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Can Digestive Issues Cause Headaches? headache caused by digestive problems

Health & Wellness

Can Digestive Issues Cause Headaches?

Headaches are a common issue, and they can range from being a minor inconvenience to being incredibly debilitating and leaving individuals unable to work, study, or go about their daily life. Minor headaches can be a sign of a cold or flu, dehydration, stress, or eyestrain. More serious headaches and migraines can have other causes, ranging from simple to very serious.  Researchers are starting to suspect that there is a link between gut health and susceptibility to headaches. Highlighted below is an exploration of this connection.

digestive system in the human bodyHow Your Gut Affects Your Health

The digestive system is made up of many organs, as well as the bacteria that live in the intestines. The system is complex, and there are many links between the gut microbiome, mucosal membranes, intestines, stomach, circulation, the brain, and hormones. Keeping your digestive system healthy requires a healthy diet, rest, and exercise. Maintaining digestive health is particularly important because the health of your digestive system affects the health of the rest of your mind and body.1 The consequences of an unhealthy digestive system can manifest themselves in anything from low moods to fatigue and even headaches. Generally, people are so out of tune with what good digestive health feels like that it can be difficult to determine the cause of common minor ailments. Studies show that there is a link between gastrointestinal disorders and migraines. Everything from irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) to acid reflux, constipation, and dyspepsia can contribute to headaches.2 It is thought that it is not so much that digestive issues cause headaches but that the digestive illness makes a person more susceptible to headaches. For example, dyspepsia or constipation can lead to reduced antiseptic action from the secretions in the stomach can lead to autointoxication, for which a headache is a symptom.3 Migraines are different from other headaches because they can affect a wider area of the head and are sometimes associated with visual disturbances, nausea, and sensory issues. It is thought that IBS and migraines are linked and that a major contributing factor to this is serotonin. This chemical is an important neurotransmitter for both the brain and the digestive tract, so it makes sense that issues in one area might also be reflected in the other.4 The link is so close, in fact, that there is something known as abdominal migraine. This kind of migraine is not a headache, but rather nausea, cramping, and vomiting. Children whose family members suffer from migraines are often susceptible to abdominal migraines themselves, and kids who get that kind of pain are more likely to suffer from true migraine headaches later on. These migraines can sometimes be triggered by eating foods with nitrites or MSG in them or by swallowing a lot of air (through eating too quickly). It's thought that histamine and serotonin imbalances can cause symptoms and that being worried or upset could be another trigger.5

woman laying on couch with ice pack on headCoping with Digestive Issues and Migraines

If you find that you are frequently suffering from headaches or migraines, then a good starting point is to keep a diary to try to identify your triggers. Keep a record of what you eat and drink, the weather, how much sleep you are getting, exercise routines, and your mood/stress levels. Common causes for headaches are dehydration, lack of sleep, eating foods that you are mildly intolerant to, and stress. A headache caused by digestive problems is one of the hardest to pin down if you are not keeping a regular diary. You may find that aromatherapy can help relieve some of your symptoms, both with digestive issues such as gas and bloating and with your headaches. Peppermint oil, for example, contains menthol which can clear the airways and help your muscles relax. Researchers have found evidence that peppermint oil can help to relieve tension-type headaches in both older children and adults.6 Other useful essential oils for helping with headaches include rosemary and lavender oils. Rosemary has been found to be a powerful pain-relief agent for a number of different kinds of pain, including musculoskeletal pain.7 Lavender is thought to be a safe and effective way of remedying acute headaches.8 You can use essential oils topically after dilution with a carrier oil, in a bath, or aromatically in a room diffuser or portable diffuser like Healthy.

young woman drinking water while exercisingTake Control of Your Gut Health

The majority of the research that is out there right now focuses on the idea of managing acute pain rather than preventing migraines from happening in the first place. There are, however, studies that show that it is possible to change your gut flora and improve your digestive health, which could have a lasting impact on elements like your susceptibility to headaches.    Simple changes like eating whole wheat bread instead of white bread and adding fermented foods into your diet can make a difference in your gut flora.9 It takes consistency in your diet to produce changes, however. You won't see a difference after a meal or two, but if you learn the basics of good nutrition and follow a good diet consistently, then you will see results.   Forget the fad diets and stick to whole foods—mostly plants—with some animal products if your personal ethics and preferences allow that. Limit processed foods, drink lots of water, and get plenty of exercise.


If your headaches have just started, are getting worse, or are very frequent and persistent, then you should seek medical advice. See an optician in case the headaches are related to eye strain and see a doctor to rule out any serious underlying issues. Self-care is useful, but it is no substitute for professional medical advice. A quick trip to the doctor will give you peace of mind about your overall health. Once you’ve been given the all-clear, the tips outlined above will help you continue keeping your body in tip-top shape and allow you to live a happier and healthier life. Photo credits: KaterynaKon/, catinsyrup/,  misfire_studio/, ImpactPhotography/

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