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Are Migraine Headaches Caused by Gluten?

Headaches and Food Triggers

In the past 10 years, I have treated hundreds of cases of migraine headaches in my clinic. Most recently, I met with a young lady who was having headaches so severe that she required hospitalization and IV medications to help control the pain. In the large majority of patients, identifying food triggers have been a major factor in getting the headaches to resolve. In the case below, gluten played a big role in the genesis of headaches…

Factors to Consider to Alleviate Headaches

Headaches come in many forms (tension, migraine, cluster, etc.) and have many different causes. Some stem from postural imbalances, tension, and muscle spasms, some from environmental allergies and sinus congestion. Poor nutrition, and food intolerances can also cause or contribute to headaches. Common food triggers for headache include:
  • wheat and other gluten containing grains
  • chocolate
  • caffeine (coffee, tea, OTC remedies, energy drinks, etc)
  • cheese
  • citrus fruits
  • hot dogs and other processed meats (nitrates)
  • monosodium glutamate
  • aspartame (aka – Nutrasweet)
  • Splenda® (aka – sucralose)
  • ice cream
  • alcoholic beverages
Additionally, certain chemicals in processed foods (marinades, soy sauce, lunch meats, etc.) can trigger a neuro chemical release in the brain that causes the onset of headache. Finding potentiating foods for headaches can often times be difficult because the onset of symptoms does not always occur immediately after eating the trigger food. Successful treatment for food induced headaches is dependent on identifying the culprit factor. A number of laboratory tests can be employed to help find food based triggers.

Non Food Factors

Muscle tension, stress, sedentary lifestyle, and excessive computer work all contribute to muscle spasm in the neck and shoulders. Chronic spasms can lead to long term postural changes that contribute to and cause headaches. When headaches are caused by postural problems, muscular imbalances, and joint restrictions, chiropractic treatment is very effective. Recent research points out that chiropractic care is one of the most efficacious treatments for headaches and chronic neck pain when compared to other forms of treatment. Chemicals in the environment can also contribute to migraine. Perfumes, household cleaners, shampoos, etc.

Nutritional Deficiencies Play a Role

In cases where nutritional deficiencies are present, supplementation can be very beneficial. Headaches can be related to a variety of different nutrient deficiencies including the following: Because the standard American diet is full of nutrient depleted, chemical laden, processed foods, nutritional deficiencies are common. Proper laboratory testing should be performed to rule out nutrient deficiencies as a contributing factor to headaches. There are a variety of over the counter medications that can be taken to alleviate headache pain. However, none of these medications address the actual cause of the headache. In addition, a number of them can have unwanted side effects such as stomach ulceration and bleeding as well as decreased liver and kidney function. When taken on a regular basis, many headache medicines can also cause deficiencies of nutrients like vitamin C, CoQ10, folic acid, and potassium. Long term medication use for the treatment of chronic headaches is rarely necessary if a thorough diagnostic work up is performed. Remember that it is important to have headaches evaluated by a professional because they can be symptoms of deeper and in some cases, life threatening problems. There are a number of factors that contribute to the onset of headaches. I have seen cases where patients actually suffered with 3 types of headaches at the same time. Accurate headache assessment cannot be accomplished in a 10 minute office visit; it takes time for the doctor to be able to ask the right questions as well as assess the history of the patient, and determine what types of tests (if any) need to be performed to aid in the proper diagnosis. References:
  1. Bushara KO. Neurologic presentation of celiac disease. Gastroenterology 2005 Apr;128(4 Suppl 1):S92-7.
  2. Hadjivassiliou M, et al. Headache and CNS white matter abnormalities associated with gluten sensitivity. Neurology 2001 Feb 13;56(3):385-8.
  3. Patel RM, et al. Popular sweetener sucralose as a migraine trigger. Headache. 2006 Sep;46(8):1303-4.
  4. Millichap JG, et al. The diet factor in pediatric and adolescent migraine. Pediatr Neurol. 2003 Jan;28(1):9-15.
  5. Haas M, et al. Dose response for chiropractic care of chronic cervicogenic headache and associated neck pain: a randomized pilot study. J Manipulative Physiol Ther. 2004 Nov-Dec;27(9):547-53.
  6. Boline PD, et al. Spinal manipulation vs. amitriptyline for the treatment of chronic tension-type headaches: a randomized clinical trial. J Manipulative Physiol Ther. 1995 Mar-Apr;18(3):148-54.
  7. Bronfort G, et al. Efficacy of spinal manipulation for chronic headache: a systematic review. J Manipulative Physiol Ther 2001 Sep;24(7):457-66.
  8. Mauskop A, et al. Serum ionized magnesium levels and serum ionized calcium/ionized magnesium ratios in women with menstrual migraine. Headache. 2002 Apr;42(4):242-8.
  9. Bianchi A, et al. Role of magnesium, coenzyme Q10, riboflavin, and vitamin B12 in migraine prophylaxis. Vitam Horm. 2004;69:297-312
Did going gluten free eliminate your headaches or help restore your health in anyway? Help someone else by sharing your story in the comment box below…  

14 Responses

  1. I did the gene test. I have both genes for gluten sensitivity which means that my offspring will have one gene for gluten sensitivity. They haven’t been gene tested.

