Could Your Estrogen or Progesterone Levels Be Causing Your Migraines?
When I was 21 years old, life was going great. I had just enjoyed the best summer of my life. I was fresh out of college and ready to take on the world. Life was magical...
And then it all fell apart. It struck out of the blue—a migraine like no other I had ever experienced. I was on a drive home, and it hit me, and I knew within several hours that something was wrong.
It wasn’t that I hadn’t had headaches before that lasted that long, or that felt that intense. I had. But something about this one was different. I knew instinctively that I was in for a long battle.
I was right. The headache didn’t go away the next day … or the next … or the next. Weeks passed, and turned into months. The pain went on … and on … and on. Everyone said to me, “But you look great!”
Nothing is worse than hearing that when you’re literally in a state of constant torture.
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Migraines are an invisible ailment, and for that reason, people often don’t understand what you’re going through. A lot of people (doctors, family) didn’t even believe me. I saw a number of doctors who were completely baffled and couldn’t seem to come up with a single idea.
Nothing was “wrong” with me going off my blood tests, so all I got was “good luck” on my way out the door.
Eventually I did figure out what was wrong, and the answer was my hormones. It took years to figure this out, years of relentless searching. Thanks to that determination and hard work, I am now mostly pain-free most days.
So could hormones be the cause of your migraines? Let’s talk about what goes on in the body and see how your symptoms match up. I will then share with you some useful treatments you can try to get your hormones back in balance. I have had excellent results, so there is hope for you too.
Your Menstrual Cycle
To be clear, both men and women may suffer from hormonal migraines. The causes of hormonal migraines in men are not well understood, but likely involve a decline in testosterone levels. In this article, I will be focusing on hormonal migraines in women.
So let’s talk for a moment about your menstrual cycle. While in theory menstruation occurs around once a month, there is a fair bit of variation, and if you do have a hormonal imbalance, your cycle could be even more irregular.
Here is a simple graph which shows the rising and falling levels of estrogen and progesterone throughout your cycle:
As you can see, both estrogen and progesterone bottom out right before your period, and the drop is quite sharp. Levels remain low for around a week and a half (assuming a 30-day schedule), and then your estrogen shoots way up.
Progesterone starts climbing around this point. Estrogen drops again around ovulation, and then both estrogen and progesterone climb. During the latter half of your cycle, progesterone levels are higher than estrogen levels.
Now, there is supposed to be an ideal balance of these hormones, both in terms of their general presence and their proportions with relation to each other. When you do not have this ideal balance, problems may ensue.
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Many women are familiar with “pre-menstrual syndrome,” or “PMS.” PMS results from the sharp drop-off in estrogen and/or progesterone levels right before menstruation. Sometimes the headaches clear up when your period starts. Other times, they may persist through your period.
Many women have pre-menstrual migraines but no other major symptoms of hormonal imbalance. The steep drop in levels sparks the headaches, but overall, their hormone levels are still healthy.
Above you see another fascinating chart which may shed some light both on pre-menstrual migraines and on post-menstrual migraines (which I will get to momentarily). The red line shows levels of glutamate, which is your primary neurotransmitter. Notice how glutamate levels are high when your progesterone and estrogen levels are low.
The association between high glutamate and migraines is well-researched.
You may even be aware that glutamate is present in MSG, which is why Chinese food triggers migraines for many people.
This may explain the mechanism through which low progesterone and estrogen can cause headaches.
So this may cause you to wonder, “Why aren’t men susceptible to this?” After all, men always have lower levels of estrogen and progesterone.
Well, men do have more glutamate on a consistent basis, but they also have more compounds known as “glutamate scavengers”—GOT and GPT. These effectively keep glutamate levels in check.
The fact that women have lower levels of GOT and GPT on a consistent basis is not usually a problem, because glutamate, progesterone and estrogen levels are all at an acceptable level. But right around your period, your glutamate skyrockets, and then your GOT and GPT cannot adequately clean up the toxicity caused by the high levels of glutamate.
Here is a simple metaphor. Imagine that you run a seasonal tourist town. During the off-season, there are very few customers, so a skeleton staff does fine taking care of everyone. But on-season, the crowds of customers swell. You no longer have sufficient staff to take care of them all. This is why seasonal businesses hire additional seasonal staff to handle the higher volume. But you cannot “hire” additional GOT and GPT to take care of your higher volume of glutamate. This causes you to suffer from migraines before and during your period.
Now, keep in mind that your hormones can be more or less in balance most of the time and still end up causing you grief before your period. PMS is incredibly common, even among women who are otherwise more or less functional. But PMS may be extra bad if you have chronically imbalanced hormones (see below).
