Though research on migraines has come a long way, the reason why some people are much more prone to them is largely still a mystery. Physicians will often try to find the cause of recurrent migraine attacks by evaluating patients for other underlying medical conditions, food intolerances and sleep problems.
New research suggests doctors may want to consider screening for something even more simple: vitamin deficiencies. Recent work presented June 10 at the 58th Annual Scientific Meeting of the American Headache Society in San Diego finds that certain vitamin supplements could potentially help stop the occurrence of frequent migraines.
In a study on children, teens and young adults, the researchers found migraineurs (people who suffer from frequent migraine headaches) were much more likely to have mildly lower levels of vitamin D, riboflavin (B-2) and coenzyme Q10 (a naturally occurring, vitamin-like enzyme made by the body). All of these vitamins are needed for the mitochondria, the energy production centers of our cells, to function properly. "Deficient function, possibly through vitamin deficiency or over-utilization of vitamins, may put the migraineur at increased risk of energy deficiency,” says Dr. Andrew Hershey, director of the Migraine Center at the Cincinnati Children’s Hospital Medical Center and one of the researchers working on the project.
For the study, researchers at Cincinnati Children’s looked at existing data on 7,691 young patients who were migraine sufferers and their records of blood tests for baseline levels of vitamin D, riboflavin, coenzyme Q10 and folate. Of the study participants, 15 percent were found to have riboflavin levels below the standard reference range. A significant number of patients—30 percent—had coenzyme Q10 levels at the low end of the standard reference range. Significantly lower vitamin D was seen in nearly 70 percent of the patients.
The researchers also found that patients with chronic migraines were more likely to have coenzyme Q10 deficiencies than patients who had episodic migraines. Girls and young women were more likely than boys and young men to have coenzyme Q10 deficiencies at baseline. Boys and young men were more likely to have vitamin D deficiency, but the reasons behind these trends need further investigation.
Hershey says the study adds to an ongoing observation that a significant number of people with migraines have lower levels of these vitamins. However, this trend is not seen in all patients across the board.
It’s been suggested for some time that vitamins play a role in this painful and debilitating chronic condition, but research on the topic is inconsistent. For example, a 2014 analysis in BioMed Research International of seven previously published papers on migraines and vitamin D deficiency suggested there isn’t enough evidence to back the claim that lower levels of the vitamin could make a person more prone to migraines. The researchers of that study found vitamin D deficiency in 13.2 to 14.8 percent of migraine patients. These rates didn’t differ widely from the general population.
Even though evidence is limited, the nutraceutical industry has picked up on the potential for vitamins to alleviate and control migraines. A number of over-the-counter supplement cocktails are currently marketed to migraine sufferers. These typically combine the vitamins identified in this study, as well as magnesium, an organic mineral that when deficient has also been found to increase risk for chronic migraines. One study published in May in International Clinical Psychopharmacology found the odds of acute migraine headaches increased 35.3 times in patients who were identified as magnesium deficient. However, Hershey questions the use of magnesium supplements for treating migraines because he says only about 1 percent is absorbed by the body, and it is also difficult to measure in the blood.
In general, taking these vitamin supplements at recommended doses probably can’t hurt, but much more research is needed to determine whether vitamins alone could help stop migraines. One challenge researchers face is that vitamin supplements are often an intervention used in addition to medications and other experimental therapies. It’s therefore difficult to determine whether improvements in the condition can be explained for reasons other than supplement use.