Are Your Headaches Due to Low Vitamin D?

When Deficiency Leads to Head Pain

Close-up of hand holding vitamin d pills
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Have you heard your friends talking about their vitamin D level? Did you doctor check your level at your annual checkup?

While vitamin D plays a role in bone health, there is inconsistent data on its role in other medical conditions, such as heart disease, autoimmune diseases, cancer, and pain disorders, like chronic painand headaches. 

What Is Vitamin D?

Vitamin D is a fat-soluble vitamin that exists in two forms:

  •  cholecalciferol (vitamin D3): derived from ultraviolet light penetrating the skin and present in oily fish, such as salmon and tuna.
  • ergocalciferol (vitamin D2): derived from the fungal sterol, ergosterol, and found naturally in sun-dried, shiitake mushrooms.

Both forms of vitamin D are used in the fortification of foods and in vitamin D supplements.

What Is Vitamin D Deficiency?

When individuals are vitamin D deficient, parathyroid hormone levels in the body increase, causing calcium to be leeched from the bones. This leads to bone weakening, causing rickets in children and osteomalacia in adults—people with osteomalacia experience diffuse bone and muscle pain and weakness.

If your doctor decides to check your vitamin D status, he will measure your 25-hydroxyvitamin D level.

What Causes Vitamin D Deficiency?

A number of medical conditions can predispose individuals to vitamin D deficiency including:

  • malnutrition
  • kidney or liver disease
  • gut malabsorption, as in celiac disease
  • taking medications that inhibit vitamin D metabolism (for example, certain anti-seizure medications)

Low sunlight exposure is also a concern for vitamin D deficiency, especially those who reside in nursing homes or who live in geographical regions with little daylight.

Vitamin D and Head Pain

There may be a link between headaches and vitamin D deficiency. In 2009, two researchers in India published a paper in Headache—a small study on eight patients with both vitamin D deficiency and chronic tension-type headaches.

All the patients in the study had very low vitamin D levels (25-hydroxyvitamin D levels <10ng/mL), and had little to no relief of their headache with conventional drugs. The patients were supplemented with daily vitamin D (1000-1500IU) and calcium (1000mg), and obtained headache relief within a few weeks of therapy.

The researchers felt that the headache relief experienced by the participants was attributed to the  vitamin D supplements and not the calcium supplements. They explained that calcium levels typically return to normal within a week, but the patients did not feel relief of their headache for four to six weeks, which is when their vitamin D levels started returning to normal.

In another study in The Journal of Headache Pain, researchers found that with increasing latitude (moving closer to the North and South Pole and farther away from the equator), the prevalence of headaches, both migraines and tension-type headaches, increased.

As you may already know, the increase in latitude (or the farther you get from the equator) correlates with less intense and a shorter duration of sunlight. With less sunlight, there is less vitamin D absorption, so presumably lower levels overall.

The "why" behind this potential link between vitamin D deficiency and headaches is unclear. One possibility is that low vitamin D levels promote bone pain and swelling, which may lead to sensitization of the nervous system. Another possibility is that since vitamin D is needed for magnesium absorption, a low vitamin D level may promote a magnesium deficiency. We know that magnesium deficiency has been associated with the development of tension-type headaches.

What Is a Sufficient Vitamin D Level?

While there is no consensus on the optimal level of vitamin D, most experts believe that a 25-hydroxyvitamin D level of 20 nanograms per milliliter or ng/mL or lower is deficient. Depending on your other medical problems, your doctor may even prefer a higher vitamin D level—there are simply no definitive guidelines at this time. 

A Word From Verywell

Remember that a link or association does not mean that one causes the other. The big picture here is that low vitamin D may contribute to chronic head pain. In other words, headaches may be more common in people who live farther from the equator where there is less sunlight. But this is certainly not a hard and fast rule and more studies, especially large randomized controlled trials, are needed to better articulate this relationship.

Being aware of the potential association between headaches and vitamin D will make you a more informed patient. Consider discussing your physician's opinion on vitamin D or other alternative therapies for your headaches, especially if they are not improving with your current regimen. 


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Article Sources
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