The Gluten Syndrome and Migraine

by James on 27 May 2009

There’s a battle raging, and gluten and migraine are a part of it.  The question at the heart of the battle: Is gluten harming people – people that don’t have celiac disease (coeliac disease)?

Gluten Syndrome and Migraine

Some just aren’t convinced by the evidence.  But a growing number are convinced, and some of those people are migraineurs.

Many of us as migraine patients have been asked if we’ve tried giving up gluten – found in wheat, rye and barley.  Some of us have tried it.  And the surprising thing is – for some people, it worked.

But why?  These weren’t people with wheat allergies, or with celiac disease.  Celiac disease is an autoimmune disorder, and the most common treatment is the gluten-free diet.

But a growing number are arguing that there is a wider problem – gluten syndrome – or gluten insensitivity or intolerance – that the common tests aren’t recognizing.  Some of the common questions and arguments can be found at GlutenSensitivity.net if you’re interested in going into more detail.

One of the advocates of this point of view is Dr Rodney Ford, a paediatrician who has focused his career on food allergies and intolerance.

Last month Dr. Ford wrote this helpful summary:

… The crucial point, however, is that gluten-sensitivity can also be associated with neurological symptoms in patients who do not have any mucosal gut damage (that is, without celiac disease).  Gluten can cause neurological harm through a combination of cross reacting antibodies, immune complex disease and direct toxicity.  These nervous system affects include: dysregulation of the autonomic nervous system, cerebella ataxia, hypotonia, developmental delay, learning disorders, depression, migraine, and headache …

In other words, you might have a problem with gluten which is not technically celiac disease.

Have you tried a gluten free diet?  For how long?  Did it help with your headache or migraine symptoms?

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{ 92 comments… read them below or add one }

Becky January 21, 2012 at 2:39 pm

Wow! I have been toying with the idea that maybe gluten sensitivity could be linked to my migraines. I, too, have had them for years, usually not more than once or twice a month, but really awful lasting for days at a time when I have them, with nothing bringing relief. Tried lots of things…Seasonique to eliminate menstrual cycles did not help. Triptans help pretty well usually, but it sure would be better not to get the migraines in the first place, esp. since, like someone else said, you have to worry about rationing out those 9 little pills they give you. I ran out on New Year’s Eve & stupidly drank champagne & had to suffer for days before the Dr.’s office & pharmacy reopened. I am so glad to read all these comments from people with similar experiences. I am definitely going to try going gluten free and see if it helps. I have not suffered any stomach or intestinal problems that I’m aware of, but if it helps the migraines I will stick to it for life! Thank you everyone for sharing and helping others!

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Renee D. April 22, 2012 at 9:36 am

Interesting article.. I started gluten free diet to lose some weight a few weeks ago, but something interesting happened instead. I’ve been suffering with cluster migraine headaches forever it seems. It’s been the past 5 or 7 years that every morning I awake with a sharp stabbing pain behind my right eye, slicing thru my right side of my head, jaw and ear as well. The attacks would make it hard to see out of my eye, hearing on ride side would be garbled at best. And, concentrating on work would be difficult. Driving would be hard because of seeing blurry out of the right eye. And, they would last 2 days at least. I do not have celiac disease, or stomach problems. If I drank wine, I would be sure to get the migraine, or if I stayed away from coffee I would as well. But, 2 weeks ago I tried a totally gluten free diet. I went to Whole Foods and bought gluten free bread and pasta. I stuck to fresh meats, dairy eggs, nuts. About 1 or 2 days after I started this diet, the headaches stopped. I thought it was a fluke and I thought by the weekend for sure I would be hurting. But, I have been migraine free ever since even when I drink wine or forget to drink coffee. One night two nights ago, I went out to dinner with a friend. I had seafood crepes. I think the crepes had gluten. The next morning and for about 10 hours after waking, I had a migraine. That night I went back to the gluten free diet and the next morning was good, no migraine. I’ve never been to any doctors, I can’t take pills that well, I depend on natural remedies. I’m glad I found this new lifestyle to work for me. and, by the way, I’ve lost a couple of lbs too.

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Alley April 24, 2012 at 3:15 pm

WOW i am so Happy to hear that!! Yes i was in shock to, didn’t plan or link it until 1 month later. I still sit and think, ohhh it’s comming back any day, if i had wine i would instantly get a migraine too!! not now. If it works for some migraine sufferers please get the word out, so easy to try, no side effects only the diet is hard. But if u do it, u will never go back the way u were.

