- According to a new study, high-intensity exercise can increase the levels of a compound called calcitonin gene-related peptide (CGRP)—which is associated with headache and migraine pain.
- If you’re prone to headaches and migraines, it may be your best bet to dial back the intensity of your runs, since low-to-moderate exercise doesn’t seem to be as much of a trigger.
- As always, it’s important to work with your doctor to come up with the best solution for you.
If you’re prone to migraines, you may have heard that exercise can decrease their frequency and improve their symptoms, based on previous research about how activity can reduce migraine triggers. But a recent study in Clinical Chemistry and Laboratory Medicine adds an important caveat to that advice: Watch your intensity.
Researchers looked at 48 male amateur runners, who ran a half-marathon distance at 75 to 85 percent of maximal oxygen uptake—a measure of their running intensity.
Before and after running, participants had blood drawn to determine their levels of calcitonin gene-related peptide (CGRP), a compound in your body responsible for triggering physical reactions like vasodilation—dilation of your blood vessels, which increases blood pressure—and inflammation in your nervous system. CGRP levels is often associated with headache pain, especially migraines.
The concentration of the compound was significantly increased in the entire group, and those who were prone to headaches reported suffering from one after the run. That led researchers to conclude that medium-distance endurance exercise is a booster for CGRP, and that high-intensity exercise can heighten that reaction even more—potentially triggering both migraines and headaches brought on by exertion.
Does that mean if you’re a headache sufferer, you need to find a different activity? Thankfully, no. But you may need to dial back the intensity in your running, study author Fabian Sanchis-Gomar, M.D., Ph.D., of the Division of Cardiovascular Medicine at Stanford University Medical Center told Runner’s World. Low-to-moderate exercise doesn’t seem to be as much of a trigger, he said.
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If that’s not an option, he suggested talking with a doctor about migraine preventive therapy, since that often involves medication that blocks the CGRP receptor specifically. Although this study didn’t cover whether runners on that medication would still get migraines, Sanchis-Gomar suggested that it’s likely they wouldn’t, because even though the CGRP would surge, the receptors would block it enough to reduce the risk of headache pain.
For those who aren’t prone to migraines, though, keep on trucking: CGRP increases are actually a good thing for you.
“High-intensity exercise represents an insult [interruption of blood flow] for the cardiovascular system: increasing blood pressure,” said Sanchis-Gomar. “CGRP counteracts this and has a protective effect for cardiovascular function.”