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