The Migraine and Obesity Connection

How Your Weight Influences Your Headaches and What You Can Do About It

The exact cause of migraine isn't certain, but hormonal changes, stress, and other factors are often discussed when trying to get to the root of the problem. Another that is less commonly considered: obesity. While you likely often hear about the link between obesity and heart disease or diabetes, there's also lesser-known evidence linking obesity to various pain disorders such as migraines.

Whether you've used an online tool or you've seen your primary care physician, you've likely had your body mass index (BMI) checked in the last year or two. If you have a BMI in the obese range (>30) along with migraine, there is a possibility that the two issues could be connected.

BMI is a dated, flawed measure. It does not take into account factors such as body composition, ethnicity, sex, race, and age. 

Even though it is a biased measure, BMI is still widely used in the medical community because it’s an inexpensive and quick way to analyze a person’s potential health status and outcomes

Woman at the gym with migraine
shironosov / Getty Images

What the Research Says

There's no evidence that obesity directly causes migraines or vice versa, but there is a link or an association between the two.

In a 2017 meta-analysis, researchers looked at 12 studies on the link between BMI and migraine, involving a total of 288,981 people. They found that those who were obese (BMI >30) were 27 percent more likely to have migraine than those of normal weight. They also found that those who were underweight (BMI <18.5) had a 13 percent higher risk of migraine than people of normal weight, though there were fewer studies on this particular association.

Another 2017 review concluded that the increased risk for migraines is typically found in obese women of reproductive age and doesn't seem to apply to obese women over the age of 55 years.

Multiple studies have also shown that the more obese you are, the higher your risk of having migraine. This increased risk for migraines is also present in obese children.

Additionally, obesity has been identified as one of the many potential culprits for precipitating the transformation from episodic migraine (fewer than 15 migraines per month) to chronic migraine (15 or more migraines per month), which can further negatively impact your quality of life and daily functioning.

The reason for the connection between migraines and obesity is not totally clear, and it may vary for each person.

It's possible that these two conditions share some common mechanisms. For instance, they're both known to be associated with an increased level of inflammation in your body. Genetic, lifestyle, and behavioral factors may also play a role.

While these associations are complex, studies suggest that they exist, hinting (though not proving) that weight loss may be a good way to improve your migraine attacks, both in number and severity.

Weight Loss As Migraine Treatment

As of right now, it's unclear what impact weight loss has on migraines, especially in the long term. Several small studies have shown that severely obese people who have undergone bariatric surgery had significant improvements in their migraine frequency and severity at three- and six-month follow-ups after their procedure.

Obviously, the majority of obese individuals are not undergoing bariatric surgery and more research needs to be done on the effects of weight loss on migraine with or without such a procedure. Nevertheless, it's wise to get to a healthy weight for many reasons, one of which could be that doing so may help your migraines. Weight loss may be especially important for preventing your migraines from becoming chronic.

It's also a good idea to review the side effect of weight gain for any headache medications you're taking. This can be a hidden culprit, especially if you've noticed that you've gained weight since you started taking them.

A Word From Verywell

The best thing you can do as a person living with migraine is to speak with your neurologist and primary care physician about weight loss strategies if you're obese or overweight. This can include calorie restriction with the help of a nutritionist, an exercise program that fits your interests and time constraints, or even bariatric surgery if traditional weight loss strategies have not worked for you. Losing weight can significantly improve your quality of life, and the prospect of it helping your migraines is a welcome added bonus.

Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.

By Colleen Doherty, MD
 Colleen Doherty, MD, is a board-certified internist living with multiple sclerosis.