Several case studies have linked food intolerance and migraine; this article is one in a series which takes a closer look at some of the foods less commonly suspected when a food sensitivity is thought to be at the root of a migraine problem.
Most people think first of red wine, chocolate and cheese as the most common foods that will cause a migraine. As long ago as 1979 the prestigious Lancet journal published research on migraine and food intolerances, finding wheat to be the most common trigger of migraine(1).
In fact wheat has recently been linked to a flurry of other health problems ranging from fatigue to bloating.
Wheat is a major allergen, with approximately 78% of migraine sufferers being linked to food intolerance, with wheat being identified as the main trigger(1). This may be unrecognized for a long time, because wheat is so prevalent in foods, that cutting it out completely is extremely difficult and involves detailed scrutiny of labels for unsuspected sources. Consult your health professional for detailed advice otherwise you may put yourself to considerable inconvenience yet be unwittingly still consuming wheat-containing food or drinks.
Some maintain that claiming allergy to wheat is an affectation, citing the desire to follow celebrities such as Rachel Weisz who has been public about her wheat intolerance. Many others, however, simply point to the incredible obstacles that face those who would cut wheat and gluten out of their diet, and ask what person would struggle to surmount them if there was no real benefit.
Many migraine sufferers are actually believed to also be victims of celiac disease, a severe wheat and gluten intolerance which can cause major gastrointestinal problems and fatigue in addition to migraines. One of the most frustrating aspects to migraines is the inability to stop them once they gain control, so any form of prevention is always welcome.
In a study done at the Gemelli Hospital in Rome, Italy, researchers discovered a marked improvement in migraines among celiac patients when placed on a gluten free diet, leading some to speculate that a large percentage of migraine patients do in fact have celiac disease(2).
Other links between wheat intolerance and migraines have been studied, and in at least one instance another link between wheat gluten and headaches was made when nine out of ten patients experienced relief from headaches – and the tenth refused to eliminate gluten from their diet(3).
Some sufferers opt to become vegan in order to improve their diet and remove the foods to which they have a sensitivity. While a significant number of them cease having headaches shortly after beginning a vegan lifestyle, others have a sharp increase in the number and severity of headaches.
The Coeliac society has several forums and many reports of first hand experiences of vegans who discovered they had celiac disease causing various health problems, as many vegans depend on wheat/soy products to replace the protein they would normally gain from meat and dairy. For some people who were consuming a large amount of wheat, to replace proteins and carbohydrates they were missing out on by avoiding dairy and meat, had in fact triggered gluten intolerance. With the the large amounts of gluten eliminated from the diet, the migraines ceased(4).
Based on this information, it appears more than likely that wheat and gluten are responsible for triggering a migraine, subsequently, a trial abstinence period would be an effective way to prove this. (5).
(1) Grant ECG, Food, Allergies and Migraine, Lancet, May 5 1979;966-969
(2) Am J Gastroenterol. 2003 Jul;98(7):1674; March edition of American Journal of Gastroenterology.
(3) American Academy of Neurology (2001, February 14); Gluten In The Diet May Be The Cause Of Recurring Headaches; Science Daily.
(4) The Celiac Society, The Gluten-free Vegan
(5) Celiac Disease, A Hidden Epidemic, Peter Green, MD.
Research by Grace-Alexander