The Gut-Migraine Connection

Updated: Apr 29

I must confess, I've never experienced a migraine. A bad headache, yes. But fortunately never a debilitating and excruciating migraine headache where I want to hide in a dark room and throw up. I have, however, helped many clients considerably reduce the severity and frequency of their migraines and headaches, and I want to share with you a few vital pieces of information that could help.

You see, there are root causes that must be discovered and addressed. Not only do migraines seriously impact a person's quality of life, they also increase their risk of death! Migraine sufferers are at a much greater risk of a cardiovascular event – such as a heart attack or stroke. Cardiovascular disease and stroke are the leading causes of death worldwide.

In women, the risk of a cardiovascular event is double that of non-migraine sufferers! (1)
Scarily, there is a 9 X higher stroke risk for women migraine sufferers who are also on the contraceptive pill. (2)
In a study of over 20,000 men, there were 42% more heart attacks in those with migraines. (3)

One underlying root cause is poor gut health. This is at epidemic levels due to our current high stress lifestyles filled with medications, toxic chemicals, and highly processed sugary foods and drinks. It has an impact for several reasons:

Absorption of vital nutrients and quality of diet.

Your gastrointestinal (GI) tract or gut runs from your mouth to your anus. After the respiratory tract, the GI tract constitutes the second largest surface area comparable to the size of a tennis court! It is where you digest the food you eat, extract its essential nutrients, and absorb them into your blood stream for use by the body. Without those nutrients your body can't function, heal and repair.

Nutrient supplementation has been found to be beneficial for migraine sufferers.

Studies have shown:

  • Magnesium can reduce the frequency and severity of a migraine. (4, 5, 6)

  • High dose riboflavin (Vitamin B2) of 400 mg per day decreased migraine frequency from 4 x per month to 2 x per month and decreased the need for abortive migraine pharmaceuticals. (7)

  • Pyridoxal-5-Phosphate (P5P) or vitamin B6 at 80mg daily decreased severity, duration and frequency of migraines. (8)

  • Omega 3 fish oil may also be beneficial. Migraine sufferers were found to have a decrease in number and function of endothelial progenitor cells (EPCs). (9). These cells help repair damaged blood vessels. What can increase the number of EPCs and improve the regenerating capacity of the blood vessel lining (endothelium)? Omega 3 fish oil (10), a Mediterranean diet (11) and even walnuts (12).

These studies suggest that nutrient deficiencies may play a role in migraine headaches. So, a healthy nourishing diet and a well-functioning gut capable of absorbing the nutrients from the food is important if we want to reduce their frequency and duration or eliminate them for good.

The gut's role in DAO enzyme production and keeping histamine levels in check.

Histamine is thought to play a crucial role in the development of a migraine. (13) This compound is released by the body in response to injury and in allergic and inflammatory reactions. It's a normal process and an important part of our immune system response. However, if excessive histamine is released or if it lingers too long without being broken down, symptoms can occur. Symptoms of a histamine intolerance include:

  • headaches or migraines

  • nasal congestion or sinus issues

  • itchy eyes

  • fatigue

  • hives

  • digestive issues

  • nausea and vomiting

Hay fever symptoms are also due to excessive histamine, which is why anti-histamines are used for relief. The root cause, however, often stems from poor gut health! (See "How to beat hay fever and seasonal allergies naturally & for good"!)

A recent study found that nearly 90% of migraine patients have a DAO enzyme deficiency. (14) This enzyme breaks down histamine in the blood, so a deficiency may increase histamine levels leading to nerve inflammation. With migraines the trigeminal nerve is thought to be involved. (15,16)

Supplementation with DAO may therefore be beneficial. (17) But so too, could improving the health of the gut lining where DAO is produced, and nutrients such as omega 3 fish oil. (18)

Flavonoids found in brightly coloured fruits and vegetables have also been shown to lower histamine release. (19) As a supplement, the flavonoid quercetin is commonly used. (20)

Avoiding medications that block DAO production, like amytriptyline may also help. (21)

Plus, it is recommended to stay away from high histamine food and drink like alcohol, vinegar, fermented foods, cured meats, aged cheese and even chocolate!

The role of a "leaky" gut, food sensitivities and inflammation.

Along with its role in digestion, absorption of nutrients and elimination of toxins, the gut is a barrier between the internal and external environment. It is designed to keep undigested food particles, toxins, bad bacteria, and other infectious agents from entering the blood stream. The walls of the gut act as a selective physical barrier, however if it becomes damaged or "leaky" these toxins can enter the blood stream triggering a immune response and an inflammatory reaction.

Anything that drives chronic inflammation in the body is best avoided for migraine sufferers.

Inflammatory markers like high sensitivity C-Reactive protein (hsCRP) have been shown to be higher in those with a migraine diagnosis. Elevated hsCRP from blood tests is also a known risk factor for cardiovascular events. (22)

Common causes of a "leaky" gut (or increased intestinal permeability) are medications (like non-steroidal anti-inflammatories (NSAIDs) and Omeprazole), physical and emotional stress, poor nutrition, poor digestion (often due to low stomach acid), infections and food sensitivities. Many go hand-in-hand creating a vicious circle of gut damage and systemic inflammation.

Food allergies and intolerance's are known triggers for migraine sufferers. In one small study, eliminating ten common foods resulted in a dramatic fall in the number of headaches per month, with 85% of patients becoming headache-free. The 25% of patients with high blood pressure even found their blood pressure normalized! (23)

Food elimination based on IgG antibodies in patients with both migraines and irritable bowel syndrome noted a reduction in symptoms from both disorders. (24)

Those with Inflammatory bowel disease, gluten sensitivity, irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) and coeliac disease are all statistically more likely to suffer from migraine headaches than those without the conditions. (25, 26)

Migraines can be one of the earliest symptoms of coeliac disease, so it is important to rule out this serious autoimmune disease.

The gut's role in detoxifying our body.

Detoxification is your body's ability to remove harmful chemicals, heavy metals and even excess hormones. Your gastrointestinal tract, along with your liver, skin, lungs, and kidneys enable us to detoxify.

However, when these organs are overloaded or dysfunctional, free radicals remain causing oxidative stress, inflammation and damage to the body's cells and their energy producing organelles called mitochondria. Mitochondrial dysfunction and damage have been implicated in the pathophysiology of migraines. (27, 28, 29)

Perhaps that's why therapies aimed at mitochondrial support tend to decrease the frequency and intensity of migraines. Supplements such as CoQ10 and alpha lipoic acid have shown to be beneficial. (30, 31)