Are Your Headaches Due to Low Vitamin D?

Have you heard your friends talking about their vitamin D level? Did your healthcare provider check your level at your annual checkup?

While vitamin D is known to play an important 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 pain and headaches.

Close-up of hand holding vitamin d pills
Kathleen Finlay / Getty Images

What Is Vitamin D?

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

  • Cholecalciferol (Vitamin D3): It is made by the body after exposure to ultraviolet light (sunlight) and is present in certain foods such as tuna and salmon.
  • Ergocalciferol (Vitamin D2): This form can be derived from the fungal sterol "ergosterol" and is found naturally in foods such as sun-dried shiitake mushrooms.

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

Optimal Vitamin D Level

There is dispute among experts regarding the optimal vitamin D level. That said, the Institute of Medicine, recommends maintaining a vitamin D level above 20 ng/mL. This level may need to be higher (i.e., above 30 ng/mL) in older adults who are at greater risk for falls and bone breaks (fractures), or for people with other medical conditions.

When individuals are vitamin D deficient (a level less than 20 ng/mL), parathyroid hormone levels in the body increase. This causes calcium to be released from the bones, eventually resulting in bone weakening, a condition called rickets in children and osteomalacia in adults.

Causes of Deficiency

A number of medical conditions and factors can predispose individuals to vitamin D deficiency. While not an exhaustive list, here are some of these factors:

  • Malnutrition
  • Kidney or liver disease
  • Obesity
  • Dark-skinned individuals
  • Gut malabsorption, as in celiac disease
  • Taking medications that inhibit vitamin D metabolism (for example, corticosteroids)

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

Research About Vitamin D and Head Pain

There may be a link between headaches and vitamin D deficiency.

Study 1

In one study published 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 production, 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—and we know that magnesium deficiency has been associated with the development of tension-type headaches.

Study 2

In another study, vitamin D levels and symptoms were evaluated in 100 adults with chronic tension-type headache and 100 matched healthy controls. The study found that those with chronic tension-type headaches were significantly more likely to be vitamin D deficient and more likely to experience muscle and bone tenderness.

Study 3

In a 2018 study published in Journal of Clinical Neurology, researchers analyzed a group of 157 people with migraines and found that 77.1% of them had vitamin D deficiency, particularly in the spring and winter months. This association was seen for both episodic migraine and chronic migraine.

Implications

Keep in mind that a link or association does not mean that one causes the other. Also, these three studies included a very small number of patients. The big picture here is that low vitamin D may contribute to chronic head pain. More studies, especially large randomized controlled trials, are needed to better define this relationship.

Prevention

To prevent vitamin D deficiency, the Institute of Medicine recommends that adults through the age of 70 years have a dietary intake of 600 IU vitamin D per day. The recommended dietary allowance (RDA) for adults over the age of 70 is 800 IU.

Remember, your vitamin D requirement may be different from someone else's, based on your unique risk factors and baseline vitamin D level. Therefore, it's important to discuss your vitamin D treatment plan with your healthcare provider.

A Word From Verywell

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

Was this page helpful?
Article Sources
Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. National Institutes of Health. Office of Dietary Supplements. Vitamin D fact sheet for health professionals. Updated March 26, 2021.

  2. Dawson-Huges B. Vitamin D deficiency in adults: definition, clinical manifestations, and treatment. UpToDate. Updated May 3, 2021.

  3. Prakash S, Mehta NC, Dabhi AS, Lakhani O, Khilari M, Shah ND. The prevalence of headache may be related with the latitude: a possible role of vitamin D insufficiency? J Headache Pain. 2010;11(4):301-7 doi:10.1007/s10194-010-0223-2

  4. Mauskop A, Varughese J. Why all migraine patients should be treated with magnesium. J Neural Transm (Vienna). 2012;119(5):575-9. doi:10.1007/s00702-012-0790-2

  5. Prakash S, Rathore C, Makwana P, Dave A, Joshi J, Parekh H. Vitamin D deficiency in patients with chronic tension-type headache: a case-control study. Headache. 2017;57(7):1096-1108. doi:10.1111/head.13096

  6. Song T-J, Chu M-K, Sohn J-H, Ahn H-Y, Lee SH, Cho S-J. Effect of vitamin d deficiency on the frequency of headaches in migraineJ Clin Neurol. 2018;14(3):366. doi:10.3988/jcn.2018.14.3.366

Additional Reading