The Grapevine

Why Women Are More Likely To Suffer Migraines Than Men

According to the Migraine Research Foundation, more than 38 million Americans suffer from migraines. Among them, 28 million happen to be women. Why do they make up such a significant majority of sufferers?

A study led by Emily Galloway, an undergraduate research assistant from the University of Arizona, found that the relationship between brain cells and the hormone estrogen might play a role. The research was presented at the 2018 Experimental Biology meeting in San Diego on April 22.

A migraine is a neurological disorder which can cause a severe headache, nausea, vomiting, and sensitivity to light or sound. Currently, medical professionals treat them with pain medications and lifestyle alterations as there is no single, identified cure. While some sufferers experience reduced pain or frequency, others still have a hard time finding relief.

In the past, many studies on migraines were conducted on male animals. But researchers behind the new study decided to examine both male and female rats. It was revealed that estrogen fluctuations affected a brain cell known as NHE1. When estrogen was higher, the NHE1 levels were lower. It was noted that without NHE1, more pain would be signaled to the brain. This would also end up hindering the effects of pain relief medications.

In the study, the male rats typically had four times higher levels of NHE1 compared to the female rats. And when estrogen levels peaked, their NHE1 levels were even lower than usual.

"Based on our findings, we think that women are more susceptible to migraine because the larger magnitude sex hormone fluctuations lead to changes in NHE1 expression, which may leave the brain vulnerable to ion dysregulation and pain activation," said Galloway.

This gender disparity of migraines may also result in more serious health complications. In 2016, a study found that women who experienced migraines were also more likely suffer from heart attacks or strokes. 

"Women whose migraines are influenced by their hormone fluctuations — and most are — are just going to have more headaches than a man who does not experience hormone fluctuations," explained the author of the study, Dr. Nanette Santoro from the University of Colorado School of Medicine.

The new study is one of the first ones to examine the role of NHE1 in migraine headaches. It remained unclear why the brain cell had such a reaction to estrogen, but the results offered the potential for further research. In the future, the researchers want to conduct studies to understand if certain drugs could prevent dysregulation of NHE1 expression.

"Knowledge gained from this work could lead to relief for millions of those who suffer from migraines and identify individuals who may have better responses to specific therapies," Galloway added.

In recent developments, a drug known as erenumab showed potential in helping people who had hard-to-treat migraines without side effects. The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) is set to announce a decision on the approval of the drug on May 17.