Migraine headaches may be caused by this vitamin deficiency
Research shows that vitamin D deficiency is common in patients with headaches and chronic migraine. During a presentation at the 2008 meeting of the American Headache Society, Dr. Ryan Wheeler explained that over 40% of patients with chronic headaches and migraines were Vitamin D deficient. Since headaches are among the most common complaints encountered in neurology practice, it is wise to investigate the cause and possible treatments.
Migraine headaches are not just prevalent in the United States. A World Health Organization (WHO) review of world wide data found migraine to be one of the most common health disorders worldwide. It was determined to be the most frequent cause of headache consultation in the all of the Americas, Europe, Western Pacific and South-East Asia.
I have lived with headaches and migraines since my late teens and early adulthood. I have taken everything from Aspirin and Motrin to Ergotamine preparations and Codeine. Until my latent allergy to aspirin last year I found 2 aspirin and a cup of coffee at onset would reverse my pain. As I can longer take aspirin or Motrin I needed to find another way. As I was researching options my doctor tested me and diagnosed me with a dangerously low Vitamin D level. I started taking supplementation with 5,000U a day for the first month and am now taking 2,000U a day. In the past 6 months I can now count my headaches on one hand. I do not think this is a coincidence.
There is a great deal of research in regards to vitamin D deficiency and its role in osteoporosis. Recently depression, cognitive disorder and Alzheimer’s has also been researched in regards to the benefit of Vitamin D. There is however only a few small trials that have been done on it’s role in headache and migraine prevention and treatment.
In response to this Dr. Ryan Wheeler at the Headache Treatment Center, in Miami, Florida, began to do his own research. After reading research in the Archives of Internal Medicine about the correlation between cardiovascular disease and Vitamin D, he started to wonder about Vitamin D’s role in migraine as well. Wheeler indicated "Until that point, I had no idea vitamin D deficiency was a cardiovascular risk factor, although I was aware there was a link between migraine and cardiovascular disease." He began to assess his patients with migraines over a period of six months. He tracked the progress of 55 patients that had migraines with the mean age of just short of 50. He determined that the sufficient level of Vitamin D in his clientele should be above 30 with insufficient being between 20 and 30 and deficient below 20.
His study showed that nearly 42% of patients had levels below 30. Of these, 27% had what were considered insufficient levels and another 15% were deficient. At the same time he found that there was a trend toward elevated blood pressure in the deficient population and osteoporosis. "Clinicians generally don't recognize the importance of vitamin D deficiency, and so they don't screen for it - not just in migraineurs, but in all of their patients. But it is a condition that is easily treated and may confer major, wide-ranging health benefits," he said.
The amount of vitamin D we make ourselves from sunlight conversion is dependent upon where we live, what time of year it is and how much sun exposure we get. Studies show that vitamin D deficiency occurs in 32% of otherwise healthy students, doctors and hospital residents. 73% of pregnant women have been shown to be deficient and over 50% of community dwelling elderly. The common denominator here is lack of adequate sun exposure. Therefore Vitamin D must be obtained through dietary intake and oral supplementation.
Vitamin D requirements
Guidelines for vitamin D requirements have been set by the Institute of Medicine (IOM) in 2010. If there was limited sun exposure they recommended the following.
- 600 IU/day for ages 1 to 70
- 800 IU/day for over 70 years of age
- 600 IU/day for pregnant and lactating women
Vitamin D comes in two forms. D2 and D3, Vitamin D2 comes from fortified foods plants and Vitamin D3 comes from fortified foods as well as sunlight exposure.
Foods that contain vitamin D are fatty fish such as salmon, tuna, and mackerel. Egg yolk, beef liver and cheese contain some but not as much. Fortified cereal, orange juice, some yogurts and soy products are good sources as well. U.S. milk is fortified with 400 IU of vitamin D per quart.
Vitamin D supplement is best absorbed when taken with food containing fat. It is also better absorbed when taken with your largest meal of the day.
Vitamin D3 is available as 400, 1000, 2000, and 5,000 IU doses in most retail stores and pharmacies. Elevated doses as high as 50,000 IU are available via the Internet.
Take home message
Be sure to know your vitamin D levels and get tested regularly. An elevated level has been shown to lead to increased inflammation that can increase actually your risk of heart disease. Ask your healthcare provider to test your level 3 months after starting your supplementation and at least yearly after that to be certain you are at your optimum level.
- American Headache Society 50th Annual Scientific Meeting: Abstract S33. Presented June 28, 2008.
- Arch Intern Med. 2007;167:1159-1165
- World Health Organization. Atlas of Headache Disorders and Resources in the World 2011.
- World Health Organization; Geneva, Switzerland; 2011.