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. Ben Spock

    The article is so much informative and detailed. The first time I had a migraine, I didn’t know what I was experiencing hence was unable to medicate myself. After consulting my doctor i realized that there can be many reasons why a migraine may be triggered like imbalances in certain brain chemicals, age gender, emotional stress, certain food items and many more. Also, as you rightly said one of the side-effects of migraine is weight loss. Also, consumption of alcoholic beverages triggers extreme migraine headaches due to which it is a total no for migraine sufferers.

    To rule out any other possibilities my doctor had also prescribed few tests like diabetes 2, stress test, deficiency test and few more. When none of the test was positive, my doctor confirmed that i was suffering from chronic migraine.

    Also, there is a lot of useful information available over the internet about the treatment & tests available for migraine along with some websites like labfinder.com, econolabs.com etc. which help you book these tests easily online.

  2. Aftann

    #1. Migraine suffers cant eat when they have migraines, so that helps keep their weight down which reduces the chance of them having type 2 diabetes. Not to mention, some migraine medication curbs their appetite. So again, less chance of type 2 diabetes.

    2nd, to most migraine sufferers, drinking alcohol can trigger a migraine.

    So yep, these studies are actually just common sense.

  3. Pat McElligott

    In October, 2018, I started receiving Aimovig injections for my migraine headaches. By the end of March, 2019, I stopped getting migraines. I’m delighted, of course, but should I now start worrying that I’m a candidate for diabetes?

  4. Margaret Beaulac

    Thank you for the work you do.

  5. Jeffrey Patten

    The visual aura that signaled my weekly high school migraines spread over my entire visual field, totally (totally!) blinding me. The pain caused out-of-body experiences. Classic migraine ‘in extremis’.
    After high school, these evolved into common migraine – no aura. The pain, though not so severe, generally elevated my systolic blood pressure to over 190.
    Strangely, after forty years of this, the migraines stopped entirely, coinciding in time with my catheter ablation of atrial fibrillation (AF). Ablation created intentional scarring in the left atrium as well as incidentally in surrounding tissues including local nerve bundles. The scar lines act as barriers to the errant electrical signals that are behind AF.
    So, Is the development of AF associated with a history of migraine?
    Was the halting of my migraines a direct result of the associated effects of ablation?
    Is one’s head that close to one’s heart??

  6. Liz Strong

    Increased oxidative stress equals migraines. It’s aneurological disorder with various causes that lead up to oxidative stress.
    Themigrainekey.com has been a great help to me. Migraines worsened at menopause.

  7. Geoff

    I like your article except for the fact that the term “migraine” and “headache” are used interchangeably. A headache is just one symptom of a migraine, the best known symptom and usually the most severe, but not always. I have suffered from migraines since my early teens and I am now 61. As I get older the headache symptom has become less severe and sometimes does not occur at all, while the other symptoms of visual disturbances, sensory sensitivity, and confusion (to name a few) are still just as debilitating if not worse than when I was younger. A migraine is not a headache, and a headache is not a migraine.

  8. Thaddeus Buttmunch MD

    smoking tobacco Definitely worsens migraines. I’m a physician myself, so only have the occasional Birthday Cigar. I get more retinal migraines. High-Tannin wines, like Shiraz, causes me to get them, too. I’m Late Middle-Age, rarely got them when younger. I also got punched about twenty times in the head when younger. Sure that didn’t help.

  9. Marsha Benshir

    The implication that migraine is protective against diabetes does not address controlled nutritional intake. As the saying goes, coincidence does not equal cause. I am a long-term migraine sufferer who is extraordinarily careful about my blood glucose levels. Elevated BG triggers inflammation, and that can worsen propensity for migraine. It follows, at least for educated patients, that controlling BG may reduce migraine frequency and severity and also stave off possible DM2. My daughter gets migraine from cane sugar and avoids it in everything she consumes. This doesn’t mean that her migraines may prevent diabetes, but she might avoid T2DM by her careful nutrition. An overview of the research on migraineurs and T2DM shows no clear causal relationship. In fact, in one large study, prevalence of migraine was higher in patients with diabetes. This was the worst email I have recieved from “Harvard” so far. It is based on opinion, not fact, and is shameful to the reputation of a respected medical institution.

  10. Pauletta Littleton

    After 35 yrs of migraines , I consider them part of who I am. This is good news. I would just enjoy hearing about a cure or at last something that worked and wasn’t ridiculously expensive. I have missed so much of my life already .

  11. Bennett

    y daughters migraines if in fact that is what they truly are, neurology is about 1 to 200 years behind some other areas of medicine. Is it lumped into a dumping ground called migraines or is it something still as yet unknown and undiscovered. MY daughter had Chair Malformation Type One, two surgeries, one failed the other surgery left her in chronic pain called now “migraines.” Life changes are needed and are had but the social emotional impact is truly devastating.

  12. Barry Rothenberg

    Used to have a dozen migraines a month and at time ocular migraines. After a lifetime of pain found a doctor that diagnosed my problem in a few minutes and confirmed with an X-ray of first 5 neck vertebrae. Found nerve that was being compressed. The doctor put me on a very low dose (5-10 mg) of amitriptyline. Amitriptyline used to be used to treat clinical depression I believe, but at much higher doses (110 mg). Still, have intermittent migraines but, only 1-2 a month, which are easily treatable with a nasal spray of Imetrix.

  13. Marilyn

    The snide remarks here are unbelievable! Aamar and Jemo, please take your suspicious and bitter attitude somewhere else – the intent of this research, and of publishing the information, is to be helpful to migraine sufferers. Talking about “you lot at Harvard” and “doctor” in sarcastic quotation marks are absolutely unacceptable ways to refer to the hard-working, well-intentioned MD’s and PhD’s who discover these findings.

  14. Pier

    Migraine is function of presence of CO2 in arterial blood. When CO2 concentration in arterial blood growth, migraine is stronger more and more.

  15. CMR

    I had to laugh through this article. I have a friend who has had migraines since she was about thirty. The diabetes started at about sixty. She still lives with both. Another friend has had migraines since five years old. They are debilitating. She is a sober alcoholic now for twenty years and still lives with migraines.

  16. 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.

  17. 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)

  18. 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

  19. 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.

  20. 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.

  21. 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

  22. 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

  23. 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.

  24. 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.

  25. 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.

  26. 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.

  27. 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

  28. 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.

  29. 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”.

  30. 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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