If you’ve ever experienced a migraine, you know how debilitating they can be. Throbbing pains, sensitivity to light or sound, and visual changes are some of the symptoms more commonly associated with these frequently recurring headaches. Did you know that diarrhea or other gastrointestinal symptoms can also be associated with migraines? While less common, researchers are currently investigating the connection between migraines and gastrointestinal (GI) symptoms.

What Is a Migraine?

Over 10 percent of Americans suffers from migraine headaches according to the American Migraine Prevalence and Prevention Study. A migraine is more than just a bad headache. It’s a specific type of headache characterized by some of the following symptoms:

  • throbbing head pains
  • pain on one side of your head
  • sensitivity to either light or sounds
  • visual changes that doctors refer to as aura
  • nausea
  • vomiting

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There’s a good chance you have a migraine if your headache is making it difficult for you to function at all.

What Causes Migraines?

Doctors have yet to determine the exact cause of migraine headaches. Genetics may play at least some part in how likely you are to get migraines. Migraine symptoms are the result of changes in your brain. These changes are caused by inherited abnormalities in your brain’s cells.

Certain environmental factors could also be involved. Environmental triggers for one person’s migraine will likely be different from someone else’s triggers, however. That means your treatment will be individualized for you. Some common triggers include:

  • stress
  • chocolate
  • red wine
  • a woman’s menstrual cycle

Diarrhea and Migraines: What’s the Link?

Diarrhea is characterized by three or more loose stools within a 24-hour period. Stomach pain or pain in your abdomen area may also occur.

Nausea and vomiting are common migraine symptoms of migraine. Diarrhea is less common, but it’s possible to experience diarrhea along with a migraine.

It’s unclear what’s behind this association. Research studies suggest that migraines may be linked to several GI disorders, including irritable bowel syndrome and inflammatory bowel syndrome. Both of these syndromes are marked in part by diarrhea and other GI symptoms.

People who experience pretty regular GI symptoms, such as diarrhea or constipation, may be more likely to experience migraines. Increased gut permeability and inflammation are two possible culprits of this association. Your gut microbiota, or how many healthy bugs are in your gut, may also play a role. More evidence is needed to confirm this association, however.

What Are the Risk Factors?

Both men and women can experience migraines, but women are three times more likely to get migraines.

Abdominal migraines are a subtype of migraine that’s associated with diarrhea. In people who experience an abdominal migraine, the pain is generally felt in the abdomen, not the head. Abdominal migraines can also include nausea, vomiting, or diarrhea. Children are more likely to experience abdominal migraines.

How you deal with stress may also increase your chances of having diarrhea as a symptom of migraine headaches. Stress and anxiety can increase the frequency of headaches and may make you more likely to experience irritable bowel disease, says Segil.

Diagnosis and Treatment

A neurologist will be best able to diagnose your migraines through a physical exam. You may also need some type of neuroimaging, such as an MRI. Headaches can rarely be caused by a growing brain tumor, so a specialist should evaluate even semi-regular headaches. This is even more important if you’ve noticed your headaches getting worse or more frequent.

Similarly, you should seek the guidance of a GI specialist if diarrhea or other GI symptoms are becoming more regular. They can rule out colon cancer, ulcerative colitis, or Crohn’s disease and offer tips on how to handle any regular stomach upset issues. 

Treatment

For GI issues, your doctor may recommend small changes in your diet. There are several medications you can take for your migraines. Some medications are taken daily to prevent migraines. Other medications are used when a migraine starts to treat the symptoms. Speak with your doctor to determine which medications are right for you.

You may even be able to find a medication that can treat your diarrhea and other migraine symptoms. According to Segil, antidepressant medications can cause constipation and may help treat headaches.

Prevention

Migraine triggers are individualized, so you’ll want to work with your doctor to determine what might be triggering your migraines. Keep a diary where you list what you ate, stress triggers, or other factors that happen soon before a migraine hits. It may help you find patterns you wouldn’t normally see.

When a migraine hits, you may find some relief in a room that’s dark and quiet. Temperature can also help. Experiment with either cold or hot compresses. Try both to see if either improves your symptoms. Caffeine has also shown to improve migraine symptoms, but stick to small amounts of caffeine. A cup of coffee is sufficient to potentially help without the effects of caffeine withdrawal later. Some migraine medications also include caffeine.

Understanding your triggers is an important step in preventing migraines, but you may still experience the occasional migraine. Work with your doctor to establish both a prevention and treatment plan. Being prepared can make migraines more manageable and less stressful.