The Sticky Link Between Gluten and Migraines

Gluten has become a bad word in America, but few people truly understand why. Today, we look at what gluten is, why people have a sensitivity to it, and how it can affect migraines.

What is gluten? Why do some people have problems with it?  

Gluten refers to the proteins found in all grains.  Although there are numerous proteins within gluten, the two main proteins are gliadin and glutenin. These two proteins are responsible for helping grains rise and stick together.

When we eat products containing gluten, our digestive tract secretes enzymes to break the proteins down. The average person has no trouble digesting glutenin. However, gliadin (a class of proteins found in wheat, rye, and barley) is a small protein with less surface area, and nobody can fully break that down.

Most people’s bodies go through the digestive process without any pain. However, people with gluten sensitivity or celiac disease have painful problems when they’ve consumed wheat, rye or barley. Adults with celiac disease may have digestive issues, but are more likely to experience the following symptoms:

  • Iron-deficiency
  • Fatigue
  • Joint and bone pain and bone loss
  • Liver tract disorders
  • Depression and anxiety
  • Tingling or numbness in the hands and feet
  • Seizures and migraines
  • Missed menstrual periods
  • Infertility
  • Skin rashes


Gluten and Migraines: What’s the connection?

Many Studies show there is a strong correlation between gluten sensitivity, gluten allergies, and migraines.   Some possibilities for the connection include:

  1. Stress on your body
    When we think of stress, we often think of emotional issues; but stress is not just emotional, it takes a physical toll on the body too.  Stress impacts your body’s immune system and its ability to defend itself from pain and a multitude of other challenges. Food intolerances are a stress. When you eat food your body cannot properly digest, you kick your body’s immune system to kick into a higher gear to fight the perceived food “invaders”. This internal war creates inflammation. When you suffer disease, your body is engulfed internally by fire. Inflammation is the gasoline that feeds the fire. Food is an environmental trigger for disease.  Reduce your stress by reducing your triggers.
  2. Gluten and thyroid disease
    Studies show a link between thyroid disease and gluten intolerance. In fact, when the body goes to break down gliadin, it may also erroneously attack the thyroid causing significant damage to this unsuspecting little gland. The thyroid is key to your entire body’s health, but it also plays a major role in migraines. It regulates the production of hormones, controls body temperature, and controls the fight-or-flight response. You can learn more about the gluten, thyroid, and migraine connection here.
  3. Gluten sensitivity can cause a leaky gut
    Zonulin causes the cells in your intestinal wall to separate. When you suffer from a leaky gut, these openings become even larger, leaving sizeable gaps where partially undigested food can now prematurely escape into your bloodstream. Gluten (specifically, gliadin) and bacteria are the two triggers that increase the amount of zonulin produced in your body. More gluten causes more zonulin production which then increases the number and size of the “holes”  in your intestinal wall.

Next Steps to Determine Gluten Intolerance

  1. Test for celiac disease, but don’t rely on this alone. Remember, full-blown gluten allergies show up in blood work, but gluten sensitivity doesn’t. Gluten sensitivity without an allergy can still be a migraine trigger.
  2. Journal. Write down when your migraines occur and the foods you’ve eaten.
  3. Go through an elimination diet. I’ve written extensively about how to do this here. Remember, gluten and wheat are not the same. Gluten is found in wheat, but some people are triggered by wheat and not other forms of gluten (such as rice). Keep this in mind during your elimination diet.


Navigating what to eat and what not to eat is challenging, but what you put into your body matters. Gluten from wheat, rye, and barley is toxic to all humans, no matter if you experience symptoms or not. Take control of your health by eliminating it temporarily to see how you feel. The journey to health can be arduous, but it’s doable.



Harvard Medical School – About Gluten – Symptoms – Gluten and Migraines

Amy Myers MD – Gluten and Leaky Gut