Migraine & Lactose Intolerance

Charles Darwin, the 19th century biologist who was behind the theory of evolution, was diagnosed with several afflictions during his lifetime, including lactose intolerance. Findings presented at the 2011 Historical Clinicopathological Conference, however, point to infectious disease as the likely culprit for his symptoms. Whatever the cause of Darwin's suffering, you can likely relate to his GI distress if you're lactose intolerant. Just drinking a glass of milk can unsettle your stomach and may even lead to migraine headaches.

Understanding Lactose Intolerance

Lactase, an enzyme produced in the small intestine, plays an important role in the digestion of dairy products. The enzyme breaks down sugar in these foods called lactose. When your body produces too little lactase, you can experience considerable discomfort after consuming dairy products. The lactose isn't broken down properly, allowing it to interact with bacteria in the large intestine. Common GI-related effects include abdominal discomfort, gas, diarrhea, bloating and nausea. These symptoms can occur 30 minutes to two hours following consumption of lactose, according to MayoClinic.com.


It's obvious that a digestive condition would lead to GI issues, but lactose intolerance can also present as headaches, according to Dr. Jonathan Bernstein, an internist at the University of Cincinnati. Migraines, in particular, can be triggered by dairy products. The constricting and dilating of blood vessels in the brain cause the symptoms associated with these severe headaches. Constricting vessels cause body weakness, numbness and vision problems; when the vessels later enlarge, you develop a headache. Migraines may affect one or both sides of your head and can last for days.


A number of internal and external factors can contribute to developing a migraine, but food intolerance is also a significant cause. Often confused with food allergies, intolerance involves your digestive system's inability to handle certain ingredients in food. The Rush University Medical Center reports that lactose intolerance is the most common and consuming dairy products like milk can lead to migraines. These headaches may be referred to as dietary migraines. Some scientific evidence exists for an association between lactase deficiency and dietary migraines, according to the 2003 book "Food Allergy: Adverse Reactions to Food and Food Additives."


Pain relievers and prescription drugs can help manage migraines; however, lifestyle changes are essential if lactose intolerance is the underlying cause of your headaches. Restricting your intake of the foods that trigger migraines -- milk, cheese, yogurt and other dairy products -- can be effective, but also difficult. The American Dietetic Association recommends eating small amounts of lactose-containing foods to see if your body can handle limited amounts. Avoiding dairy also puts you at risk for not getting enough calcium, so increasing your intake of other high-calcium foods like green, leafy vegetables is important.

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