A recurring headache can be a debilitating condition that affects your career, studies, social interactions, and overall health. As medical experts are researching ways to alleviate chronic headaches and figuring out what may be causing them, findings reveal that there could be a correlation between what goes on in your gastrointestinal tract and the pain you feel in your head. This complex interaction is often referred to in medical literature as the gut-brain axis.
What is Gluten Sensitivity?
One of the major digestive issues related to headaches and migraines is sensitivity to gluten. Individuals who have gluten sensitivity are unable to process and absorb nutrients in foods that contain gluten.
Gluten is a substance found mainly in foods made of wheat, rye or barley, as well as some medicines, vitamins and supplements. It is composed of two proteins called glutenin and gliadin. Glutenin gives dough strength and elasticity, while gliadin is responsible for making bread rise during baking. Gliadin is also the protein that your gut reacts to negatively if you have gluten sensitivity.
If you are sensitive to gluten, eating foods that contain it will cause your gastrointestinal tract to become inflamed. This results in digestive problems such as increased intestinal permeability, which prevents the proper absorption of nutrients into your bloodstream. Ingesting gluten is also dangerous if you have coeliac disease, an autoimmune disorder where your small intestine gets damaged after you consume gluten.
Some of the symptoms of gluten sensitivity, such as fatigue and abdominal cramps, are similar to those of coeliac disease. The difference between the two is non-coeliac gluten sensitivity does not harm your small intestine in the long run. Headaches, heartburn, bloating, diarrhoea/constipation and vomiting are other known symptoms of gluten sensitivity.
How is Gluten Sensitivity Related to Headaches?
Gluten sensitivity can bring about pervasive symptoms that manifest beyond your digestive system. It could affect your nervous system by triggering headaches and causing brain fog, a condition that makes it difficult to concentrate or remember short-term memory.
Headaches and migraines are common for most people, but if you have gluten sensitivity, you may be more likely to experience it. A medical journal revealed that about 56 percent of those sensitive to gluten suffer from chronic migraines.
Moreover, if you have gluten sensitivity, you may notice that you become occasionally confused and that you lose your train of thought during conversations or while writing.
If you have persistent headaches or migraines without any clear explanation as to their cause, observe yourself and watch out for other signs that point to gluten sensitivity.
What Do Studies Show Regarding the Connection Between Gluten and Headaches?
According to recent studies, individuals sensitive to gluten, particularly those with coeliac disease, may be more susceptible to migraines than others.
A study published in an issue of Neurology, the scientific journal of the American Academy of Neurology, showed that reducing the amount of gluten in the diet or altogether eliminating it greatly improved the severity of headaches among a middle-aged study group.
In the said study, 10 patients with gluten sensitivity had MRI (Magnetic Resonance Imaging) tests done and the results revealed inflammation of the central nervous system. All the participants experienced occasional headaches and some felt unstable and had a loss of muscle coordination. After eliminating gluten from their diets, nine of the 10 patients noticed a complete or partial improvement of their condition. One patient refused to try the diet.
One of the cases was a 50-year-old man who developed headaches and nausea combined with confusion and agitation. His headaches have been happening for four years but, over time, they worsened and occurred more often. After he switched to a gluten-free diet, his headaches disappeared altogether. Once he returned to his previous diet, he experienced periodic headaches again.
A similar instance was reported in a separate location involving 45-year-old neurologist Marios Hadjivassiliou, M.D. who was the author of the said study. He suffered from migraines since he was very young. As he grew older, the attacks became more severe and resistant to any treatment. After he was diagnosed with gluten sensitivity and put on a gluten-free diet, he experienced relief from his migraines.
According to Dr. Hadjivassiliou, “Removing the trigger factor—in this case, gluten—may be a therapeutic intervention for some patients with gluten sensitivity and headache.”
As mentioned earlier, brain fog is also a symptom of gluten sensitivity. In an Italian Medical Center study, about 38 percent of individuals who are sensitive to gluten were said to have a “foggy mind.” If you have experienced brain fog plus the other symptoms of gluten sensitivity, you might want to consider consulting your dietitian or physician. There are also other possible causes of brain fog, namely fibromyalgia and chronic fatigue syndrome, that must be ruled out as well.
What are the Ways of Detecting and Treating Headaches Caused by Gluten Sensitivity?
One way to find out if your headaches are linked to gluten sensitivity is through an elimination diet. This involves temporary removal of foods that contain the allergen – in this case, gluten – then gradually reintroducing these foods to your system after a designated time. Just make sure you consult a professional dietitian before starting this diet to minimise your risk for malnutrition.
Keeping a food journal while following an elimination diet will also help you monitor the foods you eat and any side effects they may produce. Take note of any occurrence of headaches and other bodily reactions during this period. While a gluten-free diet can take several weeks before you feel any changes, keep at it and be mindful of any changes that take place.
If you continue to experience persistent headaches as well as other symptoms of gluten sensitivity, see a doctor and have yourself tested for coeliac disease. You may need to undergo a blood test or endoscopy to help confirm if you have coeliac disease and rule out other possible disorders.
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Book an appointment with an accredited dietitian or nutritionist by phone on (07) 3071-7405 between 8am and 6pm Monday to Friday or send us an enquiry. Alternatively, learn more about our Gluten Sensitivity services.