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Researchers at Charité Universitätsmedizin Berlin, one of the largest university hospitals in Europe, have discovered that the rise and fall of estrogen levels during a typical menstrual cycle can lead to women having more migraines.
The fluctuation of these levels means that a neurotransmitter in the brain that prompts headaches is released more frequently. This neurotransmitter is known in the medical world as Calcitonin gene-related peptide (CGRP) and it is one of the main sensory neurotransmitters involved in immune function.
When CGRP is released more often than it needs to be, it can result in inflammation in the covering of the brain. The knock-on effect of this is a migraine.
Dr. Bianca Raffaeli works in the Headache Center at the Department of Neurology with Experimental Neurology at Charite. She was the study lead of this particular piece of research and she has said that it was initially animal models that prompted further investigation. She said:
“Animal models suggest that fluctuations in female hormones, especially estrogen, lead to an increased release of CGRP, an inflammatory neurotransmitter, in the brain. It is a naturally occurring substance in the body, and when a person has a migraine attack, increasing levels are released, significantly dilating – or widening – the blood vessels in the brain.
This causes an inflammatory response that could be one of the reasons behind the severe headaches people experience with migraine.”
Studies with Women
After the intriguing results came back from animal models, Dr. Raffaeli and her team studied 180 women to find if there was a link between female hormones and the release of CGRP. The research looked at migraine patients, with recordings taken twice during their menstrual cycle, and then compared with women who don’t suffer from migraines.
All women were tested once during menstruation and then again during their time of ovulation. The results that came back showed that there was a clear correlation between those women who suffer from migraines having a higher concentration of CGRP during menstruation. Explaining the importance of this data, Dr. Raffaeli said:
“This means that when estrogen levels drop immediately before the start of a menstrual period, migraine patients release more CGRP. This could explain why these patients suffer more migraine attacks just before and during their monthly period.
Our study also shows that there are women who suffer from migraines even without any hormonal fluctuations. We suspect that other processes in the body play a role in triggering attacks in those patients.”
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Further Findings from the Study
The research from Berlin also found that women who take oral contraception don’t face the same fluctuation in estrogen levels as women who don’t take any birth control pills. There is even evidence to suggest that oral contraception could bring pain relief to women who suffer from migraines, although it is unlikely that this will ever be recommended.
They also found that periods aren’t the only trigger of hormone headaches, with other causes including menopause and pregnancy. The research team says that they now plan to take a closer look at what other symptoms may be influenced by the menstrual cycle.
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