Vitamin D Deficiency and Your Chronic Headaches

Low vitamin D may cause migraines and other headaches. Learn more about the science behind this link and what it means for your headache treatments.

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Getting enough vitamins is an important part of staying healthy. Vitamin D deficiencies have been linked to a wide variety of health problems, including diabetes, heart disease, and pain during your period. And according to a 2017 Scientific Records article and other studies, it could also be the cause of your headaches.

Linking Low Vitamin D and Headaches

In the Scientific Records study, scientists found that low vitamin D was associated with headaches for middle-aged men in Finland. When the men with the lowest and highest levels of vitamin D were compared, those with the lowest levels were more than twice as likely to have headaches at least once a week. Chronic headaches were also more common in men examined from October through May when vitamin D levels in Finland are lower due to lack of sun.

However, many of the men with vitamin D deficiencies did not have chronic headaches. Low vitamin D levels are common in Finland because it is far from the equator and tends to receive less sun. Of the 2,601 study participants, 68% had levels below 50 nanomoles per liter (nmol/L), the threshold for deficiency—but this number is far higher than the 9.6% of men who reported having chronic headaches. Still, men with headaches had lower average levels of vitamin D (38.3 nmol/L) than those without headaches (43.9 nmol/L).

The authors of this study could only establish an association between the two conditions, not a cause-and-effect relationship. However, other studies like a 2020 Nutrients review have found similar connections between low vitamin D and headaches, especially migraines.

How Does Low Vitamin D Cause Headaches?

According to the 2020 Nutrients article, vitamin D deficiency can cause migraines and other headaches through multiple pathways. Too little vitamin D can cause inflammation, make some neurons more sensitive, change brain chemical levels, increase Nitric Oxide formation, decrease Magnesium absorption, and decrease melatonin—all of which can cause headaches.

Vitamin D and Headache Treatments

The Nutrients review also shows that taking vitamin D supplements could help reduce how common headaches are, especially for people with migraines. A trend has emerged showing that people with healthy vitamin D levels have a lower incidence of chronic headaches, Christine Gerbstadt, MD, registered dietitian and author of "Doctor's Detox Diet," told Health.

"The bonus in treating low serum vitamin D is improvement in the many other important health functions of the vitamin," said Dr. Gerbstadt. Restoring vitamin D to normal levels—through food or supplements—is already a good idea, Dr. Gerbstadt added, but the studies suggest that it may have the added benefit of relieving headaches.

Even though the United States isn't as far north as Finland, it can still be difficult for people living in the states to make enough vitamin D through sunlight exposure in the winter months. Luckily, the nutrient can also be found in eggs, fatty fish, and fortified foods like milk and cereal. What you eat those foods with matters, too: "Vitamin D is best absorbed when eaten with food containing fat—such as low-fat yogurt, olive oil dressing, or avocado," said Dr. Gerbstadt.

The benefits and potential risks of taking vitamin D supplements for people who already have normal levels are still unclear. Make sure to talk to your healthcare provider about these supplements. It can be dangerous to take more vitamin D than the daily recommended amount, which is 400 to 1,000 IU (international units) for most people.

However, even if you do have vitamin D deficiency, make sure to talk to your healthcare provider before trying supplements. If you do have a deficiency and your healthcare provider recommends taking supplements, you may need large replacement doses for about six weeks. Then, you may be prescribed a daily supplement of 50 to 2,000 IUs, said Dr. Gerbstadt. This supplement could hopefully reduce the frequency of your headaches and address other conditions caused by vitamin D deficiency.

Testing for Vitamin D Deficiency

Whether physicians should routinely test for vitamin D levels is controversial. As of April 2021, the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force does not recommend screening unless a patient has signs of a deficiency. But if you're concerned about your levels—especially through the winter months—ask your healthcare provider whether you should get tested. "Measuring your serum D is a simple, inexpensive blood test, which can be added to other lab testing with regular physical exams," said Dr. Gerbstadt.

A Quick Review

Vitamin D deficiency is linked to headaches because it can affect inflammation and how your neurons work. Taking supplements can reduce how often headaches occur. However, before trying vitamin D supplements, talk to your healthcare provider about whether and how you should take them.

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