According to a study, estrogen and other sex hormones could be responsible for the higher prevalence of migraine in women. The research suggests that sex hormones affect cells around the trigeminal nerve and connected blood vessels in the head, with estrogens -- at their highest levels in women of reproductive age -- being particularly important for sensitising these cells to migraine triggers.
"We can observe significant differences in our experimental migraine model between males and females and are trying to understand the molecular correlates responsible for these differences," explained Professor Antonio Ferrer-Montiel from the Universitas Miguel Hernandez, Spain. "Although this is a complex process, we believe that modulation of the trigeminovascular system by sex hormones plays an important role that has not been properly addressed."
Ferrer-Montiel and his team reviewed decades of literature on sex hormones, migraine sensitivity and cells' responses to migraine triggers to identify the role of specific hormones. Some (like testosterone) seem to protect against migraines, while others (like prolactin) appear to make migraines worse. They do this by making the cells' ion channels, which control the cells' reactions to outside stimuli, more or less vulnerable to migraine triggers.
Some hormones need much more research to determine their role. However, estrogen stands out as a key candidate for understanding migraine occurrence. It was first identified as a factor by the greater prevalence of migraine in menstruating women and the association of some types of migraine with period-related changes in hormone levels.
The research team's evidence now suggests that estrogen and changes in estrogen levels sensitise cells around the trigeminal nerve to stimuli. That makes it easier to trigger a migraine attack.