IBS and Migraine Headaches

woman with migraine headache
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Are you one of those people who have the unfortunate experience of dealing with both irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) and migraine headaches at the same time? Let's take a look at what is known about a possible overlap between the two health problems, and then move on to what things you can do that might help ease the symptoms of both conditions.

What Are Migraine Headaches?

Migraine headaches are painful, throbbing headaches that occur alongside other unpleasant symptoms throughout the body. These symptoms may be present for hours or even days. The experience of a migraine headache may consist of four distinct stages. Here is a brief overview of the symptoms of each stage:

  • Prodrome: Symptoms of this stage are typically experienced in the days leading up to the headache. Such symptoms may include constipation, mood changes, and food cravings. 
  • Aura: About one-third of all people who experience migraines will experience an aura -- strange neurological symptoms -- just prior to the onset of the headache. Symptoms of the aura are typically visual, (loss of vision, flashes of light) but could affect other senses. 
  • Headache: This stage is characterized by pain, typically throbbing, with possible nausea, vomiting, and sensitivity to stimuli (light, sounds, smells). Pain can be on one or both sides of the head. Other symptoms of this stage include light-headedness and blurred vision.
  • Postdrome: After an attack, many people report feeling drained and fatigued.

Migraines tend to be recurring and a wide variety of triggers can set off a migraine attack. A wide variety of things can trigger a migraine, including hormonal changes, physical exertion, sleep changes, stress, and certain drinks, foods and food additives. Bright lights, loud noises, and strong smells can also serve as triggers. 

It is estimated that approximately 13% of all men and 33% of all women experience migraine headaches.

The physiological reasons behind migraines are still not well-understood by scientists, but there is evidence that genetics may play a role in a person's vulnerability to developing migraine headaches. The existing treatments for migraines focus on either trying to prevent the occurrence of a migraine or to relieve the pain and other symptoms of a migraine attack.

Migraines and Gastrointestinal Disorders

There are a wide variety of health problems that often co-exist alongside migraines. For the purpose of this article, it is interesting to see that researchers are looking into possible associations between migraines and the following gastrointestinal disorders:

Overlap Between IBS and Migraine Headaches

If you have both IBS and migraines, you are not alone. Estimates of overlap between the two health problems range from 25 to 50%. Although the two are very distinct health problems, they share many similar features. Both disorders are more likely to affect women as opposed to men. Both conditions raise your risk of also having the following health problems:

Why the Overlap?

Researchers do not yet have a clear understanding of the reasons why people develop either health problem in and of themselves and so, therefore, there is as of yet no clear understanding as to why there might be an overlap between the two. However, looking for clues as to why they might be related helps with a better understanding as to each problem individually. This improved understanding may lead to more effective treatments for each problem in the future.

Some of the areas being looked into have to do with genetics, psychosocial risk factors, central nervous system dysfunction and the role of gut bacteria.

Is the Overlap Related to Your Gut Bacteria?

The role of gut bacteria is an intriguing one. It is relatively easy to imagine how an alteration in the makeup of your gut bacteria can contribute to gastrointestinal symptoms. However, researchers are finding that such an alteration is also associated with many system-wide health problems.

When it comes to migraines, it is theorized that an imbalance in the gut bacteria can affect the functioning of the immune system, causing the release of inflammatory substances that then act on certain nerve cells triggering the headache and other symptoms of migraines. This may be particularly likely if the person has increased intestinal permeability, often referred to as a leaky gut. These same problems, gut bacteria imbalance (dysbiosis) and increased intestinal permeability have been associated with IBS.

However, as of now, any relationship among dysbiosis, increased intestinal permeability, IBS and migraine headaches are all theoretical - there is not, as of yet, any hard evidence for such connections.

What to Do If You Have Both

Your best strategy is to work closely with your neurologist and gastroenterologist to see if there are medications that might ease the symptoms of each disorder.

Otherwise, there is little in the way of science-backed recommendations as to what you can do. The following therapies might be shown to be effective someday, but for now, are just ideas waiting for further study:

Probiotic supplements: These supplements contain "friendly" strains of bacteria and therefore may help to improve the balance of your gut bacteria.

Elimination diet: This diet requires that you remove the most common food sensitivity foods from your diet for a short period of time to assess the impact that such a restriction has on your IBS and your migraines.

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