Migraine Headaches and Celiac Disease

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.

12 comments (Add your own)

1. Martha wrote:
I have had migraines for 30 years. None are the best. The qsoituen is in finding the best one for you. You are the only one who can determine that. Ask the Doc. to prescribe the migraine abortive medications one at a time until you find the one that works best for you.I personally use Imitrex. I have also tried Maxalt, Zomig and all of the others that I don't remember the names of. Imitrex has been the best for me.The key with any of these is to take them immediately, as soon as you realize that the pain is coming or expect that it is heading to migraine level. If you wait until you have a full blown migraine, no medication will work.Keep a daily headache diary when you try the new meds. At the end of a few days, or weeks depending on how often you get them, you will have the details for the Doctor. Help them to help you.Best of luck.

Wed, March 21, 2012 @ 2:44 AM

2. Olivia wrote:
I have had migraines for the last few years, I've had to take about 22 migraine pills a month, which is the max amount I could get my insurance to pay for. I would get them at first between 1-3 times per week, and then consistently 3-4 times per week for the last couple years, then these last few months almost everyday. I went to a nuerologist and got an MRI to make sure nothing was wrong with me. They couldn't explain why I was getting them, but they had a feeling i was getting rebound migraines because of the amount of migraine meds i was having to take, but like most people I work and I can't work with a migraine so I would take them as necessary. I am now day 8 on a gluten free diet and I have not gotten a single migraine. I know that seems like a very short time to say going gluten free has helped, but it's been 4 years since I have gone even 4 days without a migraine and I couldn't be happier! I had a few friends suggest going gluten free, but I always refused because I didn't want a diet restriction, and I love bread, and pizza and being able to eat what I want. I suggest to anyone having migraines to cut out gluten and see how it can help!

Mon, April 16, 2012 @ 3:48 AM

3. Suzanne wrote:
I suffered from daily headaches for more than 20 years. I've been gluten-free for over three weeks and have not had a single headache since I have been (strictly) following this diet. It is a miracle and, had I not experienced it myself, would have never believed removing gluten from my diet would so dramatically change my life. The other benefits I've noticed include increased energy and a cessation of the gas/bloating and nausea I had for years. It is truly amazing.

Thu, August 9, 2012 @ 12:08 PM

4. Jennifer wrote:
When I was a teenager, I virtually lived in a migraine for over a year. It got so bad, I had to drop out of school. It took more than 20 years and other various health issues to finally figure out, but now going gluten free has changed my life! I have never felt better.

Mon, January 7, 2013 @ 10:54 PM

5. Jillian wrote:
I am so glad you don't have migraines any more. I am 33 and I have suffered with server migraines my whole life until. Until about 8 months ago when I got diagnosed with celiacs diease and went gluten free. I haven't had one in about 7 months. It's amazing what changing a diet can do for u. I have a 5 year old who even makes sure he buys Cheetos becuse he says there gf so he can share with me.

Fri, February 8, 2013 @ 8:20 AM

6. Nilofer wrote:
I too suffered from migraines, up to 14 days per month (and possibly more if I hadn't started taking Triptans) until I read about gluten as a trigger. Gluten was never on the radar for me as a trigger since, like Paige pointed out, cheese, chocolate, etc. were always enemy number one. I can't tell you how many times I was stymied by my food trigger diary. Discovering gluten as the "mother of all triggers" has changed my life. I am not Celiac but fall under the gluten-sensitivity category. It wasn't until relatively recently that I realized how strict I had to be. I used to allow breadcrumbs, sauces with gluten thinking that gluten was like other triggers where small amounts were permissible. After I became STRICT, I discovered just how potent gluten is.

Wed, May 1, 2013 @ 2:14 PM

7. Tess wrote:

Yes, they say Migraine is a complex neurological disease. I have suffered Migraines daily since I was in my thirties. I have tried every treatment.

I have been pain free from migraines for a short period. I did my own research. It was difficult to put this puzzle together, especially when were taking neurology.

I certainly dismissed the thought that a gluten free diet would cure what researchers say is such a complex neurological disorder or disorders.

