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Harvard Health Blog
A silver lining for migraine sufferers?
- By Paul Rizzoli, MD, Contributor; Editorial Advisory Board Member, Harvard Health Publishing
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 homogenous 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.
About the Author
Paul Rizzoli, MD, Contributor; Editorial Advisory Board Member, Harvard Health Publishing
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Headache Relief: Preventing and treating migraines and other headaches
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