A migraine is one of the most debilitating experiences your body can put you through. Intense pulsating pains, visual changes, and sensitivity to light or sound are some symptoms that characterize migraines. However, that’s not the end of it. While relatively uncommon, studies¹ indicate a link between migraines and gastrointestinal (GI) tract disorders.
If you’re experiencing migraines with diarrhea, escaping to your quiet, low-light bedroom might be made difficult by the frequent trips you have to make to the bathroom. This guide will help you understand what’s happening in your body and give you a few insights as to how to manage both issues.
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Statista reports that over 15%² of adults in the U.S. complain of migraines or severe headaches.
Most people think of migraines as more intense headaches. However, headaches are but a symptom of migraines and often differ from individual to individual in terms of length and severity.
A migraine is a neurological condition that affects brain chemicals, blood vessels, and nerve pathways. These changes are what cause splitting headaches as well as other symptoms.
Symptoms associated with migraines include, but aren’t limited to:
Heightened sensitivity to light, sound, or smells
A person suffering from a migraine may experience a few or all the symptoms.
A migraine episode occurs in four phases, although not everyone goes through all of them. They include:
The prodrome phase is also known as the pre-headache stage. It is characterized by painless manifestations hours or even days before the migraine fully arrives. Stiffness of the neck, food cravings, and mood swings are some of the indicators.
You can expect sensory disruption (auras) during this stage. It occurs either before or during your migraine. However, not everyone experiences auras, with those feeling them reporting strange disturbances in their speech, touch, or sight.
As you’d expect, this is when the pain begins kicking in. Its intensity may range from slight to debilitating. Exposure to sound, smells, light, and physical activity may increase the pain.
During this phase, most, if not all, of the pain has subsided. This final stage is characterized by fatigue, confusion, or general malaise.
Tracing the origins of a normal headache is easy, but the exact cause of migraines remains unclear. Despite this frustrating lack of concrete information, there are common triggers associated with this affliction.
These triggers differ among individuals but normally include the following.
Menstrual cycles in women and hormonal changes are potent risk factors. It is why women are three times more likely³ to have migraines compared to men.
The proper scientific term is allergic rhinitis. Irritation in the body due to allergies causes inflammation. As migraines are linked to inflammation of blood pathways, allergies and asthma act as triggers for some individuals.
If migraines are common in your family, then you’re more predisposed to them than someone who doesn’t have a family history of migraine headaches.
In 2013, a UCSF (University of California, San Francisco) research team identified a genetic mutation⁴ associated with typical migraines.
Many triggers fall under this blanket. Some of these include certain smells, the weather, lack of sleep, not enough water, and stress.
Diarrhea is a medical condition characterized by loose and watery stools, occurring three or more times within a day; it can be diagnosed by its severity.
There are three types of diarrhea: acute, persistent, and chronic.
Acute diarrhea is a common occurrence and usually disappears on its own after one or two days. Persistent diarrhea, on the other hand, goes on for longer than two weeks but less than four.
Finally, chronic diarrhea lasts for at least four weeks. The symptoms may come and go, or they may be continual.
Research estimates reveal roughly 179 million acute diarrhea cases⁵ are reported in the United States per year.
Some symptoms of diarrhea include:
Watery or loose stools
A pressing need to visit the bathroom
Lack of control of bowel movements
Diarrhea stemming from infections may have one or several of the following signs:
Dizziness and light-headedness
Blood or mucus in stools
Chills and fever
Diarrhea also causes malabsorption of food and dehydration.
Chronic diarrhea and acute diarrhea may differ in their causative elements. Acute diarrhea and persistent diarrhea are normally caused by:
Bacterial, viral, or parasitic infections
Medications like cancer medicines, antibiotics, and antacids with magnesium
Chronic diarrhea is usually a result of:
Infections and parasites
Food allergies, for example, lactose intolerance
Digestive tract issues such as celiac disease, Crohn’s disease, and irritable bowel syndrome
We’ve seen that while vomiting and nausea are common symptoms of migraines, diarrhea isn’t; the likelihood, however, is still present. The direct link between the two illnesses is still being studied. Contemporary research continues to link migraines to GI disorders⁶, such as inflammatory bowel syndrome and irritable bowel syndrome.
