Gluten and migraine-is there a link?

I was recently asked to review a book on the benefits of gluten-free diets. Gluten is a protein found in foods made with wheat and other grains.

Some people have an inherited autoimmune disease called celiac disease. People with celiac disease have a reaction in their intestines from gluten that reduces the body’s ability to absorb food nutrients. When eating foods containing gluten these individuals will experience digestive complaints, like diarrhea, be unable to gain weight, and have problems related to poor nutrition.

Avoiding gluten results in the intestines being able to repair themselves so food can be properly absorbed. It’s estimated that celiac disease affects about 3 million Americans. The diagnosis is made by testing for specific antibodies and a biopsy of the intestine.

Later this year, an article will be published in the Journal of Parenteral and Enteral Nutrition, clarifying the differences between celiac disease, wheat allergy, and gluten sensitivity. Here’s a synopsis:

  • Celiac disease has been linked to increased risk for cancer and other autoimmune disorders and the only proven treatment is a gluten-free diet.
  • Wheat allergy is an allergy to wheat, improved by avoiding wheat. Avoiding other gluten-containing foods, like rye, barely, and oats, is not necessary.
  • Gluten sensitivity is not linked to a higher risk for cancer or other autoimmune diseases.
  • A gluten-free diet may improve symptoms for patients with celiac disease, wheat allergy, or gluten sensitivity.

Because of the obvious health benefits for people with celiac disease from eating a low-gluten diet, researchers have wondered if gluten intolerance may affect other medical conditions, including migraine. Here’s a snapshot of a few recent studies:

  • In 2003, Italian researchers screened individuals with migraines and a control sample for celiac disease. Celiac disease was identified in 4 percent with migraine (four of the 90 patients tested) and less than 1/2 of one percent of the controls. When the four migraineurs with celiac disease followed a gluten-free diet, their migraines improved.
  • In 2005, doctors from Spain reported the case of a woman with infrequent headaches who started getting daily headaches, occasionally accompanied by abdominal pain and diarrhea. After carefully evaluating her lifestyle at the time of this change, it was recognized that her dramatic increase in headaches coincided with a dietary change where she had added several wheat biscuits to her morning breakfast. Eliminating the biscuits resulted in a return of her headaches to occurring only infrequently.
  • In 2009, researchers at the University of Marburg screened patients with celiac disease proven by intestinal biopsy for symptoms of nervous system disease. Most of the patients were women (86 percent). All participants were following a gluten-free diet. One in three individuals with celiac disease reported having migraines. (In a normal population sample, about one in five women and one in fifteen men have migraines.)
  • In 2011, Shiraz University of Medical Sciences researchers screened a group of children with migraines and a comparable group without migraines for celiac disease. Positive testing for celiac disease was found in 2 percent in both groups, showing no increased risk among those with migraine.

These studies highlight that there may indeed be a link between gluten and migraine, although the jury is still out on how strong of a link there might be and whether a gluten-free diet may be beneficial. People with gluten sensitivity, wheat allergy, or celiac disease may experience an improvement in both digestive and other health symptoms after following a gluten-free diet. Most studies, however, are needed before a gluten-free diet will become a general recommendation for most people with migraines.

This article represents the opinions, thoughts, and experiences of the author; none of this content has been paid for by any advertiser. The Migraine.com team does not recommend or endorse any products or treatments discussed herein. Learn more about how we maintain editorial integrity here.

Comments

View Comments (15)
  • ripeka
    3 years ago

    Gluten is definitely one of my triggers which I discovered about 3 years ago. On the odd occasion that I eat something with gluten, I usually (but not always) get a migraine. The thing to watch with going GF though is not to introduce more processed food into your diet. Lots of GF products have high levels of other processed rubbish in them including higher levels of sugar. Rather, try to eat more real, unprocessed food, or at least, carefully check all ingredients in GF products such as bread. GF products do not mean healthy products.

