Migraine May Be Linked to Faster Estrogen Drops During Menstrual Cycle

A new study examines the link between estrogen levels, menstruation and migraine. Jose Luis Pelaez Inc/Getty Images
A new study examines the link between estrogen levels, menstruation and migraine. Jose Luis Pelaez Inc/Getty Images

Women menstruate. You've heard about this, right? If not, call your mom or find a grown woman and ask her about it.

The Period Show is directed by ever-fluctuating levels of hormones like estrogen and progesterone over the course of a woman's monthly cycle. That these hormonal changes can cause migraine headaches is not a new idea, but a recent study suggests why that might be the case for some women, but not others.

Research published this week in the journal Neurology investigated whether women with migraine, the third-most common disease in the world, differed in their hormone patterns from women who didn't get migraines. The study found little difference in the levels of most hormones, but they did find a marked difference in the swiftness with which the estrogen levels of migraine sufferers dropped during a certain stage of their monthly cycle.

Results of the study suggest that, in general, estrogen levels of women who get migraines really tank a few days before their period at rates 1.33 times the speed measured in those without migraine, resulting in "estrogen withdrawal" — and sometimes a headache from hell, among other migraine symptoms.

"More rapid estrogen decline may make women vulnerable to common triggers for migraine attacks such as stress, lack of sleep, foods and wine," said study author Dr. Jelena Pavlovic, of Albert Einstein College of Medicine/Montefiore Medical Center, in a press release.

The research team compared hormone data for 114 women with migraine history to that of 223 women with no history of migraine. They found in the two days after the luteal phase of the cycle — the time after ovulation but before menstruation, and when estrogen levels are at their highest — women with migraine experienced a 40 percent drop in estrogen, compared to a 30 percent drop in the women with no migraine history.

Future studies will most likely investigate whether sex hormones differ along racial and ethnic lines, as there were disproportionately more black and white women among the migraine group participants, while proportionally more Chinese and Japanese women were represented in the group with no migraine history.