Low Dopamine Can Lead To Migraine Headaches

Among the many issues that can happen when dopamine levels are low– including fatigue, addictive behaviors, mood swings, memory loss, and demotivation – it could also be contributing to your migraine headaches.

There are approximately 86 billion neurons in the brain, which communicate via neurotransmitters.  One of these neurotransmitters is dopamine.  It is a key player in productivity, focus, and motivation.

Dopamine Function

Dopamine is responsible for boosting our focus, concentration, and overall drive or ambition.  It gives us the drive to plan ahead and achieve our goals.  It also gives us the “Yes! I did it!” reaction when we accomplish a goal and do what we planned to do.  It drives our competitive spirit and gives us the thrill of the chase of success.  With that said, dopamine is in charge of the pleasure-reward system in the brain.  It gives us feelings of bliss and even euphoria.  However, low dopamine levels can leave you feeling unmotivated, unfocused, overtired, and depressed.

Symptoms of Low Dopamine

For lack of a better phrase, those with low dopamine levels have little “zest for life.”  There is very little motivation, and many people start to rely heavily on sugar and caffeine, or other stimulants.  Some common symptoms of low dopamine resemble those of depression and include, but are not limited to:

  • Fatigue
  • Apathy
  • Insomnia
  • Memory loss
  • Trouble with concentration and focus
  • Decreased libido
  • Lack of motivation
  • Little pleasure
  • Mood swings
  • Hopelessness

Lab mice with low dopamine levels were found to be so lethargic and apathetic that they even were not motivated to eat.  Many of them starved to death.  In turn, people who have a dopamine deficiency often compensate with more self-destructive behaviors to boost those levels such as abuse of drugs, sugar, alcohol, caffeine, sex, shopping, online pornography, or anything else that produces a “feel good” sensation.

Genetics of Dopamine and Migraines

Some clinical evidence in genetic studies indicate that there is some involvement of dopamine in migraines.  Symptoms that precede migraines (excessive yawning, mood changes, food cravings, and drowsiness), accompany migraines (nausea and vomiting), proceed migraines (tiredness and mood changes) could be related to the release, or lack thereof, of dopamine.  The release could be playing a role in the headache part of the phase as well, either by regulating the cerebral blood or taking part in the mechanisms that play a part in the perception of physical pain.

Causes of Migraine Headaches

This has never been clearly understood by experts in the field.  It was once proposed that the migraine starts as a spasm of the arteries that go to the cerebrum (main part of the brain). The spasm decreases the blood supply, which then causes an aura.  These partially closed arteries then become too relaxed.  This causes an increase in the blood flow and resultant pain.  Three decades after this theory was announced, dopamine and serotonin were found to have a responsible role in migraine headaches as well.  These neurotransmitters can cause the blood vessels to act in inappropriate ways if there is too much or too little of the chemical.  The blood vessels are very sensitive to these neurotransmitters.  These two theories have come to be known as the neurovascular theory of migraine.

Some research has found that there is hypersensitivity to dopamine and low serotonin levels in those with primary headaches (those that don’t happen as a result of a medical condition).  Therefore, the medications and supplements that aim at raising serotonin levels and balancing dopamine have been extremely effective in treating these headaches.  This certainly gives credence to the suspicion that migraine and primary headaches are caused by imbalanced neurotransmitters.

What is a Headache?

Interestingly, headaches are not actually brain pain since the brain has no neurons that are sensitive to pain. The pain actually comes when the pressure from the blood vessels activates the nerves that are sensitive to pain, which are in the tissues that cover and surround the brain.  Or, it could activate the nerves sensitive to pain in the blood vessels and muscles of the scalp, face, and neck.  There are three different types of headaches:

  1. Tension
  2. Cluster
  3. Migraine

Tension headaches are caused by tension of the muscles in the scalp, face, and neck.  Cluster and migraine headaches are generally due to neuronal hyper-excitability in the part of the brain called the cerebral cortex, which is the outer layer of the main part of the brain.

Serotonin and Dopamine

Serotonin is the “feel good” neurotransmitter that helps control mood, libido, pain, as well as constriction and dilation of blood vessels.  The rapid fluctuation of serotonin in the brain is associated with all three types of headaches.  When tension stimulates the cranial trigeminal nerve, it releases chemicals, which then cause inflammation of the nerve.  Blood vessels then dilate in response to inflammation, and this is what causes the pain.  Those who do not suffer from migraines have adequate serotonin levels that help prevent this painful dilation.  Those who suffer from severe headaches, however, do not have this regulatory system.

Dopamine, as mentioned previously, is responsible for our motivation, energy, drive, memory, focus, and muscle contraction.  If you suffer from migraines, there is likely a hypersensitivity to dopamine.  When there is over-stimulation of the receptors, symptoms like nausea, vomiting, yawning, irritability, and hyperactivity ensue.

A full-blown migraine is related to both hypersensitivity to dopamine and low serotonin levels.  Cluster and tension headaches are generally the result of just low levels of serotonin.  If you suffer from migraine headaches, this may be something to talk to your doctor about.  Keep in mind that there are natural ways to treat dopamine hypersensitivity as well, such as with GABA.