Researcher Peter H. Green, MD, of Columbia University in New York, says he was expecting to see a higher rate of migraines in celiac patients, but the increased migraine rate in the inflammatory bowel disease patients was a "complete surprise."
"We primarily wanted to study migraine rates in celiac patients. ... We included two [comparison] groups: one made up of healthy volunteers and another made up of patients with inflammatory bowel disease, because we wanted a gastrointestinal disease [comparison] as well. We didn't think the inflammatory bowel disease group would actually show a high rate of migraine, too."
The study is published in the February issue of Headache.
A Gluten-Free Diet?
The study included 502 people, 188 with celiac disease, 111 with inflammatory bowel disease, 25 with gluten sensitivity, and 178 who didn't have any of the conditions. The researchers included clinical, demographic, and dietary information on the people in their survey, as well as questions about headache type and frequency.
Results show that chronic headaches were reported by 30% of the people with celiac disease, 56% of those who were gluten sensitive, 23% of those with inflammatory bowel disease, and 14% of those without the conditions.
After accounting for various factors, those with celiac disease, gluten sensitivity, and inflammatory bowel disease all had many more migraine headaches than the people without the conditions.
Migraine was graded as severe by 72% of those with celiac disease, 60% of those with gluten sensitivity, and 30% of those with inflammatory bowel disease. "The migraines experienced by celiac disease patients appear to be more debilitating compared with those in the other groups," the researchers write.
There was no link between years on a gluten-free diet and migraine severity, but some patients reported fewer migraines and less severe migraines after starting a gluten-free diet.
Green says that whether or not a gluten-free diet can improve migraines was not the focus of this study, but noted that several of his patients report that it helps.
"People often look to natural therapies for migraine, they try giving up red wine and chocolate. Why not try giving up gluten? It is not an unreasonable idea," he says. "Many people are trying gluten-free diets at the moment, and several people have noticed that their migraine appears to improve on this diet. But these are just anecdotal reports. We need more studies to evaluate the gluten-free diet as a possible [protective] intervention for migraine both in celiac and non-celiac patients."
Future studies should also test migraine patients for celiac disease, particularly those with severe and treatment-resistant headaches, the researchers write.