Should I Lose Weight to Fight Migraine?

It’s in the news yet again, thanks to a study from Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine.  This time, it’s a link between obesity and episodic migraine (as opposed to chronic migraine).

The study concluded that the obese population was 81% more likely to have episodic migraine (EM) than the general population.  Or, about this many in a group of obese subjects would have episodic migraine:

Obese Population and Episodic Migraine

So – naturally – what’s the solution that’s being proposed?  Exercise and a healthy diet, of course!

And no one wants to discourage anyone from a healthy diet and exercise, do they?

Well, of course not.  And neither do I.  In fact, I would suggest that those two things might just out-do any pill that has been invented.  Maybe.

But I’m afraid there’s a real danger in over-simplifying the connection.

The study, in fact, shows that there’s an increasing risk of EM as you become more obese.  So – the more weight I lose, the fewer migraine attacks I’ll have – right?

Here are a few reasons why we shouldn’t be hasty to draw this conclusion.

  • Which is a result of which?  Does the obesity increase the chance of migraine, or is it the other way around?  Just because there’s a correlation does not mean that one causes the other.
  • Obesity is clearly not the one risk factor or cause of migraine.  If it’s one factor in 100, there could be 99 other things that are more important to deal with first.  We don’t know.  But we can see from the chart above that obesity ≠ migraine.
  • What about migraine medications?  Many meds are known to promote weight gain in some people.  Could that alone explain the results of this study?
  • Dr. Tobias Kurth, interviewed by Reuters, pointed out that historically obesity is on the rise but migraine is not.  If there was a strong correlation, why aren’t both rising together?
  • What about conditions that are comorbid with migraine?  Could they be causing the obesity, and not migraine itself?
  • There are a number of other factors we don’t know about.  Would these statistics hold true with younger migraineurs?  What about different types of body fat?

So let’s not raise an eyebrow at the overweight person with migraine – assuming that it’s all their fault that they have migraine – if only they’d just get it together….

No no no.  There could be many factors leading a person to be obese – in fact, following a doctor’s treatment plan for migraine could have even contributed to the weight gain.  So let’s be real careful here before we act like we know what the problem is.

Now, before you run for another bag of candies or a Peppermint White Chocolate Mocha with Whipped Cream, let’s remember a few things.  There does seem to be a connection, and it could actually be that weight gain does contribute to your risk.  And there’s no doubt at all that a healthy diet and exercise are two of the best migraine fighters out there.

No, we shouldn’t pin all our hopes on weight loss, and aim to lose the pounds at the exclusion of all other goals and at all costs.  However, improving our health, including aiming for a healthy weight, simply has to be a part of our overall treatment plan.

Be Sociable, Share!
16 comments… add one
  • Amanda Smith Sekel Sep 20, 2013

    I dropped my BMI to 18 (weigh 116) and still get frequent migraines. Not sure how legit this is.

  • Jenn Petrofsky Sep 20, 2013

    I lost over 70 pounds and it didn’t help with the migraines. As the months go on, they get worse.

  • Sara E Austin Sep 20, 2013

    I know I need to lose weight. Everyone is so willing to tell me that losing weight will make me feel Perfect and 100% better. No one is able to tell me how to lose the weight when my head is pounding out of my skull all the time. Have you tried running on an elliptical when you’re your nauseous and your head is pounding & you can’t see or be in a room with any light or noise? BTW, my headaches were with me before my weight. and since my head hurts at LEAST 5/7 days, that leaves 2 days for exercise. Yeah, that’s going to help me drop weight. Oh yeah, and BTW, exercise also triggers my migraines.

  • Jennifer Palchinski Sep 20, 2013

    Amen Sara! I hear ya!

  • I have lost over 30 pounds. I have cut my hair I have shaved the back of my head – from my ears down. I take tons of suppsupplements. I have changed my diet. Nothing was worked. Migraines still kick my butt on a regular basis.

  • Elizabeth Hall Sep 20, 2013

    My weight hasn’t made a difference on my migraines. Heavierlighter they’ve stayed chronic. So fun!

