If you suffer from migraines, you might assume the problem is, literally, all in your head. But studies shed light on the possibility that your migraines are connected to celiac disease, an autoimmune disorder whose hallmark is destruction of the villi in the small intestine when gluten is eaten, as well as other digestive conditions.

Certainly, not everyone with celiac disease gets migraines, and not every migraine sufferer has celiac disease. But it's worth noting the possible link.

A 2003 Italian study examined the bloodwork of 90 people who suffered from unexplained migraines compared with 236 blood donors who were used as controls. The researchers measured levels of specific antibodies that react to gluten when celiac disease is present. They found that 4.4 percent of the migraine sufferers had elevated levels of these antibodies, and celiac disease was later confirmed with an intestinal biopsy. By contrast, only 0.4 percent of the control subjects were found to have markers of celiac disease in their blood.

When the four migraine sufferers who were found to have celiac disease eliminated gluten from their diets (currently the only method of treatment for this disorder), three of them noticed a lessening in migration duration, frequency, and intensity, and the remaining subject experienced no migraines at all.

In a more recent study exploring the link between migraines and bowel disorders, a group of researchers at Columbia University and Mt. Sinai School of Medicine in New York surveyed 188 people with celiac disease, 111 with Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS) (another autoimmune condition that shares genetic markers with celiac disease), 25 with gluten sensitivity, and 178 with none of these conditions.

Subjects were asked to describe the severity and frequency of their headaches. While only 14 percent of the control subjects reported suffering from chronic headaches, 23 percent of IBS sufferers had this problem along with 30 percent of the celiac patients and 56 percent of those with gluten sensitivity. Also telling was that nearly three-fourths of celiac patients indicated their migraines were severe, along with 60 percent of gluten-sensitive subjects, and half of the control subjects. Interestingly, only 30 percent of those with IBS said their headaches were severe.

While going gluten free is not necessarily a recommended treatment for IBS, some people with the condition report experiencing great relief once they give up wheat, barley, and rye. The authors of the recent study suggest that people plagued by migraines be screened for celiac disease, and that gluten-free diets be considered as a viable treatment method for anyone with chronic headaches.

Jonathan B. Schreiber, MD, reviewed this article.



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