hormone trigger - migraine

Hormonal Triggers: Cortisol’s Role in Triggering Migraines


Migraine, a neurological condition characterized by severe, throbbing pain, often on one side of the head, is not just a simple headache. Many factors can provoke migraine attacks, but one of the less understood and often overlooked is the role of stress. Up to 70% of individuals suffering from migraines report stress as a trigger.

While stress can be managed and encouraged, there are certain times when stress enters our lives, and it can’t be avoided, making these stressful periods even harder. So why is stress setting off a migraine attack, and what can be done to prevent it?

In this article, we’ll explore how hormonal fluctuations, particularly the hormone cortisol, can significantly influence the frequency and intensity of migraines.

What is a Migraine?

Migraines. The dreaded headaches that can keep you from going to work, playing with your kids, or even getting out of bed. They’re distinct from other types of headaches in the intensity of the pain, the accompanying symptoms, the possibility of a pre-attack aura, and the fact that they can affect one or both sides of the head. Chronic migraines can have the same triggers and phases as regular migraines. Still, they can also be associated with other factors, such as adrenal fatigue, chronic stress, sustained use of certain medications, and estrogen dominance.

Migraines affect around 15% of the global population, and their causes are unclear. However, they have some genetic factors, as they can run in families and environmental factors. They affect women three times more than men. It is thought that they cause pain by affecting blood vessels and nerves in the head and brain.

Migraines are known for their severity, with a pounding pain that is sometimes accompanied by other symptoms, including:

  • Nausea
  • Vomiting
  • Sensitivity to light
  • Sensitivity to sound
  • Sensitivity to smells
  • Eye pain
  • Blurry vision
  • Lightheadedness

What is Cortisol’s Role in Triggering Migraines?

The hormone “cortisol” is created by the adrenal glands. It is crucial in regulating several bodily processes, including metabolism and the immune response. The connection between cortisol and neurological symptoms during a migraine attack is intriguing. When our bodies experience stress and feel threatened, the hypothalamus in the brain produces a hormone called corticotropin-releasing factor, which prompts the adrenal glands to release more cortisol.

This affects the messages sent to our main systems, leading to changes in four key areas:

  • Neurotransmitters: An imbalance in neurotransmitters, which act as messengers in our nervous system, can negatively affect our health. When serotonin levels (mainly produced in the intestines), GABA, and dopamine are too high or too low, it can increase the likelihood of migraines and other symptoms such as anxiety and depression.
  • Hormones: Migraines can be caused by several factors, including hypothyroidism, blood sugar, and insulin imbalances, as well as estrogen and progesterone imbalances.
  • Digestion: When digestive enzymes and motility decrease, it can cause migraines by sending mixed signals to the nervous system. Imbalanced gut bacteria and leaky gut can also contribute to this issue via the gut-brain axis.
  • Immune System: Allergies, histamine intolerance, inflammation, and autoimmunity can cause frequent migraines.

Migraines and Adrenal Fatigue

If you experience ongoing stress, whether it is physical or psychological, your body’s NeuroEndoMetabolic (NEM) Stress Response is continually activated. The NEM has six circuits that work together to counteract the negative impact of stress, and the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis is particularly active in this process.

The HPA axis is the main hormonal pathway that activates when exposed to stress. When a person experiences chronic stress, their adrenal glands may become over-stimulated and overworked, leading to potential dysregulation. Initially, the glands may produce increasing amounts of cortisol, indicating the start of Adrenal Fatigue Syndrome (AFS). However, once the glands become exhausted, their production of cortisol decreases, indicating more advanced stages of AFS.

 This stage is characterized by more severe symptoms, including debilitating fatigue and other symptoms such as sleep issues, weight problems, mood disturbances, food sensitivities, low libido, PMS, infertility, heart palpitations, brain fog, and chronic inflammation.

How Do Migraines Affect Adrenals?

Your body’s stress response, controlled by the HPA and the NEM, activates when you encounter a physical or psychological stressor. A migraine headache is a stressor of both kinds, as it causes physical symptoms that affect hormones and neurotransmitters while also causing mental and emotional distress as you anticipate the pain and inability to function normally for a few hours or even days.

Imagine experiencing this regularly, and you will understand why chronic migraines impact the adrenals. Your HPA is continuously activated, releasing various brain chemicals and adrenal hormones to cope with this ongoing problem, ultimately leading to adrenal gland exhaustion and the development or worsening of AFS.

How Can I Test My Cortisol Levels?

A doctor can assess cortisol levels through various methods:

  • Saliva test: This test measures cortisol in your saliva at different times of the day.
  • Urine test: Collecting urine over 24 hours can accurately measure cortisol levels.
  • Blood test: A blood sample is typically taken in the morning when cortisol levels peak using a standard method.

How Can I Deal with Migraines Triggered by Cortisol?

With chronic migraines, prevention is always better than medication. One thing you can do is to ensure your adrenals are strong enough to handle the migraines if they come and healthy enough not to add to your migraine problems.

AFS recovery includes a healthy diet, mild to moderate exercise, enough rest, good quality supplements, and stress management, which can also help with chronic migraines.

Adrenal Support Nutraceuticals Available Online and in Centerville, Ohio

At Happy Hormone Cottage, we understand the detrimental effects of stress on the body. Our Adrenal Boost supplements aid in adapting to recurrent stress, regulating cortisol levels, and maintaining healthy HPA axis function.

If you have questions regarding our Adrenal Support Nutraceuticals or any of the products available on our website, feel free to contact the Happy Hormone Cottage team for more information.

Call (513)449-2192 to speak with a team member or schedule a consultation online today!

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