  • elialden12
    5 years ago

    I went gluten free and dairy free about a year and a half ago because of stomach issues. I didn’t even think about it affecting my migraines, which I had most of the time – 6-8 a month, sometimes lasting 2-3 days! I had been on Topamax twice a day for 6 months at that point with possibly some relief, but not much. After 2 months gluten/dairy free, my stomach felt SO much better AND I was having fewer migraines! In the last year+ I maybe get a mild hormonal migraine monthly, but it goes away within 12 hours, and maybe every 2-3 months I get bad one – but it only lasts like a day! I still occasionally get weather-related headaches that can migrate to migraines….or scent-triggered migraines….but again, they don’t last nearly as long as they used to.

  • LindseyLiving
    3 years ago

    Did you cut out gluten and dairy at the same time? If so, how do you know if it’s both or just one of those food types that were causing your migraines? I’m trying gluten-free first for a couple of months and then if that doesn’t work, I will try dairy-free. Also, can you still drink alcohol and/or caffeine? Please and thanks:)

  • Lisa Riley
    5 years ago

    I have found no connection at all. Others I know have a total connection. It appears to be an individual situation. I’ve been gluten free for months, and there’s been no change in my migraine pattern.

  • sarahhoyte
    6 years ago

    I’m on a wheat-free low-FODMAP (no wheat, onions, legumes, fructose etc) diet for my IBS, which helps A LOT. The weird thing is I now have Chronic Daily Headache, the first symptoms of which started about a month after I went on this diet. I don’t actually think the two are related, but it’s a strange coincidence.

  • Nancy Harris Bonk moderator
    6 years ago

    Hi sarah, thanks for sharing your story with us. Do you think it’s your body adjusting to not having those food groups? Have you included a new food, (nuts for example) that may be triggering this head pain?

  • Michelle Malley
    7 years ago

    Celiac has so many more symptoms than just diarrhea. In fact, only around 30% people of diagnosed have chronic diarrhea. It has over 300 symptoms. It’s most commonly misdiagnosed as IBS, chronic fatigue syndrome, and other things along those lines.

    The first time my migraines went chronic, it was solved by going gluten free. A lot of my other health issues were resolved as well. I never had the chance to get properly tested but I do believe I have Celiac disease versus just a gluten intolerance.

  • Janene Zielinski
    7 years ago

    I’m not celiac, but going gluten free reduced my migraines by 2/3. After 6 weeks on the diet I felt like my migraine had taken two steps back in my life. I don’t know why it helps, all I know is it has been the only significant migraine reducer I’ve ever tried. I’m still a migraineur, but I have a lot fewer migraines – and digestive troubles now. I didn’t even realize the digestion symptoms were painful until I had less of the pain. I tried the diet on a lark – just figured at least it wasn’t another drug and it couldn’t hurt me like some preventatives had. I am so grateful to have found something that helps.

  • Elizabeth Taylor Glenn
    7 years ago

    Thanks for sharing. I have IBS and chronic Migraines. I have recently talked to 2 ladies who got relief by going gluten free. I’m starting my research and plan to try.

  • Kathy Oliver
    7 years ago

    Sara I did validation testing before making the difficult decision to be gf. It has made a measurable improvement to my migraines and the way I feel. It is not easy and people that find they don’t need it probably don’t stick with it. I do not have celiac

  • Kathy Oliver
    7 years ago

    Let me know if u can open this Anne. I have tons of info

  • Kathy Oliver
    7 years ago

    Hi Heidi. I’m happy to do it. I believe in gf and even if you don’t have celiac gluten can still be a issue for some people.

  • Heidi Maybruck
    7 years ago

    Thanks for sharing Karhy

  • Sara Batchelder
    7 years ago

    It seems like the connection is that people with celiac and migraine improve when a gluten-free diet is followed. But celiac is such a serious problem, that wouldn’t it make sense that, of course, their health would improve? It seems like the focus should be on better diagnosis of celiac disease, and doesn’t really impact migraine. I guess I’m just against the people who say that gluten-free diets cure just about anything now-a-days.

  • Michelle Kohl Ortman Schwartz
    7 years ago

    Good article makes me think?

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