What Your Weight Has to Do with Migraines

Updated: Apr. 29, 2021

If you think you’ve pinned down the exact cause of your migraines, you could be overlooking one important factor.

migraineSyda Productions/ShutterstockYour weight may influence your risk of experiencing debilitating migraine headaches, a new review of research suggests.

After evaluating 12 studies involving close to 300,000 individuals, researchers found that obese people were 27 percent more likely to have migraines than people who were at a normal weight, and people who were underweight were 13 percent more likely to have migraines. This risk is considered to be moderate, and in line with the link between migraine and bipolar disorders and some types of heart disease. The findings appear online in the journal Neurology.

“Extremes of weight such as obesity—a BMI of 30 or more, or being too thin—a BMI of less than 18.5—increases your risk for migraine,” says study author B. Lee Peterlin, DO, an associate professor of neurology and Director of Headache Research at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine in Baltimore. (BMI or body mass index is based on height and weight.) The risk between obesity and migraines was greater for women and for those under the age of 55 regardless of weight, the study showed.

Being overweight is not currently considered a risk factor for migraine, Dr. Peterlin tells Reader’s Digest. But fat tissue “is an endocrine organ, and like other endocrine organs, such as the thyroid, too much and too little cause problems,” she says. Changes in fat tissue that occur with weight gain or extreme weight loss may change the function and production of several proteins and hormones and could make a person more susceptible to a migraine or could trigger a migraine, at least in theory.

Fully 36 million people in the U.S. live with migraine headaches, which may come with nausea, vomiting, and extreme sensitivity to light and sound, according to the American Migraine Foundation. Migraines interfere with education, career, and social activities for more than 90 percent of those affected, according to the Foundation.

“My study findings are very important to migraine sufferers as weight is a factor that is modifiable,” Dr. Peterlin explains. This can’t be said for other migraine risk factors such as age (18 to 55 are most susceptible) and sex (females are at greater risk for migraines than their male counterparts).

Taking steps to maintain a healthy weight may make a difference in migraine symptoms and patterns, she says. Some research backs this up. “Data from open-label studies looking at obese individuals who underwent [weight loss] surgery for health reasons other than migraine have suggested that migraine headaches are decreased in both severity and frequency by over 50 percent from 1 to 6 months after surgery and subsequent weight loss,” she says. “Similarly limited data suggest that a low-fat diet or a diet high in omega 3 and low in omega 6 may improve headaches but it remains unclear if it is the diet or the weight loss.”

In addition, aerobic exercise has also been shown to decrease headaches.

aeorobicUber Images/Shutterstock“Our next step in this research is to finish analyzing [brain scan] differences in [fat] tissue volumes in a group of patients with migraine who are obese and normal weight as compared to controls,” she says.” We will also be looking at differences in the secretion of proteins which are predominantly secreted from fat cells in these groups and how they may differ in those with migraine versus controls.”

The findings related to obesity make sense, says Brian M. Grosberg, MD, Director of the Hartford Healthcare Headache Center in Hartford, Conn. Dr. Grosberg, who reviewed the new study for Reader’s Digest.

“We know that fatty tissue contains substances that have inflammatory properties and migraine is a pro inflammatory condition,” he says.

While regular exercise is an important part of maintaining a healthy weight, it can be a double-edged sword for some people with migraine, he says. “We all try to promote exercise at least a couple of days per week, but intense exercise can trigger a migraine in some,” he says.

sleepVGstockstudio/ShutterstockThe best bet is to work with a headache specialist to make sure that you are making healthy choices about what you eat as well as how often you exercise. Controlling the elements you can control can also help you get ahead of migraines, he says. This includes getting regular sleep, not missing meals, and avoiding any known triggers. Check in with your doctor to make sure that you are doing all that you can to rein in your headaches. These are the migraine remedies that really work.