Gluten

Gluten is a protein you can find in grains, such as barley, rye, or wheat. People may avoid gluten for a variety of reasons. Most people who don’t eat gluten have celiac disease. Celiac disease is an autoimmune disorder that causes the immune system to form antibodies in response to gluten.

Other people may avoid gluten because they have an intolerance to the protein. If your body is intolerant of gluten, the lining of your small intestine can’t take in key nutrients. If you eat gluten and have intolerance to it, you may experience:

  • diarrhea
  • bloating
  • weight loss
  • a general decline in your health

Most current research looks at gluten’s effects on celiac disease, but some recent studies suggest a possible link between gluten and migraines.

What are the symptoms of a migraine?

Some people who have migraines will experience what is called an “aura” before the head pain. During the aura, you could experience a variety of sensory disturbance. Some people see blind spots or zigzags. Others say they feel funny or have a strange sense of taste or smell.

Other migraine symptoms include:

  • fatigue
  • nausea
  • a loss of appetite
  • a fever
  • other feelings of discomfort

See your doctor if you have extreme symptoms, especially if you’re experiencing nausea and a fever.

What triggers a migraine?

No one knows why migraines occur, but there are some common triggers and risk factors. For example, a person with a family history of migraines is more likely to get migraines.

Some people can identify things that trigger a migraine.

Caffeine

Some people experience a migraine when caffeine levels in their blood drop. This is more likely to happen if you typically consume a lot of caffeine or are particularly sensitive to the chemical.

In other people, caffeine helps to relieve the pain from a migraine. Caffeine is an ingredient in some migraine medications. If caffeine is one of your triggers, check with your doctor or pharmacist to make sure your medication doesn’t contain caffeine.

Preservatives

Food and drink preservatives such as monosodium glutamate (MSG) or nitrates may trigger migraines. Read food labels carefully. If you’re ordering takeout, ask if the food is MSG-free.

Hormones

Fluctuations in hormones can cause migraines. Women may experience migraines around their menstrual period. If you regularly have a migraine around the time of your menstrual period, shifts in your hormone levels may be triggering it.

Weather

Weather changes can cause migraines. A change in barometric pressure, which can occur when a rainstorm is coming, or a change in altitude may trigger a migraine. Some people are also more prone to migraines in hot, humid weather, though dehydration may play a role in the development of a migraine for those people.

Stress and fatigue

Difficult situations or added pressure could bring on a migraine. Tiredness and lack sleep may also be a factor.

The connection between gluten and migraines

Gluten may be a trigger for migraines in some people. One recent study has suggested a link between celiac disease and migraines. Migraines may even be an early symptom of celiac disease in some people, though migraine is considered a rare complication of celiac disease.

Gluten can affect the nervous system in people with celiac disease and people with non-celiac gluten intolerance. Examples of conditions that affect the nervous system include:

  • learning disorders
  • depression
  • migraine
  • headache

That means that gluten may trigger migraines in people who don’t have celiac disease but instead have a sensitivity to gluten. Gluten sensitivity isn’t well-understood yet. A person with gluten sensitivity may experience:

  • foggy thinking
  • abdominal pain
  • gastrointestinal symptoms, like diarrhea or constipation
  • a headache
  • joint pains
  • bloating
  • chronic fatigue

Gluten may be a trigger for migraines in some people, but more research is necessary to understand this connection.

How are gluten-triggered migraines diagnosed?

Get tested for celiac disease

See your doctor if you’re wondering if your migraines could be related to gluten. Your doctor may perform a blood test or endoscopy to test you for celiac disease. A blood test will indicate whether you have a higher level of antibodies, which happens when you have a compromised immune system. Gluten may be the cause of this response. An endoscopy allows your doctor to look at your small intestine and check for any damage. Damage could be a sign of celiac disease.

Follow an elimination diet

Doctors don’t have tests to diagnose gluten sensitivity. If you test negative for celiac disease, your doctor may recommend an elimination diet. During an elimination diet, you’ll remove possible allergens from your diet and then slowly add them back in, noting if and when your symptoms return. This can help determine what’s triggering the migraine.

Keep a migraine journal

Your doctor may also recommend keeping a food and migraine journal. In your journal, you’ll keep track of everything you eat and when you get a migraine. That will allow you to notice trends. For example, if you often get a migraine the day after drinking red wine, red wine may be a trigger. A journal can help you see if gluten might be causing your migraines.

How are gluten-triggered migraines treated?

Avoid gluten

The most effective treatment for celiac disease is a diet in which you eliminate all foods that contain gluten. Some sources of gluten include:

  • wheat
  • durum
  • farina
  • bulgur
  • barley
  • semolina
  • spelt
  • rye
  • soy sauce

Learn more: Gluten allergies food list: What to avoid and what to eat »

It can be difficult to determine what foods you can and cannot eat while on a gluten-free diet. Here are some common foods that you can eat and some that should you should avoid:

Foods that may contain glutenFoods that are usually gluten-free
• bread
• processed and imitation meats
• certain candy
• condiments, like soy sauce and other sauces
• some packaged goods like cakes, cookies, and snack foods
• beer
• vegetables, including starchy vegetables like potatoes, peas, and corn
• fruits
• most dairy products
• meat and poultry prepared without frying or added breading
• beans
• lentils
• quinoa
• rice
• tapioca
• buckwheat

Many types of pasta, cereal, and other staples come in a gluten-free version. Check labels and look for items that specify that they’re made without gluten.

Take medications

In addition to avoiding triggers like gluten, other treatments for a migraine include over-the-counter medications as well as prescriptions your doctor can give you if your migraines are intense and occur frequently. These medications can prevent the symptoms of a migraine before they start.

Make other lifestyle changes

You might also want to consider adjusting other lifestyle behaviors such as eliminating caffeine or alcohol to see if these restrictions help prevent migraines.

What is the outlook?

It could take several weeks for you to feel a difference in your body after you start a gluten-free diet. Stick with it, and keep a log of your migraines to determine whether the change in diet is helping to improve them.

You can always try other migraine treatments or preventive medications if the gluten-free diet isn’t working. Alternative therapies such as acupuncture and massage therapy could also help in treating migraines.