Gluten and the Gut – How They Affect Migraines

It’s one of the most uncomfortable feelings in the world. The gas, the bloat, the fullness in your stomach.  What did I eat?! is your first question.  Most people don’t realize a gassy colon or a constant tightness or never-ending bloat is usually related back to something they’ve eaten, but isn’t being properly digested. 

The tremendous machine that is your colon continues to move that gassy bloat through the colon, not passing go or collecting $200, but taking a chunk out of your dignity as you excuse yourself to go home and spiral into a migraine attack.  Why does that happen, and what can you do about it?

Any migraineur who experiences gastrointestinal upset with their attacks is familiar with the sudden onset of discomfort and the following shame of frequent bathroom breaks.  In my article about irritable bowel syndrome, I review some of the most common meds used to treat that condition that are causing problems for migraineurs.  Meds are always a big problem for migraineurs, so if IBS is a problem for you, please read that article. 

In this post, we’ll take a look at how gluten allergy and sensitivity can cause migraines, and I’ll outline a few things you can do about it.  But first, we’ll look at the culprits. 

The Gut and Brain

The gut is a monstrous organ.  Huge by comparison to other organs and the home to 70-80% of your serotonin.  That’s right, folks; most of your “happy hormones” are in your poop track.   It’s quite the story you can tell the kids when they come asking why food and hunger cause mood swings and headaches. 

We know that specific types of gut bacteria help produce serotonin, but we don’t yet know why or even how.  Scientists are working on that.  The bacteria actually signal serotonin production, and we know the gut is full of both good and bad bacteria.  The good bacteria (microbiota) is responsible for keeping us healthy and functioning.  The bad bacteria make us sick.

Bad bacteria come from the things you eat and drink, such as:

  • Animal proteins are linked to higher risk of IBS
  • FODMAP foods (Fermentable, Oligosaccharides, Disaccharides, Monosaccharides, And Polyols)
  • Foods made with antibiotics
  • Fried food

Problems in the gut can lead to all kinds of problems, including:

  • Headaches (though the connection is still under study)
  • Depression and anxiety
  • IBS or IBD
  • Obesity
  • Metabolic syndrome or diabetes
  • Liver disease
  • Inflammation

Gluten: It Sticks

Gluten is one of the biggest culprits to gut problems in migraineurs.  It’s a protein found in all grains, but it’s neurotoxic to humans when we eat wheat, barley, and rye.  Gliadin is what helps make bread rise and what gives bread that soft, chewy feel.  It’s also the protein responsible for the negative effects we feel when we eat wheat, rye, or barley.

It’s estimated approximately 50% of the human population doesn’t have a gut that heals properly after eating foods with gluten. Fortunately, most people have at a gluten sensitivity or allergy and will experience symptoms.  I say fortunately, because when you eat something, and suffer after eating, you are more likely to stop eating that product. For example, if you eat a steak and 15 minutes later you were clutching your chest, chances are you will eventually realize the two are related and finally stop eating steak. But if you don’t experience symptoms, it’s harder for most to equate the act of eating bad gluten with symptoms that appear unrelated, like:

  • Bloating
  • Severe abdominal pain
  • Headaches
  • Fatigue
  • Migraine
  • Depression and anxiety
  • Autoimmune diseases like celiac disease and thyroid disorders
  • Diarrhea or constipation (also, foul-smelling feces)
  • Vitamin and mineral deficiencies
  • Muscle and joint pain
  • Brain fog

How to Manage these Symptoms

Eating a strict gluten-free diet is an excellent way to get started, but avoiding gluten isn’t as easy as it sounds. Gluten is sneaky and is found in everything from makeup to shampoo and even in sticky rice.  It’ll take some adjustments.  I recommend checking out free and paid apps like Fooducate or The Gluten Free Scanner.

If you’ve already started this part of the process, here are a few other ways you can help manage these GI-migraine symptoms:

  • Keep a symptom journal and learn where triggers are coming from
  • Make sure you practice good sleep hygiene
  • Take supplements like magnesium, B12, and omega-3 daily
  • Remember your stress-coping and mind-body techniques

During a migraine attack, try the following:

  • Strong fresh ginger tea with lemon
  • Magnesium supplement
  • Acupressure (helps most with nausea)
  • Aromatherapy (lavender and mint are common favorites)
  • Rest

The best solution is just to stay away from foods made in labs. Remember, there is no ingredient list on the side of an organic apple.