Do Migraines Make You Smarter?

Do Migraines Make You Smarter?

By Dr. Scott Olson

If you suffer with migraines, you know how hard it can be. People with migraines not only have to deal with the pain and inconvenience of the headaches, but they are also at higher risk for a variety of other diseases. Research supports migraine sufferers have double the risk of heart disease[1], an increase in eye disease[2] (diseases of the retina), and even suicide[3]. But what is surprising, even to the researchers of a recent study, was that people who suffer from migraines are protected from cognitive decline as they age.

Pain in the Head

Migraines are the type of headache that usually occurs on only one side of the head and can be preceded by strange visual changes called an “aura”. Not every person who suffers with migraine headaches has an aura, and this, it turns out, is somehow important for mental protection. During an attack, people can also be sensitive to light, and have nausea and vomiting.

Migraines are known to last for hours and even days. When a migraine strikes, people usually run to their bedrooms, make the room as dark as possible, and usually feel very tired the next day.

Strange Research Results

Researchers had known for a while that people who have migraines tend to score lower on cognition and memory tests. Dr. Amanda Kalaydjian and her team decided to try and find out what effects having migraine headaches might have on the brain. While the exact cause of the headaches remains a mystery, scientists have known for a while that blood vessels in the brain and other parts of the body constrict (get smaller). This constriction, the researchers reasoned, must affect the brain over the long term.

Scientists are fairly certain that this reduction in blood flow caused by the constriction of blood vessels is what is responsible for the higher risks of other diseases associated with migraine headaches. If the heart is getting less blood, then it would makes sense that people who have migraines would have a higher risk of heart disease. The same is true for the eye and disease of the retina. But, would this association hold up in the brain?

The researchers decided to follow 1,448 women (204 of which had migraines) for 12 years and see what happened to their mental functioning over time.

The women who had migraines scored lower on cognition and memory tests than the women who didn’t have migraines at the beginning of the study.  Twelve years later the researchers re-tested the women and were astonished to learn that the women who had migraines lost much less of their cognitive abilities than the women who didn’t have migraines[4].  Women who had migraines with an aura were the ones who scored highest on tests.

Researchers are now scratching their heads trying to understand the findings of the study. The only theory that they have right now is that some of the drugs that migraine sufferer’s use may help keep their brains young, or that there is something about having migraines that protects the brain. The drugs scientists think are most likely to protect the brain are the over-the-counter pain-relievers, NSAID (like Tylenol, Ibuprofen) and their link to reducing inflammation.

You Don’t Have To Suffer

If you have migraines, there is much that you can do to treat them and protect your brain at the same time.

Uncover the Trigger: Scientists have debated the reality of triggers for a long time, but most people who have migraines can point to something that triggers an attack. Triggers can be anything from:

  • Exposure to chemicals in the environment
  • Strong odors
  • Foods such as chocolate, red wine, and others
  • Menstrual periods,
  • Stress
  • Lack of sleep

Once you have identified your particular trigger, do you best to minimize exposure to that trigger, or in the case of something you can’t avoid (such as menstrual periods), make sure you take extra care of yourself during those periods. Triggers can be worse when there is more than one. Not sleeping well, eating poorly, all during a menstrual period is almost a recipe for a migraine if you are a sufferer.

Choose good quality supplements: There are many great ways to treat migraines with natural medicine.

  • Magnesium: a quality magnesium is a great way to treat migraines. Magnesium plays many essential roles in the body and most people don’t get enough in their diets.
  • 5-HTP: 5-hydroxytryptophan (5-HTP) is a well-studied supplement for migraine headaches. It acts as a starting point of many brain chemicals.
  • Feverfew: This plant has been used for hundreds of years as a headache remedy and recent research confirms that it is good for migraines. It works best when taken over a long period of time.
  • CoQ10: Coenzyme Q10 plays many roles in the body and excels as a supplement for people with heart disease. It also works great for migraine headaches.

Better ways to reduce inflammation: Assuming that the researchers are correct and that inflammation may have something to do with the reason people who have migraines do not suffer from cognitive decline as they age, taking anti-inflammatories is a great idea.

The problems with many over-the-counter and prescription anti-inflammatories is that they often do as much harm as good. Aspirin is well known for causing stomach bleeding and in responsible for over 100 deaths a year. Other anti-inflammatories, such as the NSAIDS, can cause problems with the liver. The newest breed of anti-inflammatories, called COX-2 inhibitors have recently experienced a rash of bad news, with a few being pulled from the market by the FDA because of increased heart problems associated with their use.

There are much better ways to reduce inflammation, without the side effects:

  • Fish oil: Fish oil is one of the best anti-inflammatories on the market because it reduces inflammation by decreasing the hormone-like substances (called prostaglandins and leukotrienes) that cause inflammation in the body. Not only that, but fish oils satisfy many of the body’s other essential needs.
  • Enzymes: Certain enzymes taken between meals act as powerful anti-inflammatories. These need to be of good quality and sufficient amounts in order to work well.
  • Herbs: many herbs have anti-inflammatory properties. Ginger, tumeric, garlic and others work to calm inflammation. 

While there is often bad news associated with having migraine headaches, there is now some good news. The real good news is that there is much you can do to avoid these headaches, you must stay vigilant and maintain your supplementation.


Cited Sources:

  1. Rose KM, Carson AP, Sanford CP, et al: Migraine and other headaches: associations with Rose angina and coronary heart disease. Neurology. 2004 Dec 28;63(12):2233-9.
  2. Rose KM, Wong TY, Carson AP, et al: Migraine and retinal microvascular abnormalities: the Atherosclerosis Risk in Communities Study. Neurology. 2007 May 15;68(20):1694-700.
  3. Wang SJ, Juang KD, et al: Psychiatric comorbidity and suicide risk in adolescents with chronic daily headache. Neurology. 2007 May 1;68(18):1468-73.
  4. Kalaydjian A, Zandi PP, et al: How migraines impact cognitive function: findings from the Baltimore ECA. Neurology. 2007 Apr 24;68(17):1417-24.

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