“Hysterical”, “neurotic”, “irrational”. These are just a few of the adjectives that men have used over the centuries to silence women. In ancient Greece, female emotional outbursts were blamed on something called a “wandering uterus”. To return a woman to a state of calm, you needed to lure the uterus back to its proper position with foods like honey or garlic, applied either vaginally or by mouth. I wonder if it ever worked.
While modern medicine has long discarded the “wandering uterus” theory, a subtle bias against women is still evident. Health problems that exclusively affect women have received less research attention than those that predominantly affect men, and women are more likely to have their symptoms dismissed in the doctor’s office, particularly if an underlying physical cause cannot easily be found.
Case in point: migraines. Both men and women suffer from them, but they affect women four times as often. As a result, there has been little research done on their cause. Women are left on their own to find their own triggers, and the blame often falls on dietary choices, increased stress, or strong emotions. In effect, women who experience regular migraine headaches are told that the pain is their own fault. If they had simply been more sanguine, if they would stop over-reacting, if they could find an ability to cope, then the migraines would surely stop.
Recent research suggests there is indeed a physical cause for migraines; they’re not just a reaction to excessive emotion. A 2012 study published in the journal Brain: A Journal of Neurology, found that women who suffer from migraines have a thicker left posterior insula region in their brains. The posterior insula region is known to light up during the mental processing of pain. Another area which shows similar thickening is the precuneus, which houses a person’s sense of self. Interestingly, male migraine sufferers did not show any thickening in these areas, indicating a different brain pattern at work. This may explain why women suffer from migraines at a greater rate than men, and why their pain is more severe.
Another study published in the British Medical Journal in 2016 showed an increased risk for major cardiovascular disease among migraine sufferers. Data for this study came from the Nurses Health Study II, which has followed a cohort of nurses since 1989. Among the nurses who regularly suffered from migraines, 50% also had heart issues like angina, myocardial infarction (heart attack), or stroke. In this case, men who suffer from migraines share the increased cardiovascular risk. Although researchers are not sure what this new information means, it suggests perhaps a genetic tendency towards inflammation, or a problem with blood vessels, as a root cause. In any case, now that discernible physical differences have been found between those who suffer from migraines and those who don’t, it’s clearly not just an emotional problem.
For female migraine sufferers, menstruation also plays a strong role in the condition. Migraines occur most often in the two days leading up to menstruation, or during menstruation itself, than at any other time of the month. But even here, the trigger is more likely to be physical (sudden hormone changes), rather than emotional.
According to Chinese medicine, it is well known that people who suffer from headaches or migraines probably have a stagnant liver. The liver is responsible for the proper filtering of all your blood. If the ducts of your liver become clogged with too much old and hardened bile, then blood will no longer be filtered as cleanly. Instead, heavy, poorly filtered blood will begin to circulate through your body, and this toxin-loaded blood can easily become sluggish and stagnant, causing pain. Since the meridians of the liver and gallbladder travel through the head area, any stagnation within the liver and gallbladder can result stagnant energy, causing painful headaches.
Interestingly, people who suffer from heart conditions tend to have liver congestion too. The same toxin-loaded blood that causes stagnation in the liver and gallbladder meridians, will also be passed on to the heart for circulation throughout your body. If the heart struggles to pump this heavy, thickened blood, it can cause heart palpitations, angina, or even heart attacks.
There has long been a misconception that migraines are caused by a woman’s excessive excitability, or by an inability to cope. Nervous over-achievement, or psychological issues like depression or anxiety were frequently cited as reasons for the pain. However, conventional medical tests are now confirming what Chinese medicine has known all along. There is a physical cause for migraines, and it’s not all in your head.
About the author: Rebecca Wong has been working in the herbal business since 2000. She has received her training in acupuncture and herbalism from respected authorities Paul Des Rosiers and Vu Le at the Ontario College of Traditional Chinese Medicine in Toronto, and Michael Tierra at the East West Herb School in California.