The Connection Between Migraines and IBS

Last updated: December 2022

Irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) is a gut disorder that involves abdominal pain, bloating, and changes in bowel movements such as diarrhea and constipation. IBS is a functional disorder, meaning that all of the gut organs are healthy but are not functioning as they should.1

Migraine is a common but debilitating disorder defined by severe headache plus other features. This can include sensitivity to light and sound or temporary changes in your vision.1

The gut-brain-axis

Recent studies have shown a link between migraines and IBS symptoms. Experts are currently researching both disorders to try to understand the connection between them. Other studies of the brain and gastrointestinal (GI) tract have revealed the "gut-brain axis." This axis is a way to explain how the gut and the brain can talk to each other.2

The brain and gut are connected through 3 pathways: nerves, hormones, and the immune system. They can send signals back and forth to each other using these pathways. This communication is how scientists believe neurologic symptoms and GI symptoms can be related.1

Serotonin

The large and small intestines have their own extensive set of nerves, similar to the brain. These nerves produce and release serotonin as a way to communicate to nearby GI organs and to the brain. Experts found that people living with IBS have lower serotonin levels in their gut. Researchers also believe that people living with migraines have low serotonin levels.2

Low serotonin can trigger pain receptors on the facial nerves, causing migraines. Early research has shown that people living with both IBS and migraines may have a slightly different form of a gene for serotonin. This genetic change could also help explain the connection between the 2.1,3

Leaky gut

GI disorders like IBS involve inflammation in the gut. Inflammation is the body's response to something that it believes is harmful.

When cells become inflamed, they release little messenger molecules called cytokines. These cytokines talk to surrounding cells. These cells will then make their own cytokines. This ensures the cells will be ready in case they need to defend themselves against something harmful. Unfortunately, in IBS and other inflammatory disorders, there is not necessarily anything harmful to defend against.1

This inflammation can result in what is called "leaky gut," or gut permeability. This is when molecules that should stay in the gut leak out into the bloodstream. The gut knows how to handle these molecules, but the rest of the body does not.1

When these molecules reach other parts of the body, they can cause more inflammation. For example, if they reach the facial nerves, they can cause migraines.1

What is next?

Researchers hope that studying the connection between IBS and migraines can help them better understand both conditions. They also hope to find treatments that work well for people who live with both disorders.2

Currently, there is a large focus on how gut health impacts many disorders. Some research shows that probiotics can help repair the gut. This is a possible treatment for IBS that could also help migraines. However, many probiotics exist, so more studies are needed to understand which are best.2

If you are living with IBS or migraines, speak to your doctor to learn more about current treatments.

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