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Headaches, Digestive Problems & Food Allergies

Published date: November 7, 2013 | Modified date:
by Dr Stephen Wangen

Headaches Can Be a Symptom of Something Else

Ever wonder what is causing your headaches, or why some people get headaches and others do not? A headache is really a symptom of something else, and it’s not always muscle tension. It is obviously a pain in the head, but the common factor is headaches of all types usually involve inflammation.

Then what causes inflammation? If the immune system reacts to one or more of the foods you eat, then an inflammatory reaction is taking place that can lead to headaches, both common headaches and migraine headaches. Such reactions are far more common than many people realize, and have been established in medical journals such as The Lancet: Is Migraine a Food Allergy?.

Many people with chronic headaches suffer from them for years with no permanent relief. Whether or not you have migraine headaches, tension headaches, sinus headaches, or an undetermined form of headache, it is very possible you are suffering from food allergy-induced inflammation.

The inflammation, and thus the headache, will resolve once the triggering food or foods are removed from the diet. Sometimes this is easier said than done because the foods we eat are often complicated combinations of numerous base foods. But once you understand the problem, the results can be dramatic.

Diet Can Trigger Headaches

Food allergies are the number one cause of headaches of all types. These are not the kind of food allergies an allergist is going to diagnose because allergists don’t often deal with headache-related food allergies. These are the “hidden” types of food allergies, as discussed in this medical research on Food Allergies and Migraine.

Very often it is actually possible to eliminate the cause of the pain and inflammation without resorting to drugs to suppress it. Inflammation is actually caused by the immune system, which then leads to pain. The important question is, “Why is the immune system creating inflammation?”

As you already know, bacteria, viruses, and parasites trigger an immune response. But anything that triggers an immune response also triggers inflammation. This includes foods that are incorrectly identified by the immune system as not belonging in the body. Therefore, an allergic reaction to food can result in inflammation.

Similar Triggers for Both IBS and Headaches

The same things that cause digestive problems often cause headaches, as seen in this IBS and migraine medical study in the journal Neurologia. Migraines and tension headaches, like IBS, are often associated with stress. But also, like IBS, headaches can come on for seemingly no reason at all.

Whether or not you have digestive problems, you may be able to eliminate your headaches by changing your diet and the professionals at the IBS Treatment Center can help you do it.

It is not unusual for patients to visit us for digestive problems only to find after implementing their individualized treatment plan, their headaches have also resolved. Some patients do come to us specifically for the treatment of their headaches, whether they are migraine, tension, and even sinus headaches.

We have been pointing to the research for years that says that if you trigger the immune system, as usually happens in celiac disease, Inflammatory Bowel Disease (IBD), and many cases of IBS, then you can get all sorts of problems, including headaches. This is discussed in detail in a research paper on food allergy and intolerance published by Dr. Linda Hodge.

Headaches have long been known to be associated with celiac disease. Remove gluten from the diet and the headaches often resolve. The same is true for non-celiac patients with gluten sensitivity, as described in headache study in the journal Neurology. It’s also true for people with other food allergies.

Just yesterday I saw a patient whose headaches went away after removing dairy and egg from her diet. It’s not the food that causes the headaches, but the reaction to the food.  Those reactions will vary from person to person, but it’s not at all unusual for headaches to be triggered by food allergies.

Besides food allergies, another interesting cause of headaches can be the presence of  yeast or Candida in the digestive tract. Yeast can trigger headaches via the toxic effect of byproducts that they produce. These are absorbed from the digestive tract and can lead to a variety of health problems, including headaches, as has been described in a candida study in Mycoses medical journal.

Research Linking Food Allergies & Headaches

Research has linked celiac disease to chronic headaches. There have also been studies indicating food allergies mediated by IgG-type antibodies are specifically to blame for headaches.

A European medical research migraine study to assess the prevalence of headaches in patients with celiac disease proved migraines were more prevalent in people who had inflammatory bowel disease or celiac disease than in the control groups. It recommended screening migraine patients for celiac disease and assessing the impacts of a gluten-free diet.

