Migraines are a common complaint among people with both celiac disease and a non-celiac gluten sensitivity (NCGS). Theoretically, the reasons behind these disruptive headaches may be different for celiac disease and NCGS. So how do gluten intolerance and migraines relate?
The Research Verifies That Gluten Intolerance Causes Migraines
First, let’s make it clear that there is a connection. Research conducted by the Columbia University Medical Center in New York City discovered that gluten-sensitive individuals are much more prone to experience migraines than the general population.
This study was rare in that it included both celiac disease patients and non-celiac gluten sensitivity patients. In fact, patients with non-celiac gluten sensitivity experienced a higher rate of migraines and chronic headaches than patients with celiac disease, though both groups experienced a much higher rate than the general population.
Patients with celiac disease, however, were measured to have more severe migraines.
So if you suffer from migraines and you suspect gluten is to blame, talk to your doctor about a gluten intolerance test.
How Does Gluten Intolerance Cause Migraines?
Now I’ll have to get theoretical, since we don’t yet fully understand how gluten intolerance causes migraines… we just know that they do.
For patients with celiac disease, most researchers believe a combination of malnutrition and systemic inflammation leads to migraines. Nutrient deficiencies often relating to migraines include CoQ10, magnesium, riboflavin (B2) and vitamin B12. All of these are common deficiencies in people with untreated celiac disease, but magnesium and riboflavin are the most common. Blood work examining levels of these nutrients can help you determine if they’re to blame for your migraines.
In addition, the inflammation along the intestinal wall caused by celiac disease may trigger pro-inflammatory cytokines, which can cause inflammation elsewhere in your body. Hidden forms of inflammation are common triggers for all sorts of headaches.
For patients with NCGS, systemic inflammation is the more likely cause. People with NCGS tend to experience less damage to the small intestine than celiac patients, but recent research indicates they may experience more extraintestinal inflammation and pain than celiac disease patients. Research into non-celiac gluten sensitivity found NCGS patients often have a higher measure of immune proteins known as TLRs (“Toll-like receptors”), particularly of TLR 2, which produces pro-inflammatory cytokines and is associated with the innate immune system.
This may mean symptoms beyond the gut are more common in NCGS patients than in celiac disease patients. Although, I should note, the gloves come off in long-term untreated celiac disease. If a patient goes undiagnosed for years, the combination of serious nutritional deficiencies and severe chronic inflammation can cause all manner of problems and pains.
General Migraine Treatment
There are several basic things you can do to help minimize your migraines. As I stated earlier, you want to determine if you’re suffering from any nutrient deficiencies. If you are, diet and supplements may provide surprising relief. However, even if you’re not deficient in B12 or magnesium, these two nutrients appear to help many migraine patients. So you might try supplementing your diet with these two nutrients to see if they help provide some relief.
Try to avoid chemicals in your living space. Try to use natural cleaners and soaps, and whenever possible, avoid scented soaps and cleaners. Along the same lines, avoid air fresheners, scented dryer sheets and perfumes.
Don’t just blame gluten. Food allergies and other forms of food intolerance can trigger migraines. Common causes of migraines include alcohol, caffeine, chocolate, cheese and sugar (including honey, agave nectar and high fructose corn syrup). Processed foods, in particular lunch meats, and artificial sweeteners, especially aspartame, are also blamed for migraines, though some of the research is mixed.
Dehydration is also a common cause of headaches. It usually isn’t a direct trigger of migraines, but if you’re prone to migraines, dehydration be enough to set you off. For me personally, I’ve been amazed at how often I can relieve a headache by just consciously drinking more water.
This is a big one, but somehow addressing the stress in your life is important for managing your migraines. Stress management is too big a topic to cover in this post, but if you suffer from migraines try to be mindful of what you can do to keep stress from getting the best of you.
Last but not least, consider your musculoskeletal health. Some might see this as too alternative for their taste, but if you’re struggling to curb your migraines, I recommend seeing a quality chiropractor. A good chiropractor can help you identify and address structure problems and musculoskeletal issues that could lead to chronic headaches.
I didn’t really mean to turn this into a migraine treatment post, but if you believe gluten is the cause of your migraines, yes, eliminate gluten. But also consider the many other potential triggers of migraines. Most of these aren’t that hard to address, so I think they’re worth a try. Migraines can be debilitating, so I encourage you to be proactive in treating them.
Even if gluten intolerance is the cause of your migraines, it often takes some time to heal after you go on a gluten-free diet. So considering these different options in conjunction with your gluten-free diet will help you resolve both your gluten intolerance and your migraines.