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Migraines & Headaches Health Center

Obesity May Increase Migraine Odds

Study found risk of painful headaches rose with body weight, especially in younger women and whites
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The possible connection between obesity and migraines is still under debate. One theory supporting the link centers on inflammatory substances from fat tissue (adipose) that are released into the system, Tietjen said.

Premenopausal women have more total adipose tissue in general than men, and women have more superficial and less deep adipose tissue, Peterlin said. But after menopause, adipose tissue is more similar between the two sexes.

Adipose tissue secretes different inflammatory proteins based on how much tissue there is and where it is located. Since younger women and obese people have more adipose tissue, this could, at least in part, explain why they get more headaches.

On the other hand, Peterlin also suggested that a possible connection may be related to the brain. "Previous imaging data in migraine patients have shown activation of the hypothalamus, a part of the brain that controls the drive to feed," she said. Alternatively, it could be that people who have migraines may be more inclined to behaviors associated with weight gain, such as being less active.

Would losing weight mean migraines will decrease in frequency? Although weight loss is generally encouraged for people who are obese, that won't necessarily result in migraine relief, Peterlin and Tietjen said.

At least two small studies have evaluated migraines in people who were obese and underwent bariatric surgery to lose weight, Peterlin said. Although these studies did find that some patients experienced fewer headaches, the studies were small and more research needs to be done to see if this is consistent.

It's possible that the lifestyle changes needed for weight loss cut the migraine frequency, rather than the weight loss itself, the experts said. People who eliminate processed foods, high-calorie foods and alcohol -- all of which can be migraine triggers -- could end up experiencing fewer headaches.

Unfortunately, the opposite could also be true if dieters introduce new foods that are migraine triggers. Some people may develop migraines when they consume certain sugar substitutes, for example. There also is limited data suggesting that people with severe obesity who exercise may have fewer migraines, Peterlin said.

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