Man with Migraine

The Headache-Migraine-Gut Connection

If you’re one of the 38 million Americans who suffer from migraines, you know how the severe pain, stomach upset and light sensitivity can stop you from living your life for hours—or even days. Migraines are known to affect the gut, causing diarrhea, vomiting and nausea, but new studies have shown that the reverse is also true: poor gut health can increase the risk of neurological disorders, including migraines.

The National Institutes of Health’s (NIH) journal Frontiers in Neurology reports that possible root causes of GI diseases and migraines “could be increased by gut permeability and inflammation.” Separate studies indicate that the same pro-inflammatory immune responses responsible for such gut issues as celiac disease, leaky gut, irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) and irritable bowel disorder (IBD) may also be responsible for causing migraines. The NIH also reports that the cause of migraines may be more about environmental factors, including gut microbiota, than genetics, since in only 20 percent of identical twins does one or both suffer from migraines.

Poor gut health doesn’t just cause migraines—Norway’s Nord-Trøndelag Health Survey showed that people with ordinary headaches as well as migraines also complained regularly of gastrointestinal (GI) symptoms as opposed to people who had no GI complaints or headaches. And in the US, approximately 45 million people (about 1 in 6 people) are known to experience common headaches; about 8 million of those visit a doctor specifically for headache complaints. A number of statistics bear out the gut health-headache-migraine connection:

  • more than half of migraine patients have IBS (American Academy of Neurology)
  • approximately one-third of headache sufferers have IBS (American Academy of Neurology)
  • a study of patients with IBD and celiac disease showed migraines were “more prevalent” in these patients than in control subjects (American Headache Society)
  • patients with IBD are more than two times more likely to suffer migraines (American Headache Society)
  • inflammation is at the root of IBD, IBS and leaky gut, and the nerve associated with migraines is also triggered by inflammation (Annals of Neurosciences)

The gut and brain have a strong connection through three pathways—endocrine, immune and neural—which communicate in both directions: brain to gut and gut to brain. Because of this connection, the gut is referred to as the “second brain”; in addition, it produces the majority of our body’s serotonin, which is referred to as the “happiness hormone”.  It’s no coincidence that patients with migraines are found to have low serotonin levels, further underscoring the relationship between the gut and brain.

Gut permeability, otherwise known as leaky gut, is a condition in which the gut wall becomes perforated, allowing toxic waste, undigested foods, and bacteria to pass into the blood system rather than being properly processed and eliminated. These inflammatory molecules can lead to IBD, IBS, and celiac disease; they also stimulate pain receptors in the fifth and largest cranial nerve (the trigeminal nerve), resulting in migraines.

It’s no secret that we’re living more inflammation-prone lives due to higher stress levels, gluten consumption, poor dietary choices that include processed and fast foods, environmental chemicals, and so on. The lower quality of non-organic food also plays a role because there are now far fewer nutrients in plant-based foods due to the use of pesticides, genetic modification, mechanized farming, and chemical fertilizers. All of these factors negatively alter the gut microbiome and, in turn, the gut-brain pathway.

The road to ending migraines begins by finding out what triggers your attacks—everyone’s body is different; some may have allergies or sensitivities to cleaning products, gluten, or certain foods while other people may have leaky gut or another immune disorder. Your functional medicine doctor can help you determine the root cause of your body’s inflammation and the best way to help heal any issues so you can get back to living your life more fully.

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