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Renee D. April 26, 2012 at 10:16 am

Thanks. I’m very grateful for being migraine free. There’s a couple of added bonuses too. First of all, my mood has changed. I used to be kind of moody, I would have strange dreams that would upset me. my anxiety level would increase. I thought I needed prozac. But, lately my mood has been great. It’s like I feel on a cloud or high. I feel good all the time. My sleep is good and without nightmares like I had before. I’m able to handle life again. My depression has lifted. I’m sure it’s related to the diet as well.

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alyson breathed April 24, 2012 at 11:01 am

now that you have had this success, watch to see what happens when you have a meal with red meat… it has many of the same proteins that cause the gluten related migraines – it’s all about the inflammatory response.

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Renee D. April 26, 2012 at 10:10 am

Luckily, my cravings for red meat are no longer there, except one: Hamburgers. So far, I’m ok with turkey burgers. But, I understand about what you are saying and will be careful with food. It seems like you have to treat food like any drug nowadays. For me, getting rid of migraine is one less problem to worry about in my life.

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Kari C. August 14, 2012 at 1:37 pm

I have never heard this about red meat… so if we find that GF diets work for us but still have migraines sometimes, it could be red meat that causes a similar reaction as gluten?

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Ed August 17, 2012 at 8:35 am

All red meat is not the same and not cooked the same. Most red meat animals are finished in confined areas implanted with drugs and fed a wide range of by products and corn. A lot of this meat is cooked over charcoal with the carcinogens going into the meat, then it is eaten with barbecue sauce or steak sauce and washed down with pop or an alcoholic beverage. Combining drugs and different food and drink that have an adverse effect on me increases my level of discomfort. It is like using aspertame and msg together seems to be 6 or 8 times worse than just using them separately.

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Kari C. August 7, 2012 at 3:44 pm

Well I am a little late on the comments as the last one was in April but I was very hopeful after reading this article and all the comments from people who have tried and had success of GF diets. I have suffered from Migraines for about 15 years now and they have become much worse and more frequent over the last few years. I now have terrible migraines between 5 and 7 days a week with nausea, vision problems, fatigue, sensitivity to light and sound, you name it, I have had it, like many of the people who have commented here. I have been on so many meds : Topomax (which causes horrible side effects including increased pressure in my eyes, I was not on that one long), and currently: Fioricet, Maxalt, Flexeril, Stadol, Zonogran (anti-seizure that is used to treat migraines), and just added to the cocktail is Verapamil. I have had two Occipital Nerve Blocks only with a little relief for two weeks each time when it is supposed to last a couple of months. I am supposed to have Botox injections the first of September and I think I will try a GF diet in the meantime while I wait. I get a lot of referred pain with my migraines in my neck, shoulders, jaws, and ears so I hope if the GF diets helps the migraines, it will take care of the pain everywhere else. I have been doing some research and the only conflicting information I am getting is on beef, does anyone know what the deal is on beef? Thanks! I am encouraged by the success of the other people who commented and wish them the best too!

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Ivana August 8, 2012 at 6:47 pm

Hello Kari
I read your comment .I too suffer from very complex migraines last 20 years,like yours except that mine are complex hemiplegic .meaning when I get migraine ,which is 2-3 times a month, my right side gets paralyzed for about 20-30 minutes.and then it goes away. I was also on the most medications like you were. And they mostly caused more harm(very bad side effects) then it helped my migraines. Long story short, I started on GF diet two weeks ago ,and I feel so much better! No headaches,migraines,I am not tired anymore,and it seems that my memory is improving as well.I had really bad migraines after eating red meat. Reason could be the way how the animals are raised ,and what kind of chemicals were put in the meat to preserve it. I also cannot have orange juice,any citrus fruit,any antioxidants, pizza,pineapple.I a
So heard of Botox ,but as I nurse I am kind of sceptic about it and it is not a long lasting.maybe it does help.let us know.

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Kari C. August 14, 2012 at 1:31 pm

Thanks for your reply! It will be one week ago tomorrow that I started a GF diet and I have to say I have noticed a difference. They have not gone away completely and overnight but I have only had 3 migraines since I started it and I usually have one EVERY day! I still have slight headaches each day but not full blown migraines so I consider that an improvement for sure! I am still not sure about the Botox either. I still might look into having it done to hopefully completely wipe out the migraines for a while if the GF thing only lessens them but I am still on the fence. I go back to my Neuro in a few weeks. I will let you know :) So glad the GF diet is working well for you :)

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Shawna March 26, 2013 at 3:57 pm

Sounds like we are in the same boat with migraines! I have been getting Botox now for almost 5 years. It helped then no relief. Now I’m getting my Botox from someone new and I seem to be getting some relief. The are going in the temple occipital nerves and corrogator muscles. Check out the Midwest migraine surgery center!

