Celiac Disease Headache: What to do About it

Celiac disease has been reported to cause over 300+ symptoms, including a celiac disease headache or migraine. Let’s talk about the science behind celiac headaches, why they happen, and what to do about them so that you can find relief.

P.s. This post nor is any other content I create meant to substitute individualized care from your doctor. All content created by me is meant for general education purposes only.

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Celiac Disease Headache - The link between headaches, migraines, gluten, and celiac disease - Headaches are an unusual symptom of celiac disease- Tayler Silfverduk, celiac dietitian

What is Celiac Disease?

Before we get into why headaches can happen with celiac disease and what to do about them, we need to understand what celiac is.

Celiac is a serious autoimmune disease that occurs in genetically predisposed people where the ingestion of gluten leads to damage in the small intestine. When people with celiac disease eat gluten (a protein found in wheat, rye, barley, and contaminated foods like oats), their body mounts an immune response that attacks the small intestine.

These attacks lead to damage to the villi, small fingerlike projections that line the small intestine, that promote nutrient absorption. When the villi get damaged, nutrients cannot be absorbed properly into the body.

This inflammatory response to gluten and related nutrient deficiencies can cause a wide variety of symptoms in people with celiac. From bloating, headaches, constipation, joint pain, bone health complications, infertility, weight gain, weight loss, and more.

This can start at any age, and occur in any body, as long as someone is eating gluten and has the celiac genes. If left untreated, celiac disease can lead to additional serious health problems.

The Link Between Headaches and Celiac

Celiac disease headaches and migraines are just some of the many symptoms of celiac. As I mentioned above, celiac is an autoimmune disease where when someone eats gluten, the body misidentifies it as harmful and launches an attack.

This attack is mediated by the immune system and causes not only damage to the small intestine, but a cascade of reactions throughout the body. And one of those cascades of reactions could cause headaches and migraines in celiac disease.

In fact, a 2018 systematic review of 40 headache and celiac disease-related research papers found that overall, celiac patients are more than 2 times as likely to have headaches than non-celiacs.

A more recent study was done in 2019 analyzing the relationship between celiac and headaches of 1,517 people, with 866 (~55%) of them experiencing celiac disease with a headache. An even more recent study done in 2021 comparing 1000 celiac patients to non-celiac patients, found that headaches and migraines were more commonly found in celiac patients.

The good news? A gluten-free diet was proven to be effective in treating headaches associated with celiac disease in 75% of patients.

Can Celiac Disease Cause Bad Headaches?

So can celiac disease cause headaches? According to the research, yes! Many celiac patients experience celiac disease-related headaches and migraines that tend to resolve as they live gluten-free. It is thought that the inflammatory autoimmune reaction that occurs in response to gluten is what triggers gluten-induced migraines and headaches in celiacs.

How Long Does a Gluten Headache Last?

So how long does the gluten headache from the celiac disease last? While it takes ~2-3 days for gluten to leave your system, the autoimmune response that causes symptoms can last for even longer. With it resulting in symptoms for days to even weeks.

That’s right, depending on the person, a gluten headache can last for a few days to a few weeks. If you are concerned with how long your gluten headache with celiac is lasting, definitely talk to your doctor to make sure nothing else is wrong.

Other Causes for Headaches with Celiac?

Other reasons why someone might get celiac disease headaches are vast. Because celiac doesn’t just impact the digestive system, there’s a lot that can happen that may play a role in headaches.

For example, celiac can impact the pancreas which helps regulate blood sugars. If you’re still healing, damage to the pancreas might cause high blood sugars which may cause headaches.

Additionally, celiac cause nutrient deficiencies that may cause headaches. For example, iron deficiency anemia is common in people with celiac and can cause headaches.

Furthermore, celiac can impact hormones involved in fertility and your period. Imbalances in these hormones could potentially cause headaches.

Lastly, celiac disease can increase your stress level (especially if you’re recently diagnosed) which could cause headaches or migraines related to stress. I say this with a lot of gentleness as someone who was told my stomachache was just stress (when it was really celiac) for years. I’m not trying to write anyone off but if you are confused about why you’re getting headaches, you might consider if you’ve had a very stressful few weeks, days, or hours.