  • Susan Marzolf Sep 20, 2013

    I wasn’t overweight , but changed my diet and lost a few pounds, take supplements, and exercise. Neck problems, hormones, and weather all affect my headaches and migraines.

  • Ellie Marie Moore Sep 20, 2013

    I think all the migraine pages should take a little break from posting half baked research on how we should loose weight. 1) it’s not supported that well in the research 2) it doesn’t seem supported anecdotally among people who respond to these posts and 3) it makes us angry.

  • Ellie Marie Moore Sep 20, 2013

    Chronic migraine for 4 years. Weight range over these years: min 98 lbs. max 138 lbs. No difference in migraine attack frequency based on this or any other lifestyle changes. Weight gain continues to be the result of migraine, not the other way around.

  • Jenny N Ryan Hansen Sep 21, 2013

    I found that by just doing regular exercise (when I wasn’t having a migraine), that my migraines felt less intense and less frequent. Did I lose weight while doing this? Yes. But, I also was watching what I was eating (limiting triggers and eating a Low Glycemic Index diet), took aborptive and preventative migraine medication, and felt better. Now that I am 5 months pregnant with our first, my migraines are MORE frequent and MORE intense, lasting 3 days or so.

  • suki Sep 21, 2013

    Thanks for making these points. Without them, this sort of study can be used as another way to stigmatize us- oh if you’d just control yourself and lose weight, you wouldn’t have migraine!
    I know that worsening migraine symptoms of aversion to smells, light and motion, as well as some serious cravings during prodrome (which is basically about 30% of my days), contributed to my obesity and not the other way around.
    The worst part for me was when I began to get exertion migraines from the very gentle careful sort of yoga I practiced for the past 11 years. I thought without yoga I might as well just die. Add that to medications causing a problem driving, aversion to sunlight and severe fragrance sensitivity (which causes an aversion to public places), I despaired of ever getting exercise again.
    Something happened, I discovered how to wrap my head and even my eyes during yoga- so I’ve now returned to practicing vigorous yoga at least 4 days a week for 3 weeks. I’ve discovered ways to adapt the practice and use props that enable me to work my body despite my head in a condition like a cement mixer (driving and turning at the same time).
    I haven’t lost weight but it just feels better being stronger physically and better able to deal with stressy.

  • Lauren Puglisi Sep 21, 2013

    I became overweight when exercise and food triggers developed in conjunction with the worsening of other medical problems. People often assume that medical issues are caused by weight gain, but for me, it was the other way around.

  • kelly Sep 23, 2013

    Losing weight didn’t stop my severe,chronic migraines, but when I stopped eating gluten and dairy, my headaches decreased by about 80%…eventually I was able to reintroduce the dairy, as well as small quantities of alcohol and sugar. (I had eliminated everything but fruit, veggies, lean proteins and rice). Gluten however, remains the surest thing to trigger a migraine. I can still be set off by changes in barometric pressure, extremes of heat/cold, extremes of scent, exhaustion or dehydration, but I get about 5-10% of the headaches I was getting 5 years ago. I dropped an additional 15 pounds when I stopped eating gluten, but I had already lost 40 pounds and continued to have migraines at least weekly prior to that change. I take daily topiramate as a preventative. When I have tried to come off it completely, the HA frequency increases. I suspect I may have other food allergies that I have not yet fully identified which trigger my remaining headaches when my system is stressed with additional stressors (like those mentioned above). I hope this helps someone else.

  • Shauna Pearce Sep 29, 2013

    Several different birth control meds put 30 pounds on me, antibiotics for the bronchitis from second hand smoke, 60 pounds from 9 separate doses of flexeril, and 40 pounds from amitripline. I started out at 122 pounds and now I am 270 pounds and any form of exercise even gardening brings on a migraine.

  • Ruby Nov 16, 2013

    I have suffered Chronic Migraines now for 9 years – 6 years ago i lost 12 stone as i kept being told its cuz im overweight!!!
    Lost the weight & made no difference

  • Paul Dec 27, 2013

    This is the first time I have heard about weight being a factor with migraines. I have suffered from them most of my life. I wouldn’t say I was over weight by any means but even when my weight fluctuates, I have never noticed a difference.

Leave a Comment