By Fabian Goguta
Researcher and Academic Writer
Montreal Canada

Migraines are a common problem for both females and males of all ages. While during childhood and old age, a similar percentage of females and males are affected by migraines, during reproductive years women are two times more likely to suffer from them. According to research, an estimated 18% of women suffer from migraines and the peak morbidity occurs during their most productive years (Warhurst et al., 2017). Treating chronic migraines can be challenging, as treatment often means taking anti-inflammatory and analgesic medication to levels that can negatively impact other parts of the body (e.g., the liver).

Oriental herbal products have been used for centuries for the treatment of headaches and migraines. One of the most well-known herbal products is ginger, also known as Zingiber Officinale Roscoe. The exact mechanisms through which people started to believe that some herbals have specific therapeutic effects are difficult to understand and researchers have not extensively studied the claimed effects of many of these herbs. Ginger, on the other hand, has been the focus several scientific studies and its potential therapeutic effects on migraine can be explained by the role ginger plays in enhancing estrogen levels.

In order to understand the potential effect of ginger on migraines, it is important to understand the mechanisms that make some forms of migraines experienced by females special. It should be mentioned that there are several factors that explain the differences between women and men in migraine prevalence during reproductive years. For instance, studies show differences in headaches characteristics and the anatomy of the central nervous system. That being said, a significant amount of research suggests that hormones are one of the leading factors that make women more susceptible to migraines. More specifically, studies show that migraines are significantly influenced by estrogen concentrations, with lower estrogen levels leading to a higher risk for migraines. It is also worth noticing that estrogen plays an important role in many psychological processes (for both sexes), including memory and pain processing (Chai, Peterlin & Calhoun, 2014). Estrogen also plays a role in many key physiological processes, including cardiovascular protection, bone mass maintenance, and brain protection. When estrogen levels decrease to a significant level (typically during menopause), many women experience joint pain, cardiovascular problems, and vaginal dryness, among others.

Many women associate hormonal birth control pills with an increase in headache and migraine frequency. Scientific data suggests that hormonal birth control pills can indeed increase the frequency of headaches and migraines in some circumstances while decreasing them in others. The three most relevant estrogens are estradiol, estrone, and estriol. In the brain, estrogen exerts effects through its action on estrogen receptors-specific type of molecules that communicate with other parts of the body in order to produce the effects associated with the substances that attach to them. Hormonal contraceptive pills can cause a decrease in estradiol that is significant enough to trigger an estrogen withdrawal migraine (Chai, Peterlin & Calhoun, 2014). For this reason, some women are more likely to experience migraines when they are using hormonal contraceptives. The relationship between estrogen levels and migraines may also explain why women tend to experience more migraines during menstruation, as estrogen levels decrease during the first phase of the menstrual cycle (Chai, Peterlin & Calhoun, 2014)

While birth control can cause migraines by decreasing estrogen levels, in some cases the opposite occurs. Research shows that migraines caused by hormonal contraceptive pills that increase estrogen levels occur during the periods that women stop taking the pills, as many women in this situation experience estrogen withdrawal symptoms. It is important to note that whether birth control pills will increase or decrease someone’s estrogen levels will depend on the individual. In most of the cases, women in the reproductive age with an optimal estrogen level will experience a decrease in their estrogen level when taking birth control pills, including those containing estrogen. On the other hand, women that no longer produce enough estrogen may experience an increase in their estrogen level by taking birth control pills which contain it.

Because chronic migraines negatively impact the quality of life, many of those suffering from them engage in excessive use of anti-inflammatory and analgesic medication. These medications are not particularly effective when they are not acting on the causes of migraine. Ginger-based treatment, on the other hand, can act directly upon the cause of migraines caused by hormonal imbalance by increasing estrogen levels.

One way of demonstrating whether ginger has an effect on estrogen levels is by analyzing the effects of ginger extracts on estrogen receptors. With this in mind, Kim, Kang, Kim Choung & Zee (2008) used yeast cells that were modified to carry the human estrogen receptor called hER gene. These researchers applied extracts of 94 medicinal plants on the mention yeast cells with the goal of measuring responses of the human estrogen receptor.

From all the plants, only 14 showed significant effects on the estrogen receptor. One of those plants was ginger. More specifically, it was found that ginger concentrations between 0.1 and 2.8 mg/ml are sufficient for producing estrogenic responses of different magnitudes. These results suggest that low concentration of ginger influence estrogen levels in the brain and the degree of influence increases as the level of ginger concentration increases.

Bibliography

Allais, G., Gabellari, I. C., De Lorenzo, C., Mana, O., & Benedetto, C. (2009). Oral contraceptives in migraine. Expert review of neurotherapeutics, 9(3), 381-393.

Chai, N. C., Peterlin, B. L., & Calhoun, A. H. (2014). Migraine and estrogen. Current opinion in neurology, 27(3), 315.

Kim, I. G., Kang, S. C., Kim, K. C., Choung, E. S., & Zee, O. P. (2008). Screening of estrogenic and antiestrogenic activities from medicinal plants. Environmental toxicology and pharmacology, 25(1), 75-82.

Tomlinson, S. E. (2017). Effectiveness of the progestin-only pill for migraine treatment in women: A systematic review and meta-analysis. Cephalalgia, 0333102417710636.

Warhurst, S., Rofe, C. J., Brew, B. J., Bateson, D., McGeechan, K., Merki-Feld, G. S., ... & Tomlinson, S. E. (2017). Effectiveness of the progestin-only pill for migraine treatment in women: A systematic review and meta-analysis. Cephalalgia, 0333102417710636.