People with migraine frequently experience additional health problems, and new research indicates that people with celiac disease, inflammatory bowel disease and gluten sensitivity have higher rates of migraine than people without those health concerns.

Celiac disease is a digestive disorder that makes it impossible to tolerate gluten, a protein in wheat and some other grains. If it is eaten, a variety of symptoms may result, including abdominal bloating and pain, diarrhea and weight loss. As its name indicates, inflammatory bowel disease is a condition in which the lining of the intestines is inflamed, and a variety of digestive disturbances occur.

In this study led by Alexandra Dimitrova, MD, of the Columbia Medical Center in New York, researchers studied 502 people for a year and found that 188 people had celiac disease, 111 had inflammatory bowel disease, and 25 had symptoms of gluten sensitivity but had not been diagnosed with celiac disease. The remaining 178 people served as a control group.

Nearly one-third of the patients with celiac disease reported chronic headache, as did 56% of those with gluten sensitivity, 23% with inflammatory bowel disease and 14% of the control group. When the researchers screened for migraines specifically, 21% of those with celiac disease and 14% of those with inflammatory bowel disease reported sometimes disabling headaches, in contrast to just 6% of the control group.

“Our findings suggest that migraine is a common neurological manifestation in celiac disease, gluten sensitivity and inflammatory bowel disease,” Dimitrova and her colleagues wrote.

Researchers noted they are not clear what is responsible for this link. They suggested that a generalized inflammatory response may affect the whole body and brain or that antibodies may attack the brain cells and membranes in the nervous system, resulting in headache.

“What we know for sure is that there is a higher prevalence of headache of any kind, including migraine headaches, compared to healthy controls,” they said.

The authors recommend that in future studies migraine patients should be screened for celiac disease, and patients who do not respond to treatment should consult a healthcare professional about being screened for it.

Arthur Elkind, MD, president of the NHF board of directors, also noted the importance of this study.

“Recent evidence seems to link adult celiac disease to multiple other entities, including diabetes as well as other neurological disorders,” he said. “It would be of interest to study comorbid conditions of migraine and celiac disease for common links. It would not be surprising to find a genetic association. Our understanding of both disorders has increased with recent research, and this described link anticipates further studies and revelations.”

This study has not yet been published; the authors presented their findings in April at the annual meeting of the American Academy of Neurology, held in New Orleans.

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