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Robin September 5, 2013 at 9:35 am

Hi Kari,

I have had issues with neck/shoulders/jaw as well and started seeing a Activator Chiropractor who specializes in Cranio/Sacral work, as suggested by my Neurologist. Lots of massage and other gentle head/skull work. Might want to ask your Neurologist for a recommendation, and do some research on it and see if its something that might work for you. Make sure they are certified with the appropriate boards!! I used to get the migraines for 3 days at a time and now, usually, they are 1 day only. I’ve been on the GF diet for 5 days now and am hoping it will help me like it has others. Good luck.

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Katie August 9, 2012 at 7:51 am

To Kari C. :
I posted a comment previously on this topic and, I just wanted to tell you…I feel your pain. I am so sorry that you have had to endure such pain for so long. I do hope you give the GF thing a try. Even if it doesn’t make the migraines completely go away, maybe it will provide you with some relief. I also took all sorts of medications to try and prevent my migraines…and then all the drugs I took when I actually got the migraines to try to ease the pain. I, too, experienced a lot of referred pain with the migraines I had. My back was so knotted up I had to go to physical therapy when I was in high school. I SO wish someone would have been there to understand the pain I was going through or suggest a GF diet or …something! When I was eventually diagnosed with Celiac, none of my doctors even alluded to the fact that my migraines could have been caused by Celiac all along. I’m not a doctor, but from the day I started the strict GF diet, my migraines slowly disappeared. I only get them now if I have a really bad reaction. So, maybe like once a year I will get one. And, when I do get one now, I can’t believe I lived through the 20 yrs of my life that I got migraines up to 5 times a week.

Keep researching the beef thing. I can only say that I have NOT had a gluten reaction to beef in the 4.5 yrs I’ve been gluten free…and I’m one of those super-sensitive Celiacs. But, I can’t speak for everyone…nor do I claim to “know all” about the GF diet. I encourage you to keep doing your research though and learn as much as you can. I wish you the best of luck!!

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Kari C. August 14, 2012 at 1:34 pm

Thanks for your reply! I am glad this is working so well for you and it encourages me to keep going. I posted a reply above to another person about my results so far but I have been on the GF diet for almost a week now and I have had fewer migraines. I still get them but not at often and when I do get one, the meds kick in much faster than they used to so I am pleased so far. :)

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ABreathed August 9, 2012 at 8:25 am

my neurologist is unwilling to consider that it might be this simple – he is determined to believe that he just gave me enough meds that in some combination, did something miraculous, tho, nothing supports his contention. I’d stopped taking meds for 3 months – continued to have migraines, then went on a GF diet and that was the key – no gluten and no beef. I’ve played around for the last year to find out what I can and can’t do. I can get away with a very little of either every now and then… but if I really indulge, it’s a guaranteed migraine in 8 hours.

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Renee August 12, 2012 at 12:11 pm

Just an update to my April blog re: the gluten free diet I’m on and still no migraines. Yes, I’ve been migraine free since April. But, when I see a pastry and I eat 1/2, I can feel a slight migraine coming on the right side, but it never blows up totally. I know if I push it, and eat the whole thing then, I will most likely get a full blown migraine. But, I do miss pastries and I also miss real Pizza! I added to this diet, an all natural diet from the 17-day diet! I lost about 10 pounds so far. I have 30 to go, but I’m doing this because of health reasons. I guess we are also responsible for our actions, what we eat, ect.

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Jeanie November 11, 2012 at 1:20 pm

I have had migraines my entire life. I am not celiac but have thyroid autoimmune disease (hypothyroidism). I read several months ago to avoid gluten because the gluten was triggering the autoimmune response which was also killing off my thyroid hormones. For the first time in my life I am almost migraines free. I really wish I could have known years ago what I know now. I have lost so much of my quality of life with the migraines. I am sure that all the years of taking perscriptions and over the counter meds were very healthy for me. Well, I know now and can begin living migraine free.

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Joanna Backman March 27, 2013 at 2:47 am

I have had migraines for years and years, am 56 now and been on a gluten free diet for 4 months, have seen a 85% reduction in migraines, suffering now from headaches with sinus trouble and what i think is bronchitis, but not real migraines. sometimes i slip and have pasta or a cookie and really pay for it later. so, i am gluten free for life now!