Serotonin also has long been known to be a common denominator between headaches and diarrhea. This neurotransmitter helps regulate and stabilize moods, and interestingly enough, its receptors are prevalent in the gut.
The digestive system slows down for most people when they have a migraine. On the other end of the spectrum, some people’s systems move faster, and they throw up. A small group of people, however, develop diarrhea when the gut speeds up.
If you experience recurring problems with your GI tract like diarrhea and constipation, you may be at a higher risk of having chronic migraines. Inflammation and heightened gut permeability may be responsible for this association.
The American Migraine Foundation reports that one in three people experiencing migraines cites dehydration as one of the triggers. The confusion and dizziness common with migraines can also be worsened by dehydration.
Even when diarrhea is a symptom of an infection or underlying illness, dehydration may be the main culprit behind your headaches.
The diagnosis of a migraine accompanied by diarrhea requires the doctor or medical practitioner to engage with you to inquire about your symptoms and assess your medical history. Questions about any possible triggers and frequency of these headaches and loose stools are to be expected.
Investigating potential triggers will normally require a food allergy or intolerance examination. There are also a few additional tests that the medical center may carry out, namely:
Hydrogen breath tests
A neurologist will be best placed to diagnose your migraine headaches; they’ll likely do this via a physical exam. Neuroimaging techniques such as CT and MRI scans may be used to attempt to see what’s happening inside your head.
While migraines don’t have a lasting, permanent cure, the symptoms of both migraine and diarrhea can be managed.
Doctors, for example, recommend you keep a food journal. You can discover foods or beverages that trigger diarrhea and migraines in this manner.
You can also learn proper stress management practices to help with your migraine headaches. These include exercise, biofeedback therapy, yoga, and other relaxation techniques.
You can also use Food and Drug Administration (FDA)-approved medication to treat your migraines. Drugs like ubrogepant, nortriptyline, amitriptyline, lasmiditan, and erenumab are typically used.
With regards to your diarrhea, you can use over-the-counter medications for it. Bismuth subsalicylate and loperamide are good examples. If you experience fever and bloody stools, consult your doctor first about using these medicines.
As migraine triggers are unique to the individual, working with a doctor familiar with your medical history is best. Try to document what you eat, your stress, anxiety levels, and any other factors preceding the migraine. You may be able to see patterns once you have all this information.
Once the symptoms are evident, retreat to a dark and quiet room to see if the aches subside. Experiment with either a hot or cold compress to see what eases your symptoms. Caffeine is also known to help during the early stages of a migraine. Limit your caffeine intake, though. Overindulge in coffee, and you might be in for a caffeine withdrawal later.
People with frequent migraine episodes may need to take medication daily. Your doctor will talk you through your options and potential side effects.
The symptoms of a migraine accompanied by diarrhea generally vanish on their own or when treated using the appropriate home remedies.
Contact your doctor if:
Your migraine episodes are increasing in severity and frequency
You’re passing six or more watery stools in 24 hours
You have a fever exceeding 102 degrees Fahrenheit
You feel severe rectal or abdominal pain
Your diarrhea lasts more than two days
Your stool is tarry and black or contains pus or blood
Symptoms of dehydration manifest
You have blurred vision or difficulty breathing
Senior citizens or adults with compromised immune systems who experience these indicators are especially at risk.
Diarrhea isn’t the most common symptom of a migraine. Yet, both conditions are linked. Your gastric health may affect the frequency and intensity of migraine episodes.
Both migraines and diarrhea can be manageable using proper medication and avoiding your triggers. Visit your doctor for a check-up if you experience both conditions.
Headache and migraine - Statistics & facts | Statista
Genetic mutation linked with typical form of migraine | University of California San Francisco
Definition & facts for diarrhea | NIH: National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases