Iron Deficiency Anemia and Migraines

Iron deficiency causes iron deficiency anemia (low red blood cells), which has been associated with migraines, headaches, and pain. While the tendency to experience recurrent migraines may be partially genetic, there are many triggers that can precipitate a migraine attack, and a low iron level is one of the factors that can contribute to these painful episodes.

Iron Deficiency Anemia

Iron is an essential mineral that we get from food. The body uses iron to produce hemoglobin, the oxygen-carrying component of red blood cells. When you are low on your iron supply, your body can't make enough functioning red blood cells, a condition known as iron deficiency anemia.

Iron deficiency anemia, the most common cause of anemia in the world, has several causes, including:

  • Low dietary iron intake: Iron-rich foods include red meat, spinach, and cereals and breads that are iron fortified. If you don't eat enough of these foods, you can develop iron deficiency anemia
  • Increased need for iron, such as during pregnancy
  • Impaired intestinal iron absorption, which can occur with Celiac disease, chronic diarrhea, and many digestive problems
  • Loss of red blood cells due to gastrointestinal bleeding, heavy uterine bleeding, or trauma

Women who are in their childbearing years are at a high risk of developing iron deficiency anemia due to regular menstruation, which causes blood loss.

How Iron Deficiency Anemia Affects Migraines

Iron deficiency anemia causes a variety of symptoms, including fatigue, sleepiness, dizziness, low energy, anxiety, and depression. When you have less-than-optimal oxygen delivery throughout your body, this can cause generalized physical symptoms.

Iron deficiency anemia has also been linked to migraines, headaches, and an increased predisposition to pain. It isn't quite clear how these effects occur, but low oxygen delivery to the brain compromises the energy that your brain can use and may exhaust you mentally and physically.

Menstrual Migraines

Menstrual migraines affect approximately half of women who experience migraines. While the precise cause of these recurrent migraine attacks has never been fully understood, most experts agree that the decline in estrogen that occurs prior to menstruation plays a big role in this complex phenomenon.

Iron deficiency anemia from the acute blood loss of menstruation may also play a role in menstrual migraines, especially when they occur near the end of a woman's period. Some have dubbed this end-menstruation migraine a new type of migraine.

A combination of factors, including estrogen depletion, iron deficiency anemia, and altered serotonin levels can all lead to the development of menstrual migraines.

The decline in estrogen levels is believed to cause migraines right before or during the early days of a woman's period, whereas iron-deficiency-anemia has been proposed to be a potential trigger of migraines that occur during the last few days of a woman's period.

Treatment

In general, migraines that are associated with iron deficiency anemia are less severe and easier to treat than migraines associated with alterations in estrogen levels. Treatment can include over-the-counter pain medications or migraine prescriptions, such as triptans.

If you have iron deficiency anemia, treating this underlying problem is important for your overall health and can possibly help prevent end-menstrual migraines from recurring. Iron supplements can restore your red blood cell function, but they can cause side effects, including severe constipation. Be sure to check with your doctor before taking any supplements.

A Word From Verywell

Migraines generally recur regularly, and they can affect men and women. If you are prone to migraines, episodes of blood loss or nutritional issues can cause you to have more migraines than usual. Be sure to discuss any changes in your migraine pattern with your doctor, because there may be an explanation that can be managed, which will improve your health and reduce your migraines.

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Article Sources

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  1. Gür-Özmen S, Karahan-Özcan R. Iron Deficiency Anemia Is Associated with Menstrual Migraine: A Case–Control StudyPain Medicine. 2015. doi:10.1093/pm/pnv029

  2. Miller JL. Iron deficiency anemia: a common and curable diseaseCold Spring Harb Perspect Med. 2013;3(7):10.1101/cshperspect.a011866 a011866. Published 2013 Jul 1. doi:10.1101/cshperspect.a011866

  3. Pamuk GE, Top MŞ, Uyanık MŞ, et al. Is iron-deficiency anemia associated with migraine? Is there a role for anxiety and depression? Wiener klinische Wochenschrift. 2015;128(S8):576-580. doi:10.1007/s00508-015-0740-8

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