    I’ve heard that having the gene doesn’t mean you are gluten sensitive, it just means that you are predisposed to gluten sensitivity. Genes have to be expressed.

    As a precaution, the whole family has gone gluten free (actually grain free), but I always wonder if this is really necessary for them. Both children are generally healthy except that one has severe ADHD and hypothyroid. He just started thyroid medicine this month along with getting B12 and Magnesium shots after tests showed he was low in these. He also has high levels of lead that we are going to be addressing in the coming months with his doctor.

    Do you think the children should be grain free as a precaution? We have been grain free for a year and are doing fine with the diet. I just know the kids would enjoy having pasta once in a while.

  2. Sandra,
    Just wanted to comment that if you were to just go gluten free, there are some really good brown rice pastas out there, so the kids could have pasta every now and again and it would at least be gluten free. I have five children and my youngest son was diagnosed with ADHD and a mood disorder. I found he had food allergies and took those out o his diet and also at one point had gluten taken out of his diet and he is not medicated and doing so much better. I put gluten back into his diet so he could be retested. It helps get the school onboard if you have doctor documentation! Hope this helps and good luck!

  3. Sandra, I think your kids should remain gluten free. Especially since one already has health issues. ADHD and Thyroid problems can be linked with gluten issues. They have gluten free pasta which, I think, tastes better than gluten pasta. Since you mentioned you were off of all grains and they want pasta a gluten free pasta would be a better choice than one made with flour. Just me 2 cents.
    Good luck with everything.

  4. On Feb 11, 2012 from Michelle:

    Thank you for all past and present emails but I can’t take your quiz as it won’t come up
    I guess because I don’t belong to Face Book only email, write letters, and call people.
    So unless you all can send it when your not on Face Book will I be able to take it.

    Sincerely yours,

  5. Sandra,

    I know that rice pasta often tastes a bit ‘off’ to kids, but Trader Joe’s now sells a corn pasta (if you are able to tolerate corn) that tastes exactly like ‘normal’ pasta. Although I try to minimize grains, my kids also love pasta and they can’t tell that this isn’t regular pasta. Give it a try for a treat!

  6. Sandra,

    Cyrex labs has a test for gluten cross-reactivity that will tell you if you need to avoid all grains or not. It will also test some other foods that you may not suspect. Google Cyrex labs and look at array #4. The lab also has a test for leaky gut (array #2), which must be addressed if the test is positive. A compromised intestinal barrier is linked to many autoimmune diseases and should not be ignored. Check out these two links: and Keep up the good work and good luck!

  7. where does one get the genetic test for Gluten-intolerant? HOM’s won’t pay for that blood test will they? Will I have to use an independent lab?

    My Dr. says. Oh, it’s just IBS.

  8. My tests always negative because im obese my doc wouldnt even entertain the idea. I testedbmyselfbthrough enterolab and i was diagnosed. Its changed my life. I finally feel human and started loosing weight!!!!

  9. I went gluten free when my counselor suggested trying a GF diet. Amazing results for me! I wish my children would listen because I believe they are all gluten sensitive. Looking back my mom, aunts, and grandmother all showed symptoms of being sensitive to gluten. My aunt even passed away from lymphoma. All the people I have mentioned are/were all migraine sufferers! When will the wheat stop being the golden grain? It is not the cure-all grain!

    I am taking B12 now and fighting back! Thank you for all your guidance.


  10. Hi Doc,
    Patti here from San Diego. I read a comment that dares me to ask this question and hopefully you have the answer I’m looking for.

    I once read somewhere that all Celiatics need to stay away from Pot but didn’t explain why, would you know that answer as to why not? I could explain more but to protect this person’s private medical situation I don’t want to say why I’m asking.

    I don’t know if it was your website I saw it in considering I’ve read many many websites with info on symptoms of C.D. but I didn’t save that one page and now regret not doing so. I hope you could shed some light on this. Thanx 😉

  11. Hi,

    Can going off all gluten make one tired and also increase appetite? Trying to help my cousin who has far too many migraines, since going GF took them away for me. I am
    forever grateful to you Dr. Osborne for teaching me that years back! Thank you

  12. Can glutin be a trigger for vertigo? I have suffered from this constantly for several years and specialists have linked it to past episodes of migraine but given no cures.

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