Cyclical Headaches: What They Are And How To Stop Them

Many women complain of headaches and migraines at certain times of their cycle, typically around ovulation or bleeding days. If you track the occurrence of your headaches against your cycle, you may notice a pattern–and if they tend to occur at the same time of your cycle each month, the issue is likely hormonal! According to the National Headache Foundation, women suffer migraines three times more than men do, and 60 percent of women have migraines related to their hormonal cycle.

Estrogen, Progesterone and Menstrual Migraines

The two major hormonal players in the female cycle are estrogen and progesterone, and both interact with brain chemicals. One study found that both estrogen and progesterone have the ability to trigger or prevent migraine headaches at certain serum levels. The fluctuating levels of these hormones at the inflection points of ovulation and menstruation tend to contribute to menstrual migraines.

Estrogen, in particular, tends to be the bigger actor. Estrogen levels surge during ovulation, which can cross a threshold that triggers headaches in some individuals. Conversely, estrogen levels can drop very low prior to the period, causing migraines in others. The ratio of progesterone in relation to estrogen can also play a factor.

The Deal With Prostaglandins

Another migraine culprit is prostaglandins–especially for menstrual migraines during the bleeding phase of the cycle. Prostaglandins are hormone-like chemicals that play a role in inflammatory responses throughout the body. Unlike hormones, prostaglandins are produced by the area of the body where they are needed. During your period, prostaglandins are produced in the pelvic cavity to cause the uterus to contract in order to shed its lining, resulting in menstrual bleeding.

However, prostaglandins can travel through the bloodstream to other areas of the body that also contain prostaglandin receptors, including cranial arteries in the brain, that can lead to migraines. Therefore, prostaglandins that are helpful in one area of the body, by stimulating tissue release during the period, can be detrimental to another part of the body, such as by causing dilation of cranial arteries that cause migraines.

So, if prostaglandins are necessary to stimulate the shedding of the uterine lining, but also trigger migraine headaches, why don’t all women experience menstrual migraines?

Bio-individuality and each person’s unique biochemistry plays a role in making them more (or less) susceptible to migraine headaches. I would also argue that excess prostaglandins, which also play a role in severe period cramping, also make someone more prone to experiencing menstrual migraines. Fortunately, there are holistic ways to reduce the amount of prostaglandins that the body naturally produces.

Reducing Menstrual Migraines By Reducing Prostaglandins

Because prostaglandins are partially responsible for the body’s inflammatory response, an anti-inflammatory protocol can help to reduce excess production of prostaglandins and mitigate their effect on the body.

Dr. Andrew Weil’s anti-inflammatory diet is one of my favorite resources, and a great guide to putting together a healthy meal plan, particularly if you are looking to reduce the symptoms of chronic pain or illness. The full guide is worth checking out, but here are a few highlights:

  • Minimize processed foods and sugar.
  • Eat a variety of fruits and vegetables.
  • Incorporate healthy spices like turmeric (a powerful anti-inflammatory spice).
  • Increase intake of antioxidants through green tea and fresh fruits and vegetables.
  • Consume plenty of healthy fats, and strive to increase Omega-3 intake.

Dr. Weil’s diet includes a good amount of soy, which not all people tolerate well. I recommend that women consume only non-GMO soy products, and eat them only during the bleeding phase of the cycle through ovulation when estrogens are naturally higher in the body.

Increasing the Omega-3 fatty acid to Omega-6 fatty acid ratio is particularly important when battling excess prostaglandins, because prostaglandins are made from the phospholipids of Omega-6 fatty acids! Omega-3 fatty acids are best found in wild-caught salmon and other fatty fish, hemp seeds, flaxseeds, pastured eggs and grass-fed beef and dairy.

If you are not consuming enough of these anti-inflammatory foods, you can supplement with them. I recommend Nordic Naturals Fish Oil, or Barlean’s High Lignan Flax Oil if vegan/vegetarian. You can also supplement with turmeric if you do not like adding it to your meals. Formulations like Purity Labs Organic Turmeric Curcumin, with black pepper are best absorbed.*

Mitigating The Effect Of Hormonal Shifts

The hormone shifts at ovulation and your period may make your brain more sensitive to prostaglandins because estrogen helps to protect the brain, and may also trigger migraines in certain individuals regardless. To help mitigate the effect of hormonal shifts, it is important to make sure that you are getting enough nutrients like magnesium, to provide a buffer.

Magnesium helps to boost the brain, and in one study, 45% of women who experience menstrual migraines were found to have a magnesium deficiency. You can increase your magnesium intake by eating plenty of dark, leafy greens. Many nuts and seeds, like pumpkin seeds are also high in magnesium. If you’d like an extra boost, I recommend a low dose (100-200 mg) magnesium supplement, like Thorne Research Magnesium Citrate, before bed in addition to a healthy diet. Magnesium has a calming effect on most people, making it ideal to take after dinner.

Women with the MTHFR mutation, which can lead to nutrient deficiencies, particularly of B vitamins, may also be at a higher risk of menstrual migraines. If you suspect this might be a factor in your menstrual migraines, it is best to consult with your doctor to develop a targeted nutrition plan.

Menstrual migraines do not need to be a monthly occurrence! Remember that migraines are generally multi-factorial, but taking some of the steps listed here can go a long way to reducing the frequency and severity of your migraine headaches, particularly if you find that they are linked to certain times of your cycle.

The information provided above is for informational purposes only and should not be construed as medical advice or a substitute for medical care. 

*These Amazon affiliate links support Kara and help her continue her work in women’s health.

Kara Ferreira is a fertility health expert who works with women to troubleshoot their monthly cycles and digestion so that they can feel their best and be their best selves. Read her full bio here

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