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Celiac Disease and Migraine Headaches


This information is part of "Celiac Disease and Neurological Conditions," part of NFCA's "Celiac &" series. See more: Celiac Disease & Neurological Conditions.

Migraine headache

Celiac Disease and Migraine Headaches

What is it? What are the causes?

A migraine headache is a form of vascular headache, during which inflammation or swelling of the blood vessels in the brain exerts pressure on adjacent nerves.

Migraine pain affects 29.5 million Americans, most often those 15-55 years of age. Three out of every four people who suffer from migraine headaches are women. In women, migraines commonly occur between the ages of 20 and 45 years.  One study has found that migraines occur in 4.4% of patients with celiac disease, compared with 0.4% of normal controls.

While the exact cause isn’t completely understood, experts have noted that these types of headaches tend to run in families indicating that a genetic component might be involved. A variety of triggers have also been pinpointed. These include:

  • Alcoholic beverages (often red wine)
  • Aspartame
  • Overuse of caffeine
  • Pregnancy or menopause
  • Nitrates (found in food such as processed meats)
  • Monosodium Glutamate (MSG) (found in broths and Chinese food, among other things)
  • Skipped meals
  • Sleep disturbances
  • Stress or anxiety
  • Strong/irritating light, sound, or odor
  • Tyramine (found in foods like smoked fish and soy products)
  • Weather changes

What are the symptoms?

Migraines are characterized by intense throbbing pain on one or both sides of the head that can potentially be debilitating. Individuals with migraines may also experience nausea, vomiting, and sensitivity to light and/or sound.

Migraine symptoms can last up to 48 hours and the frequency with which one gets migraine headaches varies.

There are two different types of migraines, those in which patients experience an aura prior to the onset of a migraine, and those that do not. About one in five individuals experience auras, and women are more likely to suffer from auras than men.

In migraines with an aura (sometimes referred to as a ‘classic migraine’) patients may experience one or more of the following symptoms:

  • Blind spots, flashes of light, or other changes in vision
  • Disturbances in smell, taste, or touch
  • Numbness or tingling in the face or hands
  • Mental ‘fuzziness’
  • Muscle weakness

How is it diagnosed?

Doctors can often diagnose migraine headaches from anecdotal reports and health history. Physicians look at the following information to determine whether or not a patient is suffering from this condition.

  • Duration (how long they last)
  • Family history
  • Frequency (how often they occur)
  • Location of pain
  • Presence of aura
  • Presence of other symptoms (see above list)

If your doctor suspects a more serious health condition might be causing migraine headaches, they might order blood tests, CT scans, or an MRI in order to rule out any additional health complications.

Can it be treated?

While there is no cure for migraines, there are therapeutic options available that can help manage its symptoms.

Both over the counter and prescription medications are available to help alleviate acute migraine symptoms and to prevent the onset of migraine headaches.

Patients are also encouraged to monitor for migraine triggers and, once identified, make efforts to avoid them. Other lifestyle changes such as getting regular physical activity, proper rest, and minimizing stress have also been recommended.

For celiacs that suffer from migraines, a gluten-free diet has been proven to provide relief. In one study, nearly half of the celiac patients with headaches demonstrated significant improvement with a gluten-free diet.


  • Blumer, Ian, MD, Crowe, Shelia, MD. Celiac Disease for Dummies, Wiley & Sons, 2010.
  • Green Peter H.R, Jones R. Celiac Disease: A Hidden Epidemic. HarperCollins, NY, 2010
  • Green, Peter H. Hernandez, Lincoln. Extraintestinal manifestations of celiac disease. Current gastroenterology reports. 10/2006; 8(5):383-9.
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