Post-Menstrual Migraines (Estrogen Dominance)
Now, PMS tends to get all the attention when it comes to hormonal woes—but not all hormonal migraines are PMS.
After a couple of years of migraines, something in my body started to right itself, and my migraines began fluctuating up and down (no longer at a constant high). It took a long time to reach the point where I could track these fluctuations, but once I could, I noticed something interesting.
My migraines were at their worst right after my period, and were much better in the week leading up to it.
So I started researching “post-menstrual syndrome.” It seemed like a logical term, but I came up with nothing. This was incredibly frustrating, as you might imagine, and went on for years. I just couldn’t seem to hit the right keyword to bring up anything helpful, but I knew I couldn’t be the only one.
Eventually I was lucky enough to find the real term, which is “estrogen dominance.” Let us go back to the chart.
Notice that after estrogen and progesterone decline, their levels remain very low for around a week and a half. Not only that, but your estrogen spikes quite a bit with relation to your progesterone around day 12. It isn’t until the second half of your cycle that progesterone actually reaches high levels.
Also notice that glutamate levels remain high until day 12 or so. This is when they reach a low, slowly climbing thereafter toward your period.
All of this is by design; you shouldn’t always have more progesterone in your body than estrogen. But if you happen to produce lower amounts of progesterone or higher amounts of estrogen than you should all of the time, you are going to really suffer during the parts of your cycle when your progesterone is low. It dips way below your comfort zone.
This state of having excess estrogen with ratio to progesterone as a chronic problem is known as “estrogen dominance.” It turns out that is what I have. This is why my worst migraines have always followed my period rather than proceeded it. While I often get a couple of PMS headaches, they are nothing compared to the lasting migraine that can follow a period and drag on for days or weeks. When my progesterone is highest in the luteal phase is always when I feel best.
So this is why you may be experiencing post-menstrual migraines. And yes, you may have both PMS and estrogen dominance—this is very common.
How to Determine If You Have Hormonal Migraines
How can you know for sure that your migraines are hormonal in nature (whether from PMS or estrogen dominance), and not caused by something else? It can be pretty tricky to figure it out, especially since other factors may be playing into your headaches as well, but here are a few pointers:
- If you have one long chronic headache, it could be hormonal in nature. If you notice regular fluctuations up and down in your pain, or if your pain regularly abates during certain phases of your cycle, this is a great indication that your headache has something to do with your estrogen and/or progesterone levels.
- You may have other symptoms of hormonal imbalance (more on that below).
- If you try a treatment for balancing your hormones and it works, your hormones probably were responsible. But be careful with this—if you pick the wrong approach, you could make things worse.
- You can have your hormone levels tested if you need to. Be sure to get a blood test for this and not a saliva test. Saliva is more accurate for cortisol, but less accurate for the readings you need to determine if your migraines are caused by imbalanced levels of progesterone and/or estrogen.
Other Symptoms of Hormonal Imbalance
If your hormones are imbalanced, there is a good chance you will be suffering from other symptoms as well. There is no guarantee of that, however. Every person is different. Some women may have hormonal migraines and no other symptoms of PMS or estrogen dominance. Others may have many symptoms.
I experienced a burst of symptoms at the onset, most of which gradually trickled away over the years. At the time, they seemed very mysterious. Later, looking back, I see how all of them could have warned me of what was going on. They confused doctors into thinking I had everything from pregnancy to lupus!
Here are some symptoms you may have in conjunction with hormonal migraines if you do indeed have some kind of chronic imbalance:
- Rapid weight gain (I packed on 40 pounds for no obvious reason when my estrogen dominance woes began)
- Fibrocystic breast disease (FBD—which is not technically a “disease”)
- Water retention and bloating
- Fuzzy thinking
- Sleep disturbances (night terrors, insomnia, etc.)
- Irregular periods (after being roughly monthly for years, I skipped around 4-5 months in the beginning)
- Ovarian pain (if you have cysts)
- Mood swings (anxiety, depression, etc.)
- Changes in sex drive
- Food cravings
- Many cherry spots
- Unwanted facial hair growth
- Swollen lymph nodes (I rarely see this mentioned, but it certainly happened to me)
I could tick the majority of these boxes when my estrogen dominance was really bad. The chronic pounding migraine was the worst, but I also had the weight gain, the dizziness, the sleep disturbances, the irregular periods, the mood swings, the cravings, the sex drive changes and the swollen nodes. I still have the fatigue and the FBD.
