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Serotonin

Serotonin is an organic compound that is a chemical messenger known as a neurotransmitter. It's also known as 5-hydroxytryptamine, or 5-HT. In the human body, about 90% is found in the intestine, and 10% in blood platlets in the brain. The levels of this neurotransmitter in the body, too much or too little, have been linked to a number of disorders. These include depression, seasonal affective disorder (SAD), bulimia, alcoholism, cluster headache and migraine. It seems to influence mood and libido. It has an impact on blood vessel constriction.

J. John Mann from the Columbia Presbyterian Medical Center, explains the action of this chemical in this way:

The message molecules flow from a nerve cell or neuron onto other neurons that act as receivers. There, they attach to a distinctly shaped area on the neuron called a receptor site. This union, which is like a key fitting into a lock, triggers signals that either allow the message to be passed on to other cells or prevent the message from being forwarded.

Though it doesn't seem to be the main cause of migraine, low levels have been linked to migraine for some time. Most drug treatments of migraine influence serotonin levels in some way, from the early use of ergotamine tartrate to the more recent triptan drugs such as Imitrex. On the other side of the coin, repeated use of over the counter painkillers can actually lower levels in the body, which may be one reason why headaches start returning regularly when you take too many painkillers. Hormonal headache may also have a relation to serotonin, since levels seem to be linked to estrogen levels. Recently at least one genetic defect has been found that influences the production of serotonin in the body. This and other related defects may explain why some are more prone to disorders such as depression.

Besides targeted drugs for migraine, levels may be influenced by the food you eat. Tryptphen, a precursor of the neurotransmitter in the body, can be found in many foods. A newer method of increasing levels is by taking a 5-HTP supplement. Carol Hart in her book Secrets of Serotonin: The Natural Hormone That Curbs Food and Alcohol Cravings, Elevates Your Mood, Reduces Pain, and Boosts Energy, believes that less severe problems can be dealt with by lifestyle changes designed to increase serotonin levels: "...you can learn to recognize and avoid fluctuations in serotonin levels that affect your moods and appetite. Migraine sufferers can reduce the frequency and severity of their headaches by avoiding foods and activities known to trigger migraines as well as selecting those that will raise the brain's supply of tryptophan."

More on the cause of migraine

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References: Encarta® World English Dictionary [North American Edition] ©2005; Columbia Encyclopedia, Sixth Edition, Copyright (c) 2005; Serotonin and Judgement by J. John Mann, Columbia Presbyterian Medical Center; The National Headache Foundation press release OVER THE COUNTER PAIN MEDICATION MAY CAUSE HEADACHES; Genetic Defect Confers Risk of Major Depression, Resistance to SSRI Drug Therapy, 2004 article Duke University Medical Center