Then while reading scientific articles on inflammatory diseases over the last few years. A seed of thought was put in my brain. Finally, many more articles gave me the link between migraine and inflammatory disease.

I started the Gluten Free Diet.

I am writing these comments, as I was at the end, my migraines were unbearable. So, for my fellow migraineurs. Try the Gluten Free diet. It may not work for you. If it does you will have your life back. I still have auras without pain. You will need to live a new lifestyle. Finding and cooking food that you can eat.

Sat, January 25, 2014 @ 6:01 PM

8. Christina wrote:
I to suffer from migrains. I was getting minipulated every month to help. Unfortunetly it wasn't effective. The Dr. I was working with suggested I remove some things from my diet one of which was gluten. I have totally removed the gluten with little success removing anything else. (Still working on the rest.) But I am pleased to say I am migrating free!!! Its been years and many meds & docters and all I had to do was remove the gluten. I am suffering with many issues because of an autoamune disease. Years ago I wanted my gastronomy Dr to test me for ceiliac disease and his response was why do you want another diagnosis. That test could of saved me yrs of pain. I also changed Drs. I didn't feel he had my best interest. I suggest you take control of your life because no one else will. You have nothing to lose except migrains. I'm also having more energy and less joint pain. Wish all to be well!!!

Wed, March 26, 2014 @ 11:36 AM

9. Jennifer A wrote:
I've been dealing with migraines my whole life, since I was 8 years old. I tried every medication , diet , vitamin you name it . Nothing helped but when I went on the gluten free diet that did make a difference. I'm not 100% migraine free like I would want to be but I have to say that being off the gluten does help. I definitely feel the difference and people with this disease should try it because it is a better a way of eating and a cleaner way of eating.

Wishing you well!!!!

Sun, September 14, 2014 @ 10:57 AM

10. wrote:
I have been suffering from 7 migraines a month and a few hospital stays for over a year and a half. I took the MRT Leap food sensitivity test. The first year it controled my migraines to about 2 a month and I was on top of the world. The test is required every year because your senstivities change. The second test showed Gluten. I am 8 weeks with no Gluten and not a single migraine. I am still in shock! I plan to test for Celiac next time I go to the doctor. This is after 4 neurologist and 8 doctors could not help me. Amazing!

Sun, June 14, 2015 @ 8:01 PM

11. Jess wrote:
I'm have just been diagnosed with coeliac disease, picked up because I haven't given up on finding the source of my recurring migraines over the past 6 months. I am wondering how long it will take on a gluten free diet for my migraine/hormonal balance to improve?

Thu, October 1, 2015 @ 3:24 AM

12. Natalie wrote:
I suffered from migraines as a child and throughout my adolescence and twenties - I thought they were normal headaches. In my early thirties, I saw a neurologist who told me to take Imitrex when I felt my next headache coming on: if it worked, then they were migraines. That's how I was diagnosed. I went through menopause two years ago and the migraines, which were usually tied to hormone fluctuations, stopped. Over the summer, I began to have SEVERE abdominal pain, etc and the migraines came back both more intense and longer-lasting than I had ever experienced before. They were also resistant to Imitrex, which was puzzling and concerning (do I have a brain tumor?? was my thought). I was diagnosed with celiac disease three weeks ago, after an endoscope and biopsy. I have been strictly gluten free since and the headaches stopped immediately. However, I believe I accidentally ingested gluten during a Thanksgiving dinner at a relative's house, although I was trying to be careful. The end result was a migraine that lasted early Friday morning (woke me up at 3 am) until today, Sunday. It's still lurking. It was one of the worst I can remember and I toyed with going to the ER for a shot of Demerol but it just seemed too difficult. I came to this site to understand the connection between celiac disease and migraines and what I've read matches my experiences. Thank you for the information. @Jess - I had immediate relief on GF diet but, like I said in my post, if you accidentally eat gluten then the headache could be one of your worst ever - so be very, very careful.

Sun, November 29, 2015 @ 1:54 PM

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