Why IBS Can Literally Be a Headache to Deal With

My body is home to a cornucopia of disorders and illnesses, not the least of which is IBS. However, while the connections between some of my disorders are more apparent and easy to understand–such as those between my GERD and IBS or my Endometriosis and IBS–others are not–such as those between IBS and migraine headache.

The beginning of migraines

I initially began getting terrible tension headaches in high school, around the time my wisdom teeth started coming in and instigating TMJ. But I did not get my first genuine migraine until the summer after I completed college. When these headaches came on, they were accompanied by visual issues such as blurred vision, floaters, flashing lights, as well as severe vertigo and nausea. That same summer I found myself mostly bed-ridden many days as I couldn’t take the seasick and disoriented feeling of walking down the street in the glaring sun. Eventually my chronic migraine subsided when autumn arrived, but I still found myself occasionally felled by them. Currently, I get a few migraines a month, though it’s hard to always anticipate when they will arrive or what will bring them on. However, I have identified at least a few catalysts, such as: too much exposure to fluorescent lights or screen glare, dehydration, changes in weather and humidity (as well as barometric pressure) and certain hormonal changes. For that last catalyst, I tend to get migraines most months either a few days preceding or the first day of my period, a phenomenon often dubbed as “menstrual migraine.” This is one common link I can easily place between migraine and IBS as both tend to flare aggressively when I am menstruating.

Brain-gut connection

Yet, it turns out that migraines and IBS may also share a common genetic origin. A study from early 2016 found that of a survey of 320 participants more than half (54.2%) with IBS also suffered from migraines, while more than a quarter (28.3%) of those with IBS experience episodic tension-type headaches, otherwise known as ETTH.1 In particular, the researchers of this study found those patients who suffered from IBS, migraine and ETTH also had at least one gene that differed among their serotonin receptor and transporter genes than those participants. This may explain why certain anti-depressants that target serotonin uptake is useful in treating IBS. There is also a known “brain-gut connection,” with some researchers calling IBS a “migraine” of the GI system. Conversely, studies sometimes show compromised gut flora can impact mental health. The study also noted both IBS and migraine are both much more common in women than in men, which potentially points to hormones–especially estrogen–as a potential contributor (which again resonates with my personal experience I encountering increased symptoms of both migraines and IBS dependent on where I am in my monthly cycle). The good news in all of this? Identifying these connections between migraines and IBS not only brings us closer to more efficient and effective treatments for both disorders, but could eventually uncover a cure.

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