I personally never experienced migraines until I started my internship to become a dietitian and was stressed beyond belief. This may or may not apply to you.

Celiac Disease Headaches - Things that Worsen Gluten Headaches - Tayler Silfverduk, celiac dietitian

What’s the Difference Between Headaches and Migraines?

So we know celiac disease headaches are a thing. And we also know celiac disease can cause migraines. So how do these two symptoms: celiac migraines and headaches differ?

According to Penn Medicine, headaches typically just involve pain localized to different areas. Tension headaches are specific to pain on both sides of the head starting at the back of the head. Sinus headaches are specific to pain attributed to congestion and swelling of the sinuses.

This is compared to migraines which include headaches (head pain), but also other neurological symptoms causing nausea, sensitivity to light/smell/sounds, dizziness, and fatigue.

I really summarized a lot here, so if you’re looking for more help with telling the difference, definitely check out this website.

Are Migraines a Symptom of Celiac Disease?

So are migraines a symptom of celiac disease? Yes, in fact, the 2018 systematic review mentioned earlier, found that the headaches associated with celiac disease were actually predominantly migraines. Things that can worsen headaches and migraines with celiac disease include celiac burnout, undereating, not staying hydrated, stress, sleep routine changes, and fatigue.

Celiac Disease Headache Relief: How to get Rid of a Celiac Disease Headache - Tayler Silfverduk, celiac dietitian

How to Get Rid of a Celiac Disease Headache or Migraine

So let’s talk about the important stuff related to celiac disease headaches and migraines: how do get rid of them or at the very least find relief?

There are quite a few over-the-counter pain killers formulated specific for headaches and migraines. Excedrin is gluten-free, but there are other products to consider too.

I like Cabinet Health Extra Strength Headache Relief (affiliate link) which has a similar formulation to Excedrin but is a batch-tested and verified gluten-free option.

Outside of over-the-counter medications, if your migraine or headaches tend to be especially bad, you can always discuss prescription as-needed options with your doctor. You will want to ensure they are giving you gluten-free medications, by either verifying with the pharmacist or with the drug manufacturer yourself. There would be nothing worse than a gluten headache becoming more painful because you’re treating it with a medication that contains gluten.

And beyond medications, you may find relief from celiac disease headaches and migraines by:

  • Apply Ice Packs or Hot Compresses to Your Head and Neck – Reported to be helpful for both tension headaches and migraines, applying a towel-wrapped ice pack or heat compress for 15-20 minutes to your head and neck can help soothe the pain. Headache wraps like this one (affiliate link) can make your life easier when doing this.
  • Hot Shower or Bath– on the same note of hot and cold techniques for soothing headaches, you may consider a hot shower or bath. It can help ease muscles and reduce the tension that may be playing a role in your headache. 
  • Sip on Water – A warning sign of dehydration can be headaches, so making sure you’re drinking enough water is important to prevent this. I personally notice that I’ll get headaches towards the afternoon if I’ve forgotten to refill my water bottle during the day. Drinking enough water, in general, will also help to prevent some headaches.
  • Give yourself a massage. A massage like this Neck Headache Massage or this Self-Massage for Tension Headaches can help soothe pain from gluten headaches and migraines. You could also try acupressure massage which has been suggested to help as well.
  • Consider Peppermint Oil. While I’m not the biggest fan of essential oils, when I’ve gotten tension headaches, especially towards my neck, rubbing peppermint oil on the back of my neck has helped give me relief. Now, don’t use straight peppermint oil, you’ll want to instead make sure the peppermint oil is mixed with a carrier oil to avoid skin irritation. I like using rollerballs like this one (affiliate link). I also get similar relief from enjoying peppermint candy or tea.
  • Eat Bland Gluten-Free Food – if your gluten migraine is causing nausea, consider enjoying bland food to prevent it from worsening.
  • Rest. Last but not least, when recovering from a celiac disease headache or migraine, don’t forget to give yourself permission to rest. Forcing yourself to work through a headache or migraine may worsen it. Try to let yourself rest as much as possible.

What are your tips and tricks for recovering from a gluten headache or migraine? Let me know in the comments.

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