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Can Understanding Dopamine Help You Manage Migraine Attacks? Experts Say Yes

Mental Well-Being

December 06, 2023

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Photography by Michela Ravasio/Stocksy United

Photography by Michela Ravasio/Stocksy United

by Beth Ann Mayer

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Medically Reviewed by:

Heidi Moawad, M.D.

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by Beth Ann Mayer

•••••

Medically Reviewed by:

Heidi Moawad, M.D.

•••••

•••••

New research indicates that dopamine may play a role in migraine attacks. Diet, exercise, and high quality sleep may help manage dopamine levels and reduce sensitivity to migraine triggers, though research is still emerging.

If you experience migraine, you may be vigilant about your triggers.

From staying hydrated to traveling with a migraine kit at the ready, you’re likely to know what might lead to a migraine attack and what can provide some relief.

However, you may not have considered the role of dopamine in managing migraine.

Experts and emerging research suggest that dopamine might be a factor in how you respond to migraine triggers. Read on to learn why, plus get tips on managing migraine with dopamine in mind.

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Is there a link between dopamine and migraine attacks?

Experts believe there may be a link between dopamine and migraine. But first, what is dopamine?

“Dopamine is a neurotransmitter produced by the brain,” says Medhat Mikhael, MD. “The body uses it to send messages between the nerve cells — that’s why it’s sometimes called a chemical messenger.”

Mikhael is a pain management specialist and medical director of the nonoperative program at the Spine Health Center at MemorialCare Orange Coast Medical Center.

Mikhael says dopamine affects:

  • how we feel pleasure
  • the thinking process
  • planning and executive function
  • focus

Mikhael notes that serotonin has been well-documented as playing a role in migraine, but that dopamine is starting to emerge more and more.

“It’s very likely that fluctuations in the levels of serotonin and dopamine are at least one of the reasons for sensitivity leading to a migraine,” he says.

Mikhael also notes that people with migraine who experience dopamine fluctuations tend to be more sensitive to other triggers too.

Julian Lagoy, MD, a board certified psychiatrist with Mindpath Health, agrees that there’s probably a relationship between dopamine and migraine attacks.

“A change in dopamine levels is one of the most common causes of the onset of a migraine,” says Lagoy. “Data also shows that people who experience frequent migraine [episodes] are more sensitive to dopamine changes in the brain.”

A 2020 study of 1,148 people with chronic and episodic migraine found that 374 participants had what are called dopaminergic symptoms, or symptoms related to dopamine fluctuations.

These individuals experienced symptoms including:

  • longer attack duration
  • increased sensitivity to smell
  • allodynia, or pain from otherwise nonpainful stimuli
  • increased cranial autonomic symptoms like eye redness, tearing, blurred vision, and one-sided headaches

Interestingly, participants with dopaminergic symptoms also tended to use fewer preventive treatments than those without.

An older 2017 study of eight people with episodic migraine with allodynia used PET (positron emission tomography) imaging scans to assess multiple phases of migraine attack. The research indicated that dopamine levels fell before a migraine, potentially due to sensory inputs like light and sound.

Researchers also noted that participants with a longer history and recurrence of migraine attacks had lower dopamine release levels.

Still, Rathod cautions that data is inconclusive and emerging.

”There have been studies that showed transient fluctuations in … and imbalance of dopamine in brain structures during a migraine attack, which is presumed to cause pain, discomfort, and sensory and environmental sensitivity,” Rathod says. “How this is all interconnected still needs further research.”

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Can you manage dopamine levels to prevent migraine symptoms?

While there are treatments and medications available for preventing or treating migraine, experts share that understanding and managing dopamine levels can be critical.

Try the tips below to manage dopamine levels.

Know your dopamine fluctuation triggers

Understanding what causes dopamine fluctuations can help you avoid some migraine triggers.

Just like migraine, dopamine fluctuations have several causes. In fact, some of them overlap.

Rathod says common reasons for dopamine fluctuation include:

  • sleep duration that’s too long or too short
  • poor quality sleep
  • dietary intake of saturated fats
  • stress
  • drug use, including caffeine and alcohol

Experiment with diet changes

Diet is a factor in migraine and dopamine fluctuation triggers. Lagoy says eating nutritious foods can help manage dopamine levels.

Mikhael suggests limiting fats and refined carbohydrates.

You can experiment by reducing or eliminating foods like:

  • fried food
  • processed or packaged food
  • common allergens like wheat, dairy, and soy
  • foods high in refined sugar

Get in regular movement

Regular physical activity can help prevent low dopamine.

“Those who exercise have healthier brains and are less likely to have chemical imbalances and dopamine fluctuations,” Lagoy says. “When you exercise, you increase blood flow to your brain, promoting more overall balance.”

A 2020 review indicated that physical activity could positively affect dopamine levels and improve mental health outcomes, including reducing symptoms of anxiety and depression.

Get plenty of deep sleep

Mikhael says 7–8 hours of quality sleep per night can boost dopamine and prevent significant fluctuations. Rathod agrees that quality sleep is essential for patients with migraine.

“Our body naturally releases dopamine in the morning and tends to decrease in the evening when it’s time for bed,” Rathod says. “Lack of good quality sleep may disrupt this process.”

Dopamine could also be important for sleep, research suggests.

A 2021 study of mice indicated that dopamine-deficient animals spent less time in REM sleep. Another animal study from 2022 indicated dopamine increased in the brain region known as the basolateral amygdala right before transitioning into REM sleep.

Try meditation

Mikhael says stress-management tools like meditation can boost mental health and reduce dopamine fluctuations.

Further, Lagoy suggests avoiding drug use to regulate dopamine levels. Meditation may help with that too.

One 2022 randomized clinical trial indicated that 45% of patients stopped misuse of opioids after 9 months of Mindfulness-Oriented Recovery Enhancement (MORE), which included meditation.

Reach out for help

If you’re concerned about dopamine fluctuations, migraine attacks, or both, you don’t have to go it alone.

“Consult a neurologist, psychiatrist, or therapist,” Lagoy says. “A neurologist will have proper training on the brain’s functions. A psychiatrist and therapist may be able to help reduce frequent triggers of migraine, like stress, anxiety, and depression, that affect the overall function of the brain.”

You can reach out to loved ones and the migraine community as well.

Takeaway

Emerging research indicates that the neurotransmitter dopamine may play a role in migraine attacks.

Lifestyle tweaks like diet, exercise, and improved sleep quality and duration may help prevent dopamine fluctuations and low dopamine. This, in turn, may help reduce sensitivity to migraine triggers.

However, research is still very new. It’s likely that a well-rounded prevention plan is the best bet for migraine relief.

Medically reviewed on December 06, 2023

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About the author

Beth Ann Mayer

Beth Ann Mayer is a New York-based freelance writer and content strategist who specializes in health and parenting writing. Her work has been published in Parents, Shape, and Inside Lacrosse. She is a co-founder of digital content agency Lemonseed Creative and is a graduate of Syracuse University. You can connect with her on LinkedIn.

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