The gender-bending chemical Bisphenol A (BPA) that's already tied to a variety of health problems, including heart disease, obesity, infertility and cancer, could also be the cause of your migraine headaches.
The chemical is used in everyday products such as plastic water bottles and the linings of canned foods, and once it's in the body, it acts as synthetic estrogen. More than 130 studies have found it has devastating effects on human health.
Researchers at the University of Kansas Medical Center have shown BPA can worsen symptoms associated with migraines, and researchers believe that sufferers could lessen the frequency and severity of their symptoms by changing their diets.
Nancy Berman, Ph.D., a professor of anatomy and cell biology at KU Medical Center, is one of the country's leading experts on migraine. Building on her previous research showing a connection between migraines and the hormone estrogen, Berman developed a way to test potential headache drugs in laboratory rats. The discovery was significant because, while potential treatments are frequently tested first in animals, there had been no definitive test to determine whether a rat had a headache.
"Currently, migraine has no specific biomarker test, and analysis of symptoms is the only way to diagnose this disorder," Berman says. In conjunction with Kenneth E. McCarson, Ph.D., and the staff of the KU Medical Center's Rodent Behavior Facility, she discovered that rodents with headaches behave much the same as humans: they avoid light, sound, grooming, and routine movements. These studies open the door for testing new treatments for migraine, and for identifying factors that may worsen it.
The researchers studied the behavior of rats after they were exposed to BPA. They found that rodents that been exposed to BPA showed significantly worsened migraine symptoms than those that had not.
"This is an entirely new direction for the field of migraine," says Berman.
The scientists now believe that a change in diet might provide some relief for migraine sufferers, who make more than 68 million visits to physicians' offices or emergency rooms in the United States each year.
The authors note that a small clinical study conducted by Ruthann A. Rudel and colleagues at the Silent Spring Institute in Newton, Mass., in 2011, used a "fresh foods" diet that eliminated all plastic and canned packaging. It demonstrated a 66 percent decrease in urinary BPA in patients after just three days.
"There are no new drugs in the pipeline, and you don't need Food and Drug Administration approval to change your diet, so this could be really helpful to a lot of migraine sufferers," Berman says.
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