A silver lining for migraine sufferers?

Paul Rizzoli, MD

Contributor

Could there be any benefit associated with having migraine headaches? Most migraine patients would agree this is an odd question. Migraine is a common, inherited, lifelong, and often debilitating illness that impacts people most during their productive working and parenting years. It has been associated with a higher risk of vascular disorders such as stroke and heart attack, and psychiatric disorders like depression and anxiety. What could possibly be good about migraine?

Migraines may protect against type 2 diabetes

But maybe there is some good news. A recent study suggests that, at least in women, having a diagnosis of active migraine is somewhat protective against the development of type 2 diabetes. In this study, which followed nearly 75,000 women for 10 years, women with active migraine were 20% to 30% less likely to develop type 2 diabetes over the course of the study than women with no history of migraine. In addition, if the migraine condition improved and the headaches lessened, the chances of developing diabetes went up. This supports the notion that migraine is protective against developing diabetes, and this is not simply a chance association.

Headache specialists had long observed that their migraine patient populations did not develop diabetes as frequently as the general population, so this finding was not entirely unexpected. The reason for this relationship, though, remains unclear; after all, what could it be about having a headache that could make your blood sugar and insulin function improve? Looked at the other way around, one consideration could be that elevated blood sugar levels are somehow protective against developing a headache. Yet another explanation may have to do with CGRP, a protein molecule in the body that is active in both conditions and may be the factor that links them.

This was a large, well-conducted study. Two limitations were that it only studied women and that the population studied was a rather homogeneous group of mostly white professionals. Nonetheless, experts feel that the findings can likely be generalized to other populations.

Migraines may protect against alcoholism

There is another beneficial effect of migraine: research has suggested that migraine sufferers are relatively protected against the development of alcoholism. This may be a more intuitive relationship than with diabetes, since many people with migraine report that they avoid alcohol because it can trigger headache.

Migraines may have offered an evolutionary advantage

The possible evolutionary advantages of migraine have also been studied. As a rule, conditions that impair the function of an individual should lead to poorer survival in the long run and eventual dying out of the trait. And yet, after millions of years, migraine survives and thrives.

Several evolutionary explanations have been cited. One is that migraine may have originally evolved as a protective alarm system against toxins entering the body. Avoiding the ingestion of toxic substances because they produce headache could result in improved health and evolutionary advantage, compared to individuals without headache who might overuse such substances and thus suffer undesirable consequences. The migraine that we know today may have developed as a result of overactivity or oversensitization of that evolutionarily important early warning system.

However small the practical and daily consequence to those who suffer its effects, migraine may in fact have one or more silver linings after all.

Comments:

  1. Margaret Beaulac

    Thank you for the work you do.

  2. Dee

    When migraine goes away typically tends to be a menopause for women. That is the time they develp type II diabetes. I’d say women with migraine are probably more likely to develop migraine at menopause. Did you consider that? Perhaps migraine is not protective, it is part of the same pathophysiology as type II Diabetes.

  3. Miles Warren

    I am 70 years old and haven’t had a migraine in 20 years but have been getting the eye thing without the headache more frequently,( disconcerting)

    • Sheri Margulies-Semel

      Same thing has happened to me although very infrequently. So scary! I never had visual symptoms when I had migraines. Now…no headache… but when the visual disturbances happen I truly get frightened. My migraines had a psychological and emotional root and when I solved my ‘problem’ I had no more migraines. No one ever mentions that the cause of regular migraines (mine were once a week for 20 years), can be emotional/psychological. I wish this were discussed when the ‘experts’ talk about migraines.

  4. Hossein kazemi

    Iam Hossein Kazemi from Iran and I want to express my heartfelt gratitude for your fruitful and useful articles that you provide for readers…
    Yours,
    Hossein Kazemio

  5. Cheryl D Raines

    My daughter and my son’s fiance both get migraines, especially if they have not eaten and I associate this with low blood sugar, and suspect that is why they don’t get diabetes or alcoholism. They don’t eat enough often enough, and avoid alcohol as a trigger.

  6. Lucy Stimmel

    I think you forgot eating-not specific foods, but not eating regularly. I’m not diabetic, but the longer I go without food – even if I’m not hungry- the more likely I am to have a migraine.

  7. Raquel Grunwald

    Once I was diagnosed with Trauma …and began working via Dr Peter Levine’s woris on somatic healing with my Therapist..my years of debilitating migraines stoped
    It’s been miraculous

  8. Patty Griffith

    I’ve had migraines my entire life (I’m 63) and have always noted an incredible sugar craving at onset. What might be the explanation for that? Additionally, both of my adult daughters have migraines and we all have sugar levels that plummet drastically.

    Patty in SC

  9. Michele

    Well, as woman, I’m grateful to hear some “good” news. I’ve been coping with this for 30 years, and it is nice to hear something positive.

  10. Jerry Kaye

    My migraines are precipitated by flashing lights. i.e. photo flash so most of my pictures have my eyes closed and reflection of the sun off of a car mirror or windshield which I can’t control.

  11. Aamar

    I found myself shaking my head at this. Why even bother wasting the time on this study. I’d much rather have diabetes than migraines. The pain wants to make you die.

    As an X migraine sufferer for 3 decades I finally rid of them through a careful dietary elimination of inflammation foods and the addition of magnesium glycinate. You lot at Harvard will spend millions to find a Pharma solution but won’t give creed to food being medicine which it absolutely is.

  12. Jeanette

    I hope that they controlled for anti-inflammatory use. Migrainuers (at least some) consume large amounts of anti-inflammatories. Type 2 diabetes is associated with inflammation.

  13. Angie Glaser

    Can we please give migraine patients a little agency and credit? Migraine is mitigated by genes + lifestyle. When the effects are negative – medication overuse – we’re quick to put the responsibility on the patients. When the effects are positive – lower risk for Type 2 diabetes – we’re quick to give genes the credit.

    Many, if not most, people with migraine are doing everything they can to avoid the attacks that take them away from their lives – dieting, exercising, drinking lots of water, focusing on sleep and stress reduction, going to the doctor. It would be nice if it was acknowledged more often, and this topic seems like a great opportunity to do so.

    Sincerely,
    Angie with Chronic Migraine

  14. Emily

    Chronic Migraine sufferer – I would guess it’s because of the diets we keep to help avoid triggering foods. I can’t eat a lot of processed foods because it causes migraines, for example. I think the last time I ate at McDonalds was over 5 years ago.

  15. Jemo

    So, you’re saying, quiet down you women and be grateful!?! The time of this blog post is way off. And how ironic to diss a study for including only women, when we have decades of all-male studies to blame for the slow progress of medical research. Women are the vast majority of migraine patients, “doctor”.

  16. Gerri Corrado

    Perhaps it could be the drugs that migraine sufferers take that prevents diabetes ? There could be an ingredient in some of the painkillers or abortives or beta-blockers that prevent diabetes?

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