Migraine and Gluten Sensitivity

In a desperate attempt to treat her migraines, herself (gluten-free) blogger Karen Yesowich Schmucker discovered she was sensitive to gluten. Adopting a gluten-free diet has reduced the frequency and severity of her migraines. Karen explains the connection in this guest post.

While there is data to suggest that a certain percentage of migraineurs also suffer from celiac disease or some form of gluten sensitivity, few neurologists routinely test their patients for it. One study done in Italy in 2003 suggested that 4% of migraineurs also had celiac. You may think this is a small number and that may explain neurologists’ reluctance to test for it. But consider this: few people in the general population are ever tested for gluten sensitivity or celiac disease. Until recently, doctors considered it to be extremely rare, but now there is reason to believe that the number of people in this country who have some form of intolerance to gluten is 1 in 133, or about 3 million. Over 90% of these people do not know of their gluten sensitivity. So how safe can we as patients feel about the small number of migraineurs who also have Celiac? We don’t really know how many of us are out there. Should we care? Would a gluten-free diet really help us? And what the heck is gluten anyway?

Gluten is a protein found in wheat, rye and barley. It is what makes dough from these grains sticky and hold together when baked. Gluten is also used in many other food products from soups and salad dressings to soy sauce and beer. Gluten intolerance is an autoimmune disease which, left untreated, will eventually destroy the villi in the small intestine, leading to malabsorption of minerals and nutrients. There are serious implications from malabsorption including osteoporosis, certain cancers and a host of other disorders. Go to the National Foundation for Celiac Awareness to find out more.

Today the only treatment for gluten sensitivity is the complete and lifelong avoidance of gluten. Does maintaining a gluten-free diet help migraine? There is some evidence to suggest that some migraineurs are helped by it. Some report the total disappearance of migraine while others have fewer and less severe attacks. I fall into the latter category. I found out (by accident) a little over a year ago that I am gluten intolerant and I have followed a gluten-free diet since December 2006. Do I still get migraines? Yes, but not as many and not as severe. I have not had a classic migraine (with aura) in about a year. Does my neurologist think that gluten caused my migraines? No, but it could have created a situation where migraine was more likely to occur, especially since I had evidence of malabsorption and was deficient in several important minerals like magnesium, even though I was supplementing at 400 mg per day!

As a direct result of my experience, my neurologist now tests his patients who show gastrointestinal symptoms for gluten sensitivity. But he doesn¹t test all his patients. He (incorrectly, according to experts on celiac) believes that one must have these types of symptoms before testing makes sense. However, with celiac, symptoms often do not appear until the disease has progressed and a patient is not absorbing nutrients. Here are some of the symptoms noted in celiac literature: fatigue, anemia, migraine, eczema, psoriasis, mineral deficiencies, as well as gastrointestinal complaints such as bloating, gas, constipation and/or diarrhea. So the bottom line is: finding out you have gluten intolerance may or may not help your migraine, but the health benefits of discovery and treatment by themselves are compelling. I went gluten-free hoping to rid myself of debilitating headaches, but knowing what I know now makes me glad I did it regardless of the effect on my headaches.

If you do decide to get tested, make sure you do NOT start a gluten-free diet until AFTER the test results come in and your doctor tells you to start it. The test will come back negative if you are not actively eating gluten. If you go on a gluten-free diet please give it a good chance to succeed. I found some of my symptoms disappeared within three days, but the migraine-easing part of it took longer. Months longer. So be patient and don’t cheat. It can take up to 18 months for your system to heal. If you want to see how to navigate life gluten-free, visit my blog. You can find recipes there as well as tips for managing eating out, traveling and otherwise living a normal life gluten and headache-free.

References and Resources:

  • Association between migraine and celiac disease: results from a preliminary case-control and therapeutic study. Gabrielli, M.; Cremonini, F.; Fiore, G.; Addolorato, G.; Padalino, C.; Candelli, M.; de Leo, M.E.; Santarelli, L.; Giacovazzo, M.; Gasbarrini, A.; Pola, P. The American Journal of Gastroenterology, Volume 98, Number 3, March 2003 , pp. 625-629(5)
  • Migraine and Coeliac Disease. Headache: The Journal of Head and Face Pain 38 (8). J. Serratrice MD, P. Disdier MD, C. de Roux MD, C. Christides MD, P.J. Weiller MD.  (1998), 627­628 doi:10.1046/j.1526-4610.1998.3808627.x
  • Celiac Disease: A Hidden Epidemic. Peter H. Green, Rory Jones. HarperCollins Publishers. 2006. ISBN-13: 9780060766931 (Peter H. Green, M.D., director of the Celiac Disease Center at Columbia University. He confirmed that migraines can be a symptom of celiac disease.)
  • Living Gluten Free for Dummies. Dana Korn. Wiley Publishing, Inc. Hoboken N.J., 2006
  • All in Your Head. Untreated gluten sensitivity can affect your gut, your skin and your brain. By Alicia B. Woodward. Living Without magazine. Winter 2007. Pp. 11-16; 27.
  • Celiac Disease Foundation
  • Gluten Intolerance Group

Karen Yesowich Schmucker is a freelance graphic designer and translator who lives with her husband in Bellevue, WA. Karen also teaches Naginata (a Japanese martial art) near Seattle. A migraineur since age 12, she has been gluten-free since December 2006. Contact her at karen[at]kysdesigns[dot]com.


