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FAT & FIGURES: Why obesity can be a headache, quite literally
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FAT & FIGURES: Why obesity can be a headache, quite literally

Obesity and its impact on hormones can trigger migraines and stress-induced headaches

Obesity and its impact on hormones can increase the risk of tension headaches and migraines

Obesity is a widespread metabolic and neurological condition affecting people all over the world. While it is associated with many psychological and physical complications like diabetes, cancer and depression, research shows excess body weight can also cause headaches, pointing out that regular workouts for at least 30 minutes a day can help reduce the frequency of headaches in overweight people.

Obesity can cause tension headaches and migraines. It is crucial for people with obesity to know all the associated complications so they can work on managing and treating them. “Headaches are more prevalent in people with obesity and morbid obesity than those with normal body weight,” says Dr Vishal Chafe, interventional neurologist, Apollo Hospital, Navi Mumbai. He explains that for people with pre-existing migraines, the frequency, severity and clinical features may increase with weight gain.

Obesity and headache

Dr Subrata Das, senior consultant, internal medicine & diabetology, Sakra World Hospital, Bengaluru, says that obesity can be part of a metabolic syndrome, meaning the person will have impaired blood sugar regulation and blood pressure along with being obese, which in turn can cause headaches. “Obesity also causes hormonal changes, which make people more susceptible to developing migraines,” he adds.

He further explains that leptin — the hunger hormone secreted by the adipose (fat) tissue — is present in high levels in people with obesity, which has been associated with an increased tendency towards developing migraines.

Dr Chafe says obesity and headache have a bidirectional relationship, where one can lead to the other and vice versa. Environmental factors (like a sedentary lifestyle), overmedication or psychological disorders resulting from frequent migraine attacks can cause an increase in body weight, which can eventually lead to obesity.

Severe and frequent headaches coexisting with obesity can be a risk factor for various complications. According to Dr Das, an overweight individual with migraines can also suffer from a condition called complicated migraine, where they can develop weakness in the limbs, mimicking a stroke.

Headaches associated with obesity

Migraines and tension headaches are common in people with obesity, say experts. Dr Das explains that tension headaches cause pain in the forehead and the back of the neck. On the other hand, “Migraines [usually characterised by a headache on one side of the head] are more frequent and severe in people with obesity compared to the normal population,” says Dr Chafe.

He also adds that idiopathic intracranial hypertension — a condition where increased pressure inside the skull causes headaches and vision changes — is common in people with obesity, and maintaining a healthy body weight will help reduce the signs and symptoms.

However, the prevalence rate of the condition is higher in overweight women.

People with obesity who also have high blood pressure are at risk of developing severe headaches. “They could develop bleeding in the brain, which in turn can cause intercranial hemorrhage,” says Dr Das, adding that high blood pressure increases the risk of brain bleeds.

Preventing headaches in people with obesity

Having an active lifestyle and eating right can help ease the symptoms, says Dr Das, adding that junk foods along with processed or packaged food items contain certain chemicals that can trigger headaches, making it all the more important for people with obesity to avoid them. “Losing weight through regular exercise and a balanced diet will have a significant impact in managing the occurrence and severity of headaches,” says Dr Chafe.

“Reducing body weight can help bring certain hormones back to normal levels, which in turn normalises blood sugar levels and blood pressure as well,” says Dr Das, adding that normal blood pressure and blood sugar levels will, in turn, reduce the frequency and intensity of headaches.

Even for children who are overweight, weight loss can help reduce headaches over time.

Dr Chafe recommends regular aerobic exercise five days a week (for 30 minutes) for people with frequent headaches.

Takeaways

  • Obesity and headache have a bidirectional relationship, where one can lead to the other and vice versa.
  • Obesity can increase the risk of tension headaches and migraines.
  • People with obesity and high blood pressure can develop bleeding in the brain.
  • Most of the symptoms and complications can be managed through weight loss and lifestyle modifications.

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