Could Gluten Be Your Migraine Trigger?

It’s hard to imagine, as I now sit on my back porch in the bright warm sun, that 24 hours ago I was laying with my eyes blocked in a dark room icing my head to ease the debilitating pain of a migraine. I should’ve known when I couldn’t button my pants yesterday morning, and my right shoulder and neck were starting to throb, that I should’ve stayed in bed. Matter of fact, I did stay in bed for most of the day, which is better than many migraine sufferers who have headaches that last days, weeks or months. I’m lucky because I know what the cause of my headaches are…gluten.


Yesterday’s migraine perplexed me because I’m such a careful person when it comes to eating out. Like many gluten-intolerant sufferers, I don’t eat out very often because of the fear of being “glutened” (the name for inadvertently ingesting gluten) so I wasn’t sure what the cause of this headache was. But as I lay in bed last night it dawned on me that I had eaten out two days prior and neglected to tell the waitress that I was gluten-free. I had frequented this particular local breakfast spot many times before with no problems, but this time I let my guard down and forgot to say the words “I’m gluten-free” when ordering my food.

20160311_114544This morning I looked at myself in the mirror and although my eyes were still swollen, the scale was 2 pounds lighter from the previous days inflammation decreasing.  Sadly, I was still anxious trying to figure out if another day of pain was ahead of me. Thankfully, as the day went on and there was no sign of pain, like a butterfly emerging from a cocoon, I ventured outside into the sunshine to enjoy the day. I sat down to write this post and found an article from Dr. Mark Hyman titled How to End Migraines. It shocked me that more than 10 million Americans suffer from migraines, and many may find relief by removing gluten and don’t know it.

As with many gluten related symptoms, there are very few studies that link migraines directly with gluten consumption, but in my case (and I’m sure with many others) the pain of a headache doesn’t occur until 24-48 hours after ingestion, so it’s difficult to connect food with the pain for many people. My own experience connecting my head pain with food came when my neurologist completed all his testing only to recommend two different treatment plans.  One choice was high doses of riboflavin (B2) and the alternative was daily pharmaceutical migraine medicine. Two extremes, but I chose to try the B-supplement as a conservative approach. Lucky for me it worked and lead me down the path to find I was extremely vitamin deficient (B) and anemic and that gluten was my poison. It was like an onion, peeling away each layer eventually getting me to the core problem.

To help others peel away the layers of their migraine onion, the following steps will help…

  1. Be a detective and keep a food/symptom log to try and connect which foods may be a trigger for inflammation. Remember that symptoms could take 24-48 hours to show up after ingestion of gluten, so you need to be a detective and analyze the data after you write it for a period of time. Keep special notes on ingredients like, chocolate, dairy, eggs, artificial sweeteners, sugar and other common migraine food triggers. It may not be gluten, but another food or combination of foods that you need to avoid. There are lots of great apps to keep on your phone (Food Diary, Migraine Buddy, Migraine Triggers) and even more examples of written food logs on Pinterest and on the web. Here’s an example of one I found on Pinterest, but you can make one on your own computer as well.
  2. Fullscreen capture 3132016 34404 PMMake an appointment with your doctor/neurologist and bring your personal food log data with you. Ask for blood tests for possible nutritional deficiencies (Vitamin B, Iron Magnesium, D, etc.) along with any physical exams they may wish to do. Ask for a Celiac blood test to rule out an autoimmune disease before making any dietary changes. An article posted on USNEWS.Com referenced a study that showed 1/3 of celiac disease or gluten-sensitive sufferers have some form of migraine, so get tested before you give up gluten to get an accurate test result. Don’t do what I did and stop eating gluten before your blood test, you won’t go back and ingest it later to get an accurate result if you start to feel good. In my case, I’ll never know if I have Celiac because I won’t eat it long enough to produce a reaction for a blood test to register.
  3. Follow-up with your doctor/neurologist after all the tests and symptom trackers are complete to make a plan to remove possible food triggers (i.e. gluten). When eliminating gluten you need to eliminate it 100% for several weeks or months to start to feel better, so make sure you make a plan before you start a gluten-free diet so you have success with it quickly. My book can help with that part (3 Steps to Gluten-Free Living).

Remember, if you have a negative Celiac test, you could still have a gluten sensitivity (which there is no test for), so don’t be discouraged if a blood test doesn’t give you the answer to your headaches, gluten may still be the problem.