10 Responses to “Migraine and Gluten Sensitivity”

  1. Mary Kay Says:

    This is a topic that rises up in the neurology community occationally. I believe it is not front and center simply because (as pointed out) a small percentage of people with migraine have celiac disease..IBS is far more common.

    But having said that some are most probably misdiagnosed.

    There is a new blood test for wheat gluten called Immunocap. I have been thinking of screening some of my patients who come to me with food triggers for their migraines. Perhaps now is the time to start!

    We have also noticed in our clinic that many migraineurs are B-12 deficient..another vitamin deficiency so to those of you who have migraines, ask your doctor to screen you for this also.

  2. Emily Says:

    I have learned so much recently about Celiac. It seems to be a hot topic lately. I guess it is more diagnosed than ever before. I have a B12 deficiency, anemia and I vomit multiple times a week. I also get very intense headaches, not migraines necessarily. My blood tests came back negative for Celiac but I am convinced that is what it is or some degree of gluten sensitivity. My doctor wants to do an endoscopy to confirm but I decided to just try a gluten-free diet instead.

    Good luck!

  3. Suzie of Sparkling With Crystals Says:

    Very good information.

    Gluten appears to be a trigger for some people with Meniere’s Syndrome too. My Meniere’s symptoms have decreased in intensity since I started reducing the gluten in my diet.

    Maybe if I remove gluten from my diet entirely it would help my migraine.

  4. gluten free Says:

    Very clear explanation – thanks!

  5. Wendy Says:

    I was diagnosed as having Meniere’s as well…also one of my great aunts suffered badly at times with meniere’s. Although I’ve managed to get away without using medication, I’ve had frequent and regular ‘sick headaches’ and ‘sick days’ (my terminology). Going back to being vegetarian has helped a little I think, in retrospect, though this is not why I am vegetarian. I also have a sister who is very intolerant to gluten, and a friend mentioned she’d heard views on meniere’s being linked to allergies/sensitivities….thought I’d try gluten-free diet to see what happened…esp since at times wheat bread, pasta, porridge etc often seemed to give me indigestion.

    After a bare two weeks I noticed a marked difference….no headaches, no sinus pain, my ears felt clear and ‘normal’ …couldn’t remember last time they felt this way…also reduction in tinnitis, mine would come and go but always had ‘tape hiss’ kind of noise…then ate some gluten-containing food….Oooh so sick that afternoon and next day. Back on gluten-free diet, nearly been a week now. The idea I had was to go gluten free for a few weeks then try again to see what happens but I’m not sure I want to. It’s so nice not feeling sick!

    Interestingly I’m feeling more vertigo than I usually do, but I’m wondering whether this may have something to do with my body getting a chance to clear stuff out of my system…if this is the case then I would expect this to reduce in time. I suppose I’ll see.
    Kind regards to all.

  6. Susan Says:

    I’ve been experimenting with the wheat-free thing now for just a few weeks. I don’t know why I started it. Desperation? Nothing else works, so why not? My husband actually found this post. When I’ve read about the symptoms of wheat sensitivity rarely do I see headaches listed, and rarely in the books on nutrition for migraine sufferers do they say anything about wheat or gluten, so I felt like this was a whim. Maybe not?!? I’m keeping my fingers crossed.

  7. Peggy Says:

    I feel like I have found a lifeboat after swimming alone for a very long time. I have tried medication after medication. I have felt like I “caused” my headaches somehow. I can hardly wait to try a gluten free diet. A co-worker mentioned it to me, almost as an aside, last week. She is seriously into health and nutrition and heard about a connection. I have reading on the internet this morning. Wow, at last! I will let you know how it goes. I may have to give up my favorite food, chocolate chip cookies, but oh well. Thanks for the messages.

  8. Sam Says:

    I know from personal experience that gluten/wheat is a cause for my migraines! (Unfortunately, that is just one of my ‘symptoms’ from gluten intolerance.) It took a few wks once I had quit eating gluten but my migraines decreased to like only 2/month instead of at least 5/wk. Doc put me on Zomig/naprosyn/Mt Dew…I guess that Dew kicks it all in. Sometimes it works, sometimes not. I do recommend homeopathic/naturopathic docs-even if its kinda strange…it works!! Can’t forget to drink plenty of water too!

  9. Sam Says:

    Did the doc do the endoscopy on you for celiac? Beware that the tests can be a false negative. A friend had that happen twice. The diet will be the same, stay away from gluten/wheat products. Be on the lookout for seasonings, shampoos/conditioners, anything/everything you use for on/in your body. I had a reaction to conditioner–not fun! Hope all is well and you have gotten better! It is a hard diet to stick to but if you like fruits/veggies etc…it helps! DeBoles has a very good corn pasta-my family likes it and they don’t have a gluten intolerance problem.

  10. lynn Says:

    I have suffered from migraines for about 40 years — I mean suffered. I have never ever gone a week without one and usually had 3 to 5. I am a lawyer and mother of 2 teenagers and I often can’t believe I’ve made it through my days. I tried the CORE diet on Weight watchers a few months ago and gave up bread and pasta, etc. and sort of noticed that I was having less and less headaches. One day I ate a half a loaf of bread (oops) and I thought I was going to die the next day. That was it – I’ve been gluten free for the past 4 months and have had about ONE headache a week! And that one requires only half a regular dose of medicine. It is amazing. I’m going to give it at least 6 months before I believe it – but that’s my experience. My neurologist told me she has never ever heard of this so I can’t do enough to spread the word. Why not? No meds, no cost — give it a try!

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