Research on migraines indicates food allergies mediated by IgG-type antibodies are specifically to blame. Several studies reported on the direct link between IgG food reactions and migraines. IgG food reactions are one of the types of reactions we test for at the IBS Treatment Center.

One food elimination study found patients diagnosed both with migraines and IBS had significantly elevated levels of IgG antibodies (when compared to a control group) in response to one or more foods in their diet. When the patients removed the offending foods, both their IBS and headache symptoms improved. Other similar studies have replicated these findings.

But a patient does not need to have IBS symptoms to have elevated IgG levels. In another migraine study, researchers found a significant difference in the levels of IgG antibodies between migraine sufferers and a control group. But more importantly, when the food allergens were eliminated from the diet, the migraines resolved, and these people no longer needed medications.

Testing For Food Allergies

Testing for food allergies is not a simple or as common as you might expect. Most doctors are not well versed in evaluating patients for the kinds of food allergies discussed here. Skin testing is inadequate and many blood tests are not thorough enough to discover these types of food allergies. For more detialed information about testing for food allergies, click here.

The best way to determine if you have a food allergy is to have your blood tested for multiple antibody reactions, including IgA, IgG, and IgE antibodies, to a variety of foods. That is the kind of allergy testing we do at the IBS Treatment Center, and we routinely find reactions that would otherwise be missed.

Although there are other potential causes of headaches and not all patients with chronic headaches have food allergies, those who do can get substantial relief by identifying and avoiding the foods to which they are allergic.

Which Foods Cause Inflammation

The body can be allergic to any food, therefore any food allergy is capable of causing inflammation and headaches. This is why it can be so difficult for someone to recognize the relationship between their diet and their symptoms.

Let’s use a dairy allergy as an example. If you eat any form of dairy, be it milk, butter, cheese, yogurt, or even dairy in the form of casein or whey in another food product, then you can trigger the symptoms of your food allergy, in this case, a headache.

You should also know that allergy symptoms may show up hours or even a day later, well after a food is absorbed into your system. This is another challenge in connecting the food with the symptom.

Patients Have Found Relief For Headaches

At the IBS Treatment Center, we love to hear from patients who have gotten better. This letter comes from a mother who wrote to us to tell us how happy she was.

Dr. Wangen,

When I came to see you for migraines I felt as though I was making a “last ditch” effort. I had suffered from headaches since I was about 12 years old and the preceding 3 years had become unbearable. At the time I saw you I had had the same headache for about 8 months. I was miserable. (The headache before that had lasted 18 months!)

Many times over the years I had asked various healthcare providers if something I was eating was making me sick. EVERY single one of them told me that food allergies do not cause migraines. And yet that was the first thing you tested me for! When the test results did come back they showed that I was highly reactive to dairy, eggs, and sesame and reactive to other foods as well though not as severely. I had a good cry in the car and then stopped for a cheeseburger on a sesame seed bun on the way home. Then I cried again. My tears were in part because I felt so consumed by this new information, and in part, because I finally had a possible new solution to ridding myself of the constant pain.

After that final cheeseburger, I never looked back. But it proved to be absolutely worth it. After about 3 weeks my headaches started to lessen.

It wasn’t every day anymore.

After about 5 weeks I felt significantly better. That was all I needed to keep me going! My son (aged 8) noticed that mommy was more “fun.” He commented about how good it was that I wasn’t always in bed. Heartbreaking for me to hear, but he was right.

When I think about the time and money spent over the years on EEG’s, MRI’s, CT scans, a cabinet full of prescription drugs, biofeedback, and more I want to scream! My neurologist at that time told me that there was nothing more he could do for me, he didn’t need to see me again.

All this to tell you how much I appreciate you! Previously, I couldn’t imagine the migraines would ever end, and yet they have! I appreciate everything you have helped me with. THANK YOU!!


If you or someone you know suffers from any type of headache, or you would like to get off of your headache medication, then please call us at 1-888-546-6283 or schedule an appointment. Through our telemedicine option, we often treat with patients who live far from our Seattle and Los Angeles clinics.