You may have noticed that a lot of these symptoms may also point toward other disorders. Thyroid disorders also cause hormonal problems and lead to many of the same symptoms for example—in fact that is probably going to be your doctor’s first guess (and it is one worth ruling out with tests). You may also be told you have chronic fatigue, which is a fairly meaningless label. Fibromayalgia is another possibility.
It is also likely that your appointments will end as mine did—with a shrug and “good luck.” Right now the medical community is still debating whether estrogen dominance is even a thing. I can tell you firsthand that it is.
If your hormones are imbalanced, there is a good chance you will be suffering from other symptoms as well.
What Causes Hormonal Imbalance?
The next thing you are probably wondering is, “How the heck did this happen to me anyway?” Unfortunately, doctors currently have a very limited understanding of these types of hormonal disorders. In fact, a lot of doctors still debate whether they exist at all, so it is difficult to get a firm answer.
To add to the complexity, there likely is not just one cause of these types of imbalances. You may have estrogen dominance, and another woman you know may have it as well, but it is entirely possible that the cause of your imbalance and hers are not even related.
One common culprit however which may play a role in many cases is a type of compound called a “xenoestrogen.”
A “xenoestrogen” is a type of xenohormone which mimics estrogen. What is a “xenohormone?” This refers to a compound which displays properties which are similar to those displayed by hormones. Xenohormones may be naturally-occurring, or they may be manmade.
Xenoestrogens are all over the place these days, thanks to our industrialized society. Following are some examples which you may encounter in your own daily life:
This is a whole category of preservatives which show up in lotions, hair dyes, and numerous other hygiene and grooming products. Look on the ingredients lists for the products you use and you will see names like “methylparaben” and “ethylparaben.” Again, there is a whole host of these. If you see the suffix –paraben on any ingredient, it is a xenoestrogen.
You will find this in a lot of sunscreen products and in some other skincare products as well.
You will sometimes find this one abbreviated simply as “BHA.” It is a preservative used in food.
Erythrosine and Phenosulfothiazine
These are both red dyes found in foods. Erythrosine is typically presented as FD&C Red No. 3.
The list goes on and on. These are just a few examples of xenoestrogens which you may be absorbing either through your skin or through your diet. But you also come into contact with xenoestrogens in the form of insecticides, industrial products, plastics, and more. You can find a longer list here.
To make your life even more difficult, there are also totally naturally xenoestrogens. When xenoestrogens are derived from plants, they are known as “phytoestrogens.”
There are numerous plants which contain these phytoestrogens and which are likely a regular part of your diet:
- Soybeans (the most well-known example)
- Licorice root
- Sesame seeds
- Beans and lentils
Try not to let this list concern you too much. You should by no means stop eating these otherwise healthy foods simply because you may have an overabundance of estrogen in your system. You should take other steps to bring your hormones back into balance. That said, you may want to think about moderating your intake of some foods which are high in phytoestrogens.
And actually, surprisingly enough, there is some evidence that eating some phytoestrogens might help you to keep your own estrogen levels in check. If you eat a food like soy which contains weak phytoestrogens, that actually blocks some of your body’s production of strong natural estrogens. This in turn may actually have a protective effect.
As far as avoiding all xenoestrogens, in many ways it is impossible. You live in an industrial society, and despite your best efforts, you will be continuously exposed to xenoestrogens in your environment.
But here are a few steps you can take to decrease your exposure:
- Avoid using plastics, especially for eating or storing your food. If you must use plastic containers, at least avoid exposing them to high levels of heat (as in the microwave).
- Use all-natural products around your household for cleaning, doing your laundry, and so on.
- Replace your lotion with petroleum jelly or coconut oil.
- If you use other cosmetic products, steer clear of chemical ingredients where possible. If you like to dye your hair, henna is the only totally natural choice. Even other plant-based dyes contain chemicals in some concentration, and typically xenoestrogens.
- You can replace perfumes which contain xenoestrogens with perfume oils made using essential oils. Essential oils actually have many health benefits.
I am a big fan of EWG’s Skin Deep cosmetics database. On this site, you can look up any cosmetic product you are thinking about using and see a rating on safety as well as information on each of the ingredients.
Not every product is included, of course, but it is a huge selection to search. Chances are good you will actually find what you are looking for along with detailed information on every concerning ingredient. This is a great way to track down xenoestrogens in products you are using and to search for healthier replacements.
Other Factors Which May Play a Role in Causing an Imbalance in Estrogen and Progesterone Levels
While xenoestrogens are one of the leading causes of hormonal imbalance in our industrial lives, there are other factors which may explain why your hormones are out of whack. Some of them are pretty obscure too.
