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The Serotonin-migraine connection

Updated: Oct 25, 2022

In the past it was believed that migraine symptoms were possibly due to fluctuations in blood flow to the brain. It is now understood that changes in blood flow and blood vessels don't initiate the pain, but contribute to it. Also, the importance of balanced estrogen and serotonin levels have been linked to migraine pain.

One aspect of migraine pain theory explains that migraine pain happens due to waves of activity by groups of excitable brain cells. These trigger chemicals, such as serotonin, to narrow blood vessels. Serotonin is a chemical necessary for communication between nerve cells. It can cause narrowing of blood vessels throughout the body.

Some research suggests that when estrogen levels rise and then fall, contractions in blood vessels may be set off. This leads to throbbing pain. Other data suggest that lower levels of estrogen make facial and scalp nerves more sensitive to pain. Source

It has been observed that varying levels of ovarian hormones especially estrogen influence the serotonin neurotransmission system and CGRP levels making women more predisposed to migraine attacks. Source

What is serotonin?

Serotonin is a neurotransmitter that has a huge impact on your mood, pain, sleep, appetite and digestion. Serotonin is also called 5-hydroxytryptamine (5-HT), and is synthesized from the amino acid tryptophan. (Tryptophan, is an essential amino acid meaning your body can't make it on its own and needs to be obtained from food). A small part is produced in the occipital lobe in your brain, but the main part - 80% is produced in your gut (or by the bacteria in your gut.

Signs of serotonin deficiency:

  • I don't remember things I saw in the past

  • I am slow to react

  • I don’t have daily bowel movements

  • I have to change position several times to be comfortable when I sleep

  • I wake up several times during the night

  • I am irritable, I tend to have mood swings at the end of the day

  • I have sweet cravings around 5 PM

  • My life has no meaning and I don't live it well

  • I am chronically anxious

  • I am sometimes so structured that I become inflexible

  • I wonder about the meaning of life

What is a neurotransmitter?

A neurotransmitter is a messenger (natural molecule) allowing communication between neurons (cells of the nervous system). In the event of insufficiency the nervous signal is simply not transmitted.

There are no less than 100 substances known as neurotransmitters, all of which act in different ways. Without them we would be unable to see, think, understand, remember or have emotions.

How does Serotonin impact migraine?

Serotonin vasoconstricts the nerve endings and blood vessels and in this way affects nociceptive pain. Serotonin receptors have been found on the trigeminal nerve and cranial vessels. The activation of the ‘trigeminovascular system’ causes the release of various vasodilators, especially calcitonin gene-related peptide (CGRP) that induces a pain response.

Low serotonin levels dilate blood vessels and initiate migraine. This is also why vomiting often relieves migraine, because vomiting stimulates intestinal motility and raises blood serotonin. Researchers think that the fluctuating serotonin levels probably lead to pH variations in the brain causing migraine. In the brain, normal levels of serotonin (5-HT) prevent migraine headaches.

So now you want to know: what can you do to increase your serotonin levels naturally?

  • Balance your microbiome to ensure that your gut bacteria are producing enough serotonin

  • I mentioned that serotonin is derived from the amino acid tryptophan: make sure to consume foods high in tryptophan such as free range poultry, wild caught salmon, tofu, nuts & seeds, eggs, and if tolerated raw dairy products (non homogenized).

  • Also, eating probiotic foods such as miso, kefir, kimchi or sauerkraut can increase your tryptophan levels

  • But it’s not as simple as eating tryptophan-rich foods, because of our blood-brain barrier (is a protective sheath around your brain that controls what goes in and out of your brain): the foods that are high in tryptophan, usually contain other amino acids that are present in even higher levels and therefore the other amino acids are more likely to get to your brain.

  • Another way of increasing your tryptophan levels is exercising

  • Or, of course taking tryptophan as a supplement

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