Migraine Headaches & Celiac Disease
By Emma Steinberg, Delight Contributor
Many of us deal with stress on a regular basis, but imagine adding to your existing stress a splitting headache so excruciating that the pain radiates all the way down to your jaw, making light more painful to look at than your middle-school crush dancing with your worst enemy, and magnifying almost every noise through the biggest megaphone ever invented. For 39 years, that’s what Paige Vietor had to deal with.
As a child, instead of being able to enjoy a special trip to the best candy store in Houston (one that puts Dylan’s Candy Bar to shame), Paige had to stay in the car, lying down, eyes closed, paralyzed by a migraine. These migraines didn’t just last a few hours; they lasted at least three days. They would come on suddenly and intensely. In college, Paige joked that she lived in the infirmary, spending at least half the week trying to recover. And if the President of the United States ever invited her to dinner, she’d have to decline since there was no way she could guarantee that one of her debilitating migraines wouldn’t rear its ugly head.
Paige’s story is not unique. Many people like her struggle for years, trying everything from prescription medication to acupuncture. More than 28 million people in the United States suffer from migraine headaches.
Doctors typically talk about triggers when it comes to migraines. They tell you to avoid stress (yeah, right!), trigger foods like aged cheese, and even certain types of medications. One item that is often missing from the list of triggers, however, is gluten. This is interesting, given that some studies estimate that up to 45% of people suffering from undiagnosed celiac disease have migraine headaches.
But why such a large percentage? During a migraine, your body initiates an inflammatory reaction, releasing cells called cytokines. Cytokines are part of your body’s cell-mediated immune response. They can affect the function of other cells, like the killer T cells that cause infected or specially marked cells in your body to commit suicide. Cytokines also mop up serotonin, your “feel-good” neurotransmitter, and with less serotonin, you feel more pain. Enter celiac disease.
Researchers believe that celiac disease’s autoimmune components cause an elevated cytokine response in the brain. So just as with other migraines, but worse, serotonin levels drop and too many killer T cells are let loose to attack your cells, generating massive pain.
Researchers also hypothesize that this elevated autoimmune response in the brain may be exacerbated by deficiencies of certain vitamins or enzymes, like vitamin B12, folic acid, vitamin E, and biopterin. These deficiencies are common in untreated celiac disease, and are associated with neurological symptoms, like migraines.
In Paige’s case, it was an iron deficiency that put her doctors on the trail to celiac disease. She had dropped down to 103 pounds and was so anemic that she had to drink liquid iron, but even that was not enough. Despite downing the elixir—which Paige describes as a nasty brown liquid that tasted like blood—as directed, her iron levels still did not come up. That’s when her doctors sent her for a biopsy, and thank goodness they did, because within a month of beginning a gluten-free diet, she was migraine-free for the first time in her life.
That’s the fascinating thing about the connection between celiac disease and migraines: anecdotal evidence from patients across the country illustrates that once you eliminate the gluten protein from your diet, the migraines disappear within a matter of weeks. It’s as simple as that.
So if you’ve been struggling with migraines that seem to be untreatable and are stumping your doctors, ask to get tested for celiac disease. Even if you don’t think you’re sick, but you just don’t feel right, talk to your doctor about celiac disease. Treating it may be just the thing you need.