Mental Health, Migraine and Exercise

Reviewed by: HU Medical Review Board | January 2012 | Last updated: May 2020

What do mental health, Migraine and exercise all have in common? Brain chemicals.

If mental health problems and Migraine are brain diseases, exercise is one of the best treatments that physicians have found to treat and help manage both of them. Why?

Exercise is “all natural” — our bodies were built to do it. In fact, if you don’t use it, you’ll lose it. There are few side effects or contraindications when done properly and conscientiously. Exercise works holistically by encouraging the body to do what it does best — balance and heal itself. Exercise can also be financially wise — done at home, it can be free!

Fortunately for us, exercise comes in many forms, and practicing it is probably much easier than you think. Let me explain:

What is exercise?

Exercise can come in many forms, but most conventional exercise falls under one of three categories:

  • Flexibility (stretching)
  • Strengthening (muscle building/resistance)
  • Cardiovascular (aerobic or endurance)

There are many muscles in your body, and exercising any of them can help to increase helpful brain chemicals called neurotransmitters that serve both to help prevent Migraine attacks, but also decrease depression and increase mood. Those who are physically disabled know better than most that even the severest of physical limitations only change the way you exercise and achieve its benefits, not prevent it.

Migraineurs CAN exercise.

Surprising ways to increase helpful brain chemicals

Consider this:

Exercising your voice muscles by singing results in better breathing habits and capacity, increased endorphins (natural pain killing brain chemicals) and dopamine (feel-good chemicals also released from food, drugs and sex) regulation of Norepinepherine (implicated in Migraine) Serotonin (implicated in Migraine and depression) and melatonin (relaxation hormone) .

Thai Chi (which eastern medicine says works similarly to acupuncture by increasing “chi”) has been researched and shown to help reduce levels of pain in chronic pain and *headache*patients. Thai Chi has been found to be very useful and helpful in some Migraine patients with triggers to more traditional exercise including yoga.

Yoga triggers the release of GABA (a brain chemical that helps to regulate nerve activity) and endorphins, as well as reduces stress and lowers blood pressure. Yoga was found to be better at raising antidepressant brain chemicals than walking. Most yoga classes will include modified simpler movements that often can be performed by Migraineurs triggered by exercise. (I personally only avoid movements or poses that put my head below my body, which is a trigger for me.)

Isometric exercise involves strengthening a muscle via contraction, but without moving the joint, making it a viable option to those for whom Migraines may be exercise or movement triggered, as well as those with broader physical limitations.

Cardiovascular exercise like walking can be started slowly and easily in as little as 5 minutes a day. Very slowly increasing the amount of the workout over weeks or months (patience, patience!) increases tolerance and produces helpful brain chemicals, yet is still less likely to trigger Migraine in those susceptible to more vigorous exercise triggers.

Breathing exercises are useful in the modulation of neurotransmitters in the brain too. Deep breathing done slowly (1 breath per 10 seconds) synchronizes the heart with the breath and the brain is signaled to release similar chemicals as when singing. Hyperventilation which causes a physiological reaction that can result in panic during some Migraine attacks, is less likely in those who have trained themselves to breathe deeply and slowly. Deep breathing also impacts metabolism and the endocrine system which can affect both feelings of well-being and Migraine.

When to exercise

Migraineurs often become very frustrated when asked by their doctors to exercise. Understand, your doctor is not asking you to exercise during a Migraine attack, but during times when you can tolerate whatever exercise type you have chosen.

Remember too, that today you may feel like walking briskly, but tomorrow a little deep breathing or singing may be all that your Migraine body can handle. Yes, vigorous aerobic exercise is better for us, but doing something tiny is better than doing nothing at all. Moreover, mixing things up is actually better for our bodies so they don’t become accustomed to any one particular style of exercise, making it less effective for us.

I usually try to get my exercise in during the morning. I know if I feel good enough in the morning that I can get something done, I can check it off my list for the day. But if I wait, an attack may make it impossible for me to do anything later. Many Migraineurs wake up in pain, so they may have to take an opposite approach. That’s okay too. We’re all different. Getting in the time is the important thing.

Take things one day at a time, trying to do something each day even if it is only for a few moments. Sometimes getting into the good habit of doing something is the best first step you can take toward exercising for Migraine management and mental health considerations. Consider asking a friend or loved one to help you by either exercising with you, or by encouraging you each day. Consider this person part of your Migraine management team and be sure they understand what an important part they will play over the next months.

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