Migraine and Gluten Sensitivity

In a desperate attempt to treat her migraines, herself (gluten-free) blogger Karen Yesowich Schmucker discovered she was sensitive to gluten. Adopting a gluten-free diet has reduced the frequency and severity of her migraines. Karen explains the connection in this guest post.

While there is data to suggest that a certain percentage of migraineurs also suffer from celiac disease or some form of gluten sensitivity, few neurologists routinely test their patients for it. One study done in Italy in 2003 suggested that 4% of migraineurs also had celiac. You may think this is a small number and that may explain neurologists’ reluctance to test for it. But consider this: few people in the general population are ever tested for gluten sensitivity or celiac disease. Until recently, doctors considered it to be extremely rare, but now there is reason to believe that the number of people in this country who have some form of intolerance to gluten is 1 in 133, or about 3 million. Over 90% of these people do not know of their gluten sensitivity. So how safe can we as patients feel about the small number of migraineurs who also have Celiac? We don’t really know how many of us are out there. Should we care? Would a gluten-free diet really help us? And what the heck is gluten anyway?

Gluten is a protein found in wheat, rye and barley. It is what makes dough from these grains sticky and hold together when baked. Gluten is also used in many other food products from soups and salad dressings to soy sauce and beer. Gluten intolerance is an autoimmune disease which, left untreated, will eventually destroy the villi in the small intestine, leading to malabsorption of minerals and nutrients. There are serious implications from malabsorption including osteoporosis, certain cancers and a host of other disorders. Go to the National Foundation for Celiac Awareness to find out more.

Today the only treatment for gluten sensitivity is the complete and lifelong avoidance of gluten. Does maintaining a gluten-free diet help migraine? There is some evidence to suggest that some migraineurs are helped by it. Some report the total disappearance of migraine while others have fewer and less severe attacks. I fall into the latter category. I found out (by accident) a little over a year ago that I am gluten intolerant and I have followed a gluten-free diet since December 2006. Do I still get migraines? Yes, but not as many and not as severe. I have not had a classic migraine (with aura) in about a year. Does my neurologist think that gluten caused my migraines? No, but it could have created a situation where migraine was more likely to occur, especially since I had evidence of malabsorption and was deficient in several important minerals like magnesium, even though I was supplementing at 400 mg per day!

As a direct result of my experience, my neurologist now tests his patients who show gastrointestinal symptoms for gluten sensitivity. But he doesn¹t test all his patients. He (incorrectly, according to experts on celiac) believes that one must have these types of symptoms before testing makes sense. However, with celiac, symptoms often do not appear until the disease has progressed and a patient is not absorbing nutrients. Here are some of the symptoms noted in celiac literature: fatigue, anemia, migraine, eczema, psoriasis, mineral deficiencies, as well as gastrointestinal complaints such as bloating, gas, constipation and/or diarrhea. So the bottom line is: finding out you have gluten intolerance may or may not help your migraine, but the health benefits of discovery and treatment by themselves are compelling. I went gluten-free hoping to rid myself of debilitating headaches, but knowing what I know now makes me glad I did it regardless of the effect on my headaches.

If you do decide to get tested, make sure you do NOT start a gluten-free diet until AFTER the test results come in and your doctor tells you to start it. The test will come back negative if you are not actively eating gluten. If you go on a gluten-free diet please give it a good chance to succeed. I found some of my symptoms disappeared within three days, but the migraine-easing part of it took longer. Months longer. So be patient and don’t cheat. It can take up to 18 months for your system to heal. If you want to see how to navigate life gluten-free, visit my blog. You can find recipes there as well as tips for managing eating out, traveling and otherwise living a normal life gluten and headache-free.

References and Resources:

  • Association between migraine and celiac disease: results from a preliminary case-control and therapeutic study. Gabrielli, M.; Cremonini, F.; Fiore, G.; Addolorato, G.; Padalino, C.; Candelli, M.; de Leo, M.E.; Santarelli, L.; Giacovazzo, M.; Gasbarrini, A.; Pola, P. The American Journal of Gastroenterology, Volume 98, Number 3, March 2003 , pp. 625-629(5)
  • Migraine and Coeliac Disease. Headache: The Journal of Head and Face Pain 38 (8). J. Serratrice MD, P. Disdier MD, C. de Roux MD, C. Christides MD, P.J. Weiller MD.  (1998), 627­628 doi:10.1046/j.1526-4610.1998.3808627.x
  • Celiac Disease: A Hidden Epidemic. Peter H. Green, Rory Jones. HarperCollins Publishers. 2006. ISBN-13: 9780060766931 (Peter H. Green, M.D., director of the Celiac Disease Center at Columbia University. He confirmed that migraines can be a symptom of celiac disease.)
  • Living Gluten Free for Dummies. Dana Korn. Wiley Publishing, Inc. Hoboken N.J., 2006
  • All in Your Head. Untreated gluten sensitivity can affect your gut, your skin and your brain. By Alicia B. Woodward. Living Without magazine. Winter 2007. Pp. 11-16; 27.
  • Celiac Disease Foundation
  • Gluten Intolerance Group

Karen Yesowich Schmucker is a freelance graphic designer and translator who lives with her husband in Bellevue, WA. Karen also teaches Naginata (a Japanese martial art) near Seattle. A migraineur since age 12, she has been gluten-free since December 2006. Contact her at karen[at]kysdesigns[dot]com.