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Diane March 27, 2013 at 7:36 am

I have suffered from chronic migraine for over 10 years. I have tried every preventive you can name and I have tried hospitalization 4 times.I have tried every alternative treatment in the book. No help. About 6 months ago I read on a blog somewhere about GF diet helping migraine. I started the next day and I was headache free for 2 months. I thought I found the answer to my problems. It only lasted 2 months. I am still GF, but back to chronic migraine. Very disappointed.

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Dilly November 22, 2013 at 5:36 pm

I am reading this because my partner is in hospital with what we think is his first hemiplegmic migraine. I have a gluten intolerance, and have been on a GF diet for yeras, I just wanted to let you know that I recently worked out I also have to avoid oats, which cause horrible brain fog. Oats is an obvious alternative to wheat, and in lots of ‘gluten free’ food, it seems like such a safe food – if you are eating it then may be try avoiding it, I am much better without it. Best wishes.

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alyson March 29, 2013 at 1:43 pm

Inflammation seems to be what may tips many of us over into migraine. Getting rid of gluten was huge for me – followed by red meat. When I eat an anti-inflammatory diet I find that I have excellent results. Just google it and perhaps consider it.

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Renee D March 31, 2013 at 11:49 am

I originally put my comment here last April 2012. I was gluten free for almost a year. But a few months ago I slipped into weight watchers and healthy choice foods, both of which have gluten. My blood pressure skyrocketed, couldn’t keep it down. That was followed by heart palpultations, daily migraines ect. Then, went back to gluten free last week and I’m already feeling better. I noticed the comments about red meat. I too get the migraines when I eat most red meat. But, if I eat the grass fed steaks at trader joe’s, I don’t get migraines. Most importantly, I can’t make the mistake of eating foods with gluten.

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Lauren September 13, 2013 at 12:57 pm

Hello,

I did a Whole 30 and when I reintroduced Gluten the migraines and what I had always thought were seasonal allergies and asthma came back. I quickly realized I was gluten sensitive even without a formal diagnosis. If I decide to try something with gluten the first symptom that creeps back is a headache – then a few others follow.

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Emma October 21, 2013 at 7:58 pm

Hi, after 3 years of suffering almost daily headaches accompanied by anywhere from one to five migraines a week I have been on a gluten free diet for about 3 weeks. I am still taking my preventative medication but after a 7 day stint of headaches and migraines recently I had to try something! I have been headache free since I started on the gluten free diet, apart from two days after eating sausages forgetting they contain gluten! I have started to reduce my preventative meds now and hope I remain headache free!

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Jennings December 20, 2013 at 7:17 am

About 1 1/2 years ago I got tested for celiac because I had iron deficiency anemia for no apparent reason. The blood test was positive, but the GI ruled it out after the endoscopic exam. Meanwhile, since Feb last year (diagnosed with IDA in Jan) I’ve had near daily migraines, after not having more than 1-2 a year previously. I’ve had a bunch of other weird, random things, most recently schleritis in my eye (usually caused by an underlying auto-immune condition (50% of the time), although it can happen randomly, too (20%) or be related to a viral/bacterial infection, which I didn’t have). I went to the neurologist the week after the schleritis, and both he and I had decided there had to be something underlying the daily migraines when you added in all the other stuff. When I told him I had tested positive for celiac and it had been “ruled out,” he was really angry. He said celiac presents with all kinds of neurological symptoms and doesn’t have to even show in the gut. (If you do a web seach for celiac, all you get are the gut symptoms usually, but if you add neurological symptoms, you find a whole slew of them!).

I had more bloodwork done, and will find out 12/31. Meanwhile, I started a GF diet last weekend and haven’t had a migraine ALL WEEK! (I do have a sinus headache from congestion, but it’s definitely not a migraine!) I don’t eat a ton of grains anyway, although I am missing Goldfish and beer… So it’s been easy so far. Clearly, even if I’m not celiac, I have an intolerance. Either way, I’ll be staying GF!!

PS Showed the symptoms list to my hubby, and he has several on there, too. He hasn’t gone full GF, but he’s certainly encouraged by my early results and may decide to. Meanwhile, my 17 yo old son and 21 yo daughter, who also have very low feritin (son has been anemic twice and has suffered from migraines since he was 7) are looking at it, too. My son has given up all grain carbs except sushi rice and is feeling good!

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