All headaches are painful, but migraines transport you to an entirely different world of hurt: They produce pulsating waves of intense pain so bad you can barely move. Even quiet sounds, diffuse light and simple actions like combing your hair or breathing cold air can make the discomfort even worse. Waves of nausea may periodically roll in to make the misery almost intolerable.
There is no cure for the debilitating headaches said to afflict roughly 10 percent of the world’s population – mostly women — but there is a natural substance that has produced promising results in the few studies conducted so far: Cannabis.
As with other types of headaches, scientists are making progress in understanding the science of migraines. As Teshamae Monteith, a clinical neurologist at the University of Miami Health System, explained in this 2015 article in Science Magazine, researchers have recently come to the realization that migraines are “a sensory perceptual disorder, because so many of the sensory systems — light, sound, smell, hearing — are altered.”
That’s an important piece of the puzzle that could lead to new treatments. Migraines have been shown to produce increased serotonin levels in the brain. Serotonin, a neurotransmitter made in the brain and intestines, helps regulate mood, nausea, appetite, sleep, emotions and other bodily functions.
Monteith notes in the Science article that the discovery has helped steer physicians toward a class of drugs called triptans, which can interfere with the transmission of pain signals by acting on serotonin receptors.
Cannabis for Migraine Headaches
That’s a very interesting observation that may help explain why cannabis has shown so much promise in treating migraines. Cannabinoids, the active ingredients in cannabis, and the receptors that respond to them have been shown in numerous studies, to be closely linked to the body’s serotonin system and capable of raising and lowering levels of serotonin.
This 1985 study on human migraine sufferers by Israeli researchers, for example, showed that cannabinoids inhibited the production of serotonin in blood taken from patients during migraine episodes, but not when they were not experiencing the blinding headaches.
We’ll have to wait to see where that connection may lead, but there have been a few other studies on humans that indicate cannabis can help reduce the frequency of migraines and offer relief that surpasses that of the prescription medications currently available.
Migraines and Medical Cannabis
In a 2016 study published in the journal Pharmacotherapy, researchers in Colorado gave 121 adult migraine patients medical marijuana and charted the results over a 4 ½-year period. Forty percent of the patients who received cannabis saw the frequency of their migraines cut by more than 50 percent, while a smaller subset, 11.6 percent, experienced adverse effects, mostly excessive sleepiness and difficulty controlling the timing and intensity of the dose when consuming edibles.
CBD Works For Headaches
And Italian researchers reported in 2017 (.pdf) that cannabinoids (CBD) worked as well or better than prescription medications in treating patients suffering from migraines and cluster headaches – a similar but distinct condition that produces cyclical series of severe attacks. Interestingly, however, they found that “cannabinoids reduced pain intensity among migraine patients by 43.5 percent. The same results were seen in cluster headache patients, but only in those that had experienced migraine in childhood.”
Further studies will be needed to add to knowledge base. But in the meantime, if you decide to see if cannabis can help relieve or lessen your migraines, you will need to conduct your own research by trying different approaches and seeing what works best for you.
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