For example, how much iodine do you get in your diet? Unless you eat a lot of table salt fortified with iodine, the answer may be “not nearly enough.” Because the typical American diet is so high in sodium, there has been a bit of a health scare around salt and iodine.
A lot of Americans do get too much salt (and iodine), but many others actually have a deficit. If for example you switch to iodine-free sea salt and stop eating fortified table salt, chances are good there are no other major sources of iodine in your existing diet!
There are many scientific studies which demonstrate that iodine-rich seaweed or kelp may play a key role in preventing breast cancer. The mechanism through which this works appears to involve estrogen. An adequate iodine intake reduces your body’s sensitivity to the adverse effects of estrogen.
There could be other nutritional gaps in your diet which are responsible for your hormonal imbalance as well. You could be missing a precursor which is vital to progesterone production, leading to progesterone-estrogen imbalance.
Tracking own the cause of your own imbalance may be incredibly tricky. In fact, it can be so difficult that to this day I have not figured out why I developed estrogen dominance. I have managed to treat it, but I still have no idea what went wrong. Obviously if you can get to the bottom of your own case, you will have the best success in treating it (and possibly preventing other health problems along the way).
5 Methods For Treating Migraines Caused by an Imbalance of Estrogen and/or Progesterone
So the big question at this point is, “What can I do about all this? How can I restore balance to my body?” Here are suggestions based on my experiences.
1. Start using an herbal supplement to balance your hormone levels
This is absolutely #1, the most important thing you can do right now to get back on track. I recommend that you stick with herbal supplements only for now. If you cannot get the results you need and you get your levels tested and you discover they are still out of whack, you might want to consider hormone replacement therapy (HRT). But HRT has some adverse health effects, so it is a last resort.
The best thing you can do is try to restore balance through natural, gentle means. There are a number of herbal supplements which are popular for hormone balancing, including Vitex, DIM, black cohosh, dong quai, progesterone cream, and others. The exact supplement you need depends on which levels are too low or high (estrogen, progesterone or both).
The herb that ended up doing the trick for me is Vitex (chaste tree). I had a lot of gradual improvement before I started using it—probably a simple result of my body achieving some natural balancing over time. But after I started with Vitex, my symptoms dropped to the point of being negligible.
Remember, getting your hormones balanced is important for more than one reason. For starters, you can end this horrible migraine pain. But you can also prevent a range of diseases which result from long-term hormonal imbalance!
2. Fill gaps in your diet
Take a close look at your diet and try to figure out whether there are any nutritional gaps which may have caused your imbalance. If there are, fill them by changing what you eat and/or supplementing further. Some common culprits include zinc, magnesium, iodine, vitamin C, iron, B-6, and essential fatty acids (omega-3).
If you do figure out the nature of your imbalance, you can also shift away from foods which have the wrong effect and boost up on those which counteract your problem. So for me (with estrogen dominance), that means avoiding soy and eating more cruciferous vegetables.
3. Replace artificial products with natural ones
If you are swamped in xenoestrogens, it is time to toss out your artificial chemical products and replace them with natural options. Switch to natural shampoos, soaps, lotions, hair dyes, and so on. Get away from plastics and switch to healthier cookware and containers. Stop eating foods which are loaded with additives. Go organic.
Take a close look at your diet and try to figure out whether there are any nutritional gaps which may have caused your imbalance.
Adrenal fatigue may play a role in promoting an imbalance in progesterone and estrogen levels, which may in turn cause migraines. If you have been subjected to a lot of chronic stress (and your headaches obviously are not helping), you need to do whatever is humanly possible to relax and let as much of it go as you can. Get the rest you need.
5. Treat your pain (do not ignore it)
Finally, no good can come from pretending that you are not in any serious pain. Take pain medications if you need them, and consider taking an herbal supplement to treat your migraine pain separately. It is a stop-gap measure, but it will still help. Again, your body and mind need to de-stress and de-toxify, and part of that means fighting the pain.
Along with medications and herbs, I have found the following are helpful in combating migraine pain:
- Hot showers and heating pads
- Dark rooms
- Finding the right position to sit or lie down
- Chiropractor and massage therapy for tension headaches (these develop as an offshoot of the migraines)
- Avoiding strenuous activities
- Patience (it takes time to heal)
Whatever you do, don’t give up. If you have hormonal migraines, you probably have a real battle ahead of you. There are going to be days you wonder if you will ever be pain-free again. But as someone who has come through the other side, I can tell you that it is possible.
Be consistent with the healthy changes you make in your life and stay the course and you should see a major reduction in your pain. You may even be pain-free again someday—and most importantly, you will protect your long-term health!