Migraine sufferers desperate to reduce or get rid of their pain may have a new treatment method: avoiding plastic.
That's the hypothesis behind a recent study by researchers at Kansas University Medical Center.
Nancy Berman, a professor of anatomy and cell biology at KU Med, and Lydia Vermeer, a postdoctoral fellow in Berman's lab, say they've found a link between bisphenol A, a chemical used to harden plastics, and migraines in lab rats. Their study was recently published in the journal Toxicological Sciences.
"The next question is: Does this happen in people?" Berman said. "The only way to find out is to do some kind of clinical trial."
While the researchers have yet to do a study featuring humans, they say migraine sufferers should avoid plastics with BPA in the hopes it can relieve their symptoms. To investigate whether avoiding environmental estrogens can prevent or reduce migraines, the KU researchers need funding. But, Berman said, "You don't have to be part of a clinical trial to stop eating plastic."
With so little known about what causes migraines, Berman years ago started looking into the connection between the condition and hormones.
"It's a complicated disease that's not very well-understood," she said. "Nobody's really looked at environmental issues in the field of migraine."
She eventually found a connection between the disease and estrogen. Berman also discovered a way to test headache medications on lab rats, who, like humans, avoid light, sound, grooming and routine movements when they have headaches.
This intrigued Vermeer, who has a background in studying pesticides and Parkinson's disease. The two joined forces, and dosed lab rats with BPA. They hypothesized that BPA, which mimics estrogen in the body, would activate estrogen receptors. The rats with migraines showed significantly worse headache symptoms than those not exposed to the chemical.
"We're hypothesizing that people with migraines do not have more BPA in their system, but that they're more sensitive to BPA," Vermeer said. "Many people with migraines are more sensitive to changes in things like estrogen."
Several countries, including China, France and Canada, have banned BPA in certain uses. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration, however, has ruled that BPA is safe at low levels, but has expressed concern about the potential negative effects on the brain, behavior and prostates of fetuses and young children. That's why baby bottle and sippy cup makers have eliminated BPA from their products; many manufacturers of infant formula have also stopped using BPA in their cans.
Most of the research on the topic, however, has come from animal studies. No research has yet found a direct link between health problems in humans and BPA. More than 90 percent of Americans have traces of BPA in their bodies, much of it from eating food in containers that contain the chemical. Eliminating plastic and canned packaging has been found to reduce the amount of BPA in urine (plastics with the recycling codes 3 and 7 are likely to contain BPA).
More than 1 in 10 Americans suffer from migraine headaches — severe, recurring, throbbing pain on one or both sides of the head. Three times as many woman (20 percent at reproductive age) get migraines as men, thought to be the result of their higher estrogen levels. In addition, more than 10 percent of women have menstrual migraines. But the only way to diagnose the condition is to ask questions about symptoms; there is no physical test for the disease.
Berman said the study's results could be a breakthrough because of the lack of new migraine drugs coming down the pipeline.
"But you don't need a physician or even FDA approval to reduce the amount of plastic you consume," she said. "The good thing about our idea is it's not going to hurt you."