Celiac Disease, Gluten Sensitivity, and Chronic Migraines

asian woman with headache
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If you've ever had a migraine, you're probably all too familiar with the symptoms: throbbing, disabling head pain, often accompanied by light sensitivity, fatigue, nausea and even vomiting.

As it turns out, people with celiac disease and non-celiac gluten sensitivity suffer from headaches and migraines at a rate far higher than the general population. Several studies have found nearly 30% of celiacs also have migraines, and one study found that 56% of those diagnosed with gluten sensitivity suffered from chronic headaches, with a high rate of migraines, as well.

And, it appears that a gluten-free diet can help to control or even eliminate migraines in some sufferers, although not everyone with celiac or gluten sensitivity sees relief from their migraines once they adopt a gluten-free diet.

Like Celiac Disease, Migraine Affects More Women

Women suffer from migraine headaches more frequently than men — in fact, about 43% of women (compared to 18% of men) will have at least one migraine in their lifetimes. Meanwhile, celiac disease affects twice as many women as men; overall, it occurs in about 1% of the population.

Like celiac, migraines seem to run in families. Some women experience fewer migraines during pregnancy, just as some women with celiac see a reduction in symptoms while they're pregnant.

Scientists believe migraines are caused by abnormal brain activity. A wide range of factors, including stress, visual stimuli such as blinking lights, odors, and particular foods, can trigger a migraine attack in someone who's susceptible.

A 2013 study found that people with celiac and gluten sensitivity who suffered from headaches and/or migraines also had higher rates of depression and anxiety. Depression has been linked to both celiac and gluten sensitivity, while studies show higher anxiety rates in people with both conditions, as well.

Migraine Symptoms Include Pain, Brain Fog

When you're suffering from a migraine, the blood flow in your brain and the surrounding tissues changes, causing a pounding or throbbing pain, generally just on one side of your head.

The pain may or may not be preceded by a migraine aura, which can involve seeing stars, feeling as if you're looking through a tunnel or a classic half-moon-shaped section of bright spots in one eye.

Nausea is common with migraines and many "migraineurs" vomit during their attacks. Other common symptoms include chills, sweating, increased thirst and urination, fatigue, loss of appetite, light and sound sensitivity, and "brain fog," or less-than-optimal thinking and concentration.

Incidence of Migraine High in People With Celiac

Celiac disease has been associated with several different neurological disorders, including nerve damage (known as neuropathy). Recent research also has associated migraine with celiac disease, especially celiac disease that's not causing major gastrointestinal symptoms.

For example, researchers at Gemelli Hospital in Rome, Italy, reported in 2003 on a study in which they looked at 90 migraineurs along with 236 control subjects.

The researchers used celiac blood tests to test each of their subjects and confirmed the results with endoscopies looking for villi damage.

They found that 4.4%—a total of four out of 90—of their migraine subjects had celiac disease, compared with just 0.4% of their control group.

Gluten-Free Diet May Help With Migraine Frequency, Severity

From the study results, it appears that the gluten-free diet can help people with migraines reduce the number and severity of their attacks.

In that study, everyone who had celiac disease started the gluten-free diet, and the researchers followed them for an additional six months.

During those six months, one person had no migraines, and the others reported their migraines decreased in frequency, intensity, and length. Brain scans confirmed the findings.

Other studies have duplicated these results. For example, clinicians in Israel looked at 111 celiac disease sufferers and found a headache to be the most common neurologic disorder in the group—nearly 30% reported migraines and other forms of headaches.

In 16 of the headache sufferers, nine of whom suffered from migraines, the gluten-free diet either eliminated or significantly improved their headaches.

Does A Migraine Diagnosis Warrant Celiac Testing?

Despite the potential connection between migraine and celiac disease, most physicians do not advocate testing for celiac disease in migraineurs unless you also suffer from celiac disease symptoms.

But you should consider getting tested if you do have symptoms of celiac along with your migraines. If you test positive, there's a good chance that a gluten-free diet may improve or even eliminate your headaches.

Some celiacs who get migraines have found that they need to adhere very strictly to their diets in order to get their migraines under control. In fact, cheating on the gluten-free diet can bring on a very painful attack.

In addition, it can take some time on the diet to get the migraines to die down completely; I've spoken with people who saw an immediate improvement in headache severity and frequency, but who continued to have less-frequent migraines during the first year or two of their gluten-free diets.

If you don't cheat on your diet and you still have frequent migraine attacks, you may be someone whose migraines don't improve gluten-free. If that's the case, speak with your physician about trying one of the medications that can help reduce the frequency and severity of migraines. You may need to try more than one drug before you find the best option for you.

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