Head Hurts? Gluten Could be the Culprit

Last month’s study by the Neurological Institute at Columbia University Medical Center was not the first to link migraines to celiac disease and gluten sensitivity – but it is certainly one of the biggest and the most recent, and so even though we’re a little late to report it I wanted to take a minute to go over what happened in the current study, and how it fits into everything else we know.

In short: if you have a problem with gluten, there’s a good chance you also have a problem with headaches. Sound right?

The current study, which has not yet been published in a peer-reviewed journal, examined more than 700 people over the course of a year. Anyone who had pre-existing migraine triggers – heavy alcohol or caffeine habits, brain tumors, etc. –was excluded, leaving about 500 people. Of the 500, 178 were a “healthy” control group, 188 had celiac disease, 111 had inflammatory bowel disease, and 25 were gluten-sensitive.

Of these people, 30 percent of those with celiac disease, 23 percent of those with inflammatory bowel disease, and a whopping 56% of those with gluten sensitivity reported some kind of chronic headache.

The control group? A mere fourteen percent.

If the criteria were tightened up, from chronic headache to the more specific migraine, 21 percent of celiacs and 14 percent of inflammatory bowel disease fit the bill – as did a mere six percent of the “healthy” control.

To borrow from the US News article‘s quotes from co-author Dr. Alexandra Dimitrova:

“It’s possible the patients with [inflammatory bowel disease] have a generalized inflammatory response, and this may be similar in celiac disease patients, where the whole body, including the brain, is affected by inflammation,” she said. “The other possibility is that there are antibodies in celiac disease that may … attack the brain cells and membranes covering the nervous system and somehow cause headaches. What we know for sure is that there is a higher prevalence of headache of any kind, including migraine headaches, compared to healthy controls.”

For the good news, let’s pull another quote from the article, this time by Dr. Alessio Fasano (who was not involved in the study), “One thing is for sure: Many people with migraines, when they go on a gluten-free diet, the migraines improve or go away.”

The study comes from a line of studies, indicating that children suffering from migraines are more likely to have or develop celiac disease, that idiopathic migraines can sometimes be reduced by a gluten-free diet, and even that gluten can trigger migraines in gluten-sensitive people who are not on a strictly gluten-free diet.

What about you? Do you see a link between headaches and gluten in your own life?

One thought on “Head Hurts? Gluten Could be the Culprit”

  1. YES!! Most Certainly!!! Suffered with severe headaches all my life and I am 66 years of age, a year and a half ago I removed gluten from my diet without asking doctor since I was not seeing her for another 5 months. I read an article saying that gluten could cause inflamation throughout the body, causing pain in joints, muscles, bones and headaches, and I had all those problems plus the bowel trouble. At that time I also read about the Paleo diet and how wheat was not a staple in early mans diet, so I set about removing gluten loaded items from my diet, in ONE WEEK I felt like someone had replaced my head, no headaches, no pain in my muscles, better bowel habits and very little pain in the arthritic joints. I was amazed!!! Three months later I did and experiment to see if this was due to the gluten, I went out and ate a shrimp sandwich on wheat bread and was sick for a week. Went out that day and bought a breadmaker and all the ingredients for GF bread, started researching the net and found loads of help, I have been GF for 18 months and feel awesome. I truly am excited to see all the help on the net but sure wish more doctors would look into this problem, it could be the simplest and cheapest way to heal much of the illness in our country. My doctor believes and is trying to lead her patients to a GF lifestyle, but they resist, I hope to give a group of them a little talk to explain how great they can feel if they just give it a try, hope it works, I feel too good not to pass this on!!!

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