Migraines are severe, chronic headaches. Oftentimes, the pain from a migraine is so severe that patients have difficulty functioning. The cause of migraines is unclear, but researchers and patients increasingly are noting a link between migraines and gluten consumption.
Gluten is a protein found in the grains wheat, barley and rye. Approximately one in 100 people suffer from an autoimmune disorder called celiac disease, where gluten actually damages their small intestines. On occasion, celiac disease patients also suffer from gluten-triggered migraines. But some clinicians believe it's possible to be sensitive or intolerant to gluten without having celiac disease or intestinal damage. These patients are more likely to have neurological symptoms, such as migraines, when they consume gluten.
In sensitive individuals, gluten can cause inflammation in the central nervous system, and that inflammation leads to migraines. In a 2001 study published in the medical journal "Neurology," Dr. Marios Hadjivassiliou, a physician in Sheffield, United Kingdom, tested 10 long-term chronic headache patients and found that all were gluten-sensitive. Some of them also had symptoms such as a lack of balance or coordination, and all had central nervous system inflammation, according to the study.
Dr. Rodney Ford, a pediatrician in Christchurch, New Zealand, wrote in 2009 in the medical journal "Medical Hypotheses" that migraines and other neurological symptoms due to gluten consumption can occur both in celiac disease patients as well as in patients who do not have any gluten-induced intestinal damage. In addition to migraines, gluten can cause developmental delays, learning disorders, depression and other nervous system disorders, Dr. Ford says.
It's difficult to tell if migraines are triggered by gluten because gluten-containing food is so ubiquitous; most people consume wheat, barley or rye multiple times every day. No medication is available to curb the effects of gluten on someone who is sensitive to it, but a gluten-free diet -- a diet free of wheat, barley and rye products -- generally will stop migraines almost completely.
To determine if gluten triggers migraines, a migraine sufferer should eliminate gluten strictly for at least one month -- two to three months would be better -- and then reintroduce it. Most people whose migraines are caused by gluten will see their headaches clear up during their trial elimination period, and then return with a vengeance once they reintroduce gluten to their diets.