Migraines are thought to be caused by extreme constriction and then dilation of blood vessels in the head. Recent research suggests that migraines may result from altered levels of neurotransmitters (neurologically active chemicals) in the brain, particularly serotonin.
Migraine is a hereditary trait with 75% of all sufferers estimated as having inherited predisposition to the disorder. Environmental factors associated with the onset of an episode include bright lights and some types of food (cheese, chocolate, peanuts, lower quality red wine); some doctors believe that many migraine sufferers have a craving for sweet things and eat irregularly, and that such foods are a symptom rather than a cause of an attack, which is long periods without food and low blood sugar level.
Three out of four migraine sufferers are female. This is attributed to hormonal changes, particularly those related to the menstrual cycle, pregnancy, PMS and perimenopause (the two to 10 years preceding menopause when hormonal levels fluctuate considerably). Migraine sufferers may also get postnatal migraines although the headache will probably be milder than a typical full-blown attack. Of the 18 million American women estimated to be migraine sufferers, six out of ten experience migraine right before their menstrual periods ("menstrual migraine"). Migraine headaches of this type are typically the most severe and women with this pattern are good candidates for preventive medical therapy.
Ironically, the multiple stresses and roles that many women juggle may contribute to exacerbating a migraine once it starts. One in three female sufferers of migraine reported that it has affected their ability to be in control of their lives. Of these women, nearly half (46 percent) claimed they could not control their plans or activities, or even function during a migraine attack; one in five reported lost confidence in their ability to do their work, could not think clearly, felt "extremely ill" or felt "depressed." According to most of these women, marriages and other relationships suffer as a result; having migraines also affects women's level of sexual satisfaction.
Migraine headaches can be hereditary. If both parents have them, there is a 75 percent chance that their children will have them; if only one parent has migraines, there is a 50 percent chance that the child will be affected.