A recent review of past research, which was published today in the journal Frontiers in Molecular Bioscience, found that sex hormones modify the trigeminovascular system, or the system of neurons that can trigger headaches, reports Science Daily. These types of hormones—including prolactin (the protein that enables female to produce milk)—are responsible for making a cells' ion channels, which control how they react to outside stimuli, more vulnerable to migraine triggers. And according to the team of researchers, changes in estrogen levels in particular can set off these nerves and cause a migraine.
Further research presented earlier this year at the Experimental Biology 2018 conference offers more insight into the possible estrogen-migraine connection. The study looked at the specific proton exchanger that helps to interpret pain called the NHE1, and found that when levels of it are low, pain signaling in the brain increases—which can lead to migraines. Scientists examined male and female rats because although women are more likely to get migraines, most migraine studies have historically been conducted using only male test subjects. The results showed that the male rats had a level of NHE1 four times higher than the females.
Additionally, high estrogen levels correlated to low NHE1 levels; that might explain why many women experience migraines when they get their period, which is when estrogen levels begin to rise. But that's not the worst of discoveries: According to the study, low levels of NHE1 also make migraine medications less effective.
"Based on our findings, we think women are more susceptible to migraines 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," says Emily Galloway, an undergraduate research assistant at the University of Arizona who presented the study.
With this better understanding of the way women's brains and bodies work, scientists and medical professionals will hopefully focus on creating solutions that work for women.
Originally published on April 26, 2018; updated on August 14, 2018 with additional reporting by Kells McPhillips.
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