whether you are obese or how to lose weight most effectively, please speak with your doctor. He might suggest a referral to a weight loss center, dietician, or nutritionist.

Sources

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Bond DS, Roth J, Nash JM, & Wing RR. Migraine and Obesity: Epidemiology, Possible Mechanisms, and the Potential Role of Weight Loss Treatment. Obes Rev. 2011 May; 12(501):e362-71.

Bigal ME, Liberman JN, Lipton RB. Obesity and migraine: a population study. Neurology. 2006 Feb 28;66(4):545-50.

Bigal ME, Lipton RB. Obesity is a risk factor for transformed migraine but not chronic tension-type headache. Neurology. 2006;67(2):252-257.

Peterlin BL et al. Episodic migraine and obesity and the influence of age, race, and sex. Neurology. 2013 Oct 8;81(15):1314-21.

Recober A, Goadsby PJ. Calcitonin gene-related peptide: A molecular link between obesity and migraine? Drug News Perspect. 2010 Mar;23(2)1112-7.

Sarchielli P, Alberti A, Baldi A, et al. Proinflammatory cytokines, adhesion molecules, and lymphocyte integrin expression in the internal jugular blood of migraine patients without aura assessed ictally. Headache. 2006;46(2):200-07.

Vo M, Ainalem A, Qiu C, Peterlin BL,Aurora SK, Williams MA. Body mass index and adult weight gain among reproductive age women with migraine.Headache.2011;51:559-69.

DISCLAIMER: The information in this site is for educational purposes only. It should not be used as a substitute for personal care by a licensed physician. Please see your doctor for diagnosis and treatment of any concerning symptoms or medical condition.

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