For someone prone to migraines, a missed meal could be a quick route to an attack. Imbalanced blood sugar is a known trigger for migraines and others types of headaches. Now a new study adds genetic evidence to support the link and could potentially inform future migraine treatment strategies.
By analyzing genomic data from tens of thousands of people, researchers have identified genetic links between migraines and problems regulating blood sugar levels. Their findings suggest a common genetic basis for the disorders and also point to new migraine-related genes for further study, the team reports in an article published Feb. 20 in the journal human genetics (opens in new tab).
Migraines affect nearly 15% of people worldwide and are three times more common in women than men World Health Organization (opens in new tab). They can be triggered by many different triggers, such as hormonal fluctuations, lack of sleep, and even certain foods. But researchers still don’t fully understand why some people are prone to frequent migraines. Some scientists are scouring the genome for clues, hunting for genetic risk factors and links to other diseases.
“Discovering concrete links to other potential facets of the disease — in this case, glycemic regulation — may help further improve our understanding of migraines,” he said dr Leon Moskatel (opens in new tab), a headache specialist at Stanford University School of Medicine who was not involved in the work. The work raises questions about whether future treatments for migraines might work by somehow targeting blood sugar, he told Live Science in an email.
Related: What is normal blood sugar?
The analysis includes genetic data from more than 100,000 migraine sufferers and 84,000 headache sufferers in general, compiled from several previous studies. It also draws on data on genomic regions previously associated with various aspects of glycemic regulation; These included genes linked to people’s average blood sugar levels, their post-fasting blood sugar and insulin levels, and their type 1 diabetes rates.
By comparing these datasets, the team identified regions of the genome that appear to influence both blood sugar regulation and migraine risk.
One blood glucose measurement that stood out was proinsulin fasting, which was actually linked to a reduced risk of migraines, the study co-author said Rafiqul Islam (opens in new tab), a PhD student in Dale Nyholt’s laboratory at Queensland University of Technology in Australia. Proinsulin is the chemical precursor to insulin, a hormone that lowers blood sugar levels; “Fasting proinsulin” refers to the amount of proinsulin in the blood after a period without food.
With higher levels of Fasting proinsulin is associated with insulin resistance (opens in new tab) in type 2 diabetes, a study found and it may reflect a dysfunction (opens in new tab) another has been found in the cells responsible for making insulin in the body. But higher fasting proinsulin levels may also protect against migraines and other headaches, according to Islam’s genetic analysis. The finding seems consistent with some previous studies suggesting that people with type 2 diabetes a reduced risk of migraine attacks (opens in new tab)but much more research is needed to confirm this association.
The team also identified a number of gene variants that hadn’t previously been associated with migraines or blood sugar, so their relationship to the disorders remains unclear. Learning more about these genes is a goal for future research, Islam told Live Science. “If we can identify the function of these genes, we could develop new treatment strategies,” he said.
Future research could add more nuance by looking at people from non-European backgrounds, as the current study only included people of European descent, Moskatel suggested. Also, there are different types of migraines—both with and without an “aura”—and there may be different underlying processes that drive them. (An aura describes neurological symptoms that occur before and sometimes during a migraine, such as visual hallucinations or physical sensations like numbness.)
“Having this distinction in future studies could be instructive,” he said.