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The Vitamin Deficiency That Can Cause Migraines

Migraine Headache

Story at-a-glance -

  • Migraines affect approximately 38 million people in the U.S. and 1 billion people worldwide each year
  • Research has linked migraines to deficiencies in vitamin D, riboflavin, CoQ10 and magnesium
  • Before reaching for a supplement, increase the amount of foods rich in these nutrients in your diet and consider getting sensible sun exposure to optimize your vitamin D

By Dr. Mercola

Migraines strike approximately 38 million men, women and children each year in the U.S.1 and 1 billion people worldwide.2 Nearly 25 percent of households in the U.S. have at least one person who suffers from migraine headaches.

However, while migraines are the third most prevalent illness in the world,3 researchers are still discovering how and why they occur. The majority of people suffering from migraines are between 35 and 55.4

As these are some of your most productive work years, migraines may have a significant financial impact on your family, employer and your community. The World Health Organization (WHO) ranks migraines as the 19th most common reason for disability worldwide.5

Migraines are responsible for at least $20 billion each year in medical costs and lost work productivity.6 Lost productivity time increases more rapidly in those who suffer from chronic migraines rather than episodic migraines.7

Migraines Are Not Just Bad Headaches

Migraine symptoms include a severe and debilitating headache, but the condition is far more serious than a bad headache. Migraines are a neurological disorder, characterized by recurring headaches and considered to be the most common disorder of the nervous system.8

They are more common in women than men because of hormonal influences,9 and are characterized by recurring attacks of moderate to severe intensity, many times occurring only on one side of your head. These headaches may last from a couple of hours to up to three days and are often aggravated by physical activity.

Other symptoms that may accompany a migraine headache include nausea, visual disturbances, dizziness, numbness in your extremities or face, and extreme sensitivity to light, sound, smell and touch.10

Personal healthcare costs may be up to 70 percent higher for a family with one person suffering from migraine headaches. There are different types of migraine headaches, and sometimes one person may experience various symptoms from one headache to the next.11,12





Basilar Type





With Aura

Without Aura

Status Migrainous 




Is There a Link to Vitamin Deficiency?

Migraines are named for the type of symptoms you experience. Researchers at the Cincinnati Children's Hospital Medical Center recently published their findings after setting out to uncover links between migraines and vitamin deficiencies.

Past research demonstrated an association between adults and children with migraine disorders and vitamin deficiencies. However, there have been other studies that discounted this connection.13

The team, led by Dr. Suzanne Hagler, a headache medicine fellow in the division of neurology at Cincinnati Children's Hospital, evaluated over 7,400 participants.

Researchers took baseline levels of riboflavin, vitamin D, folate and coenzyme Q10 (CoQ10). A high percentage of the children, teens and young adults had mild CoQ10, vitamin D and riboflavin deficiencies.14

Interestingly, they found young women and girls were more likely to experience a CoQ10 deficiency and boys were more likely to suffer from vitamin D deficiency.15 

Additionally, they discovered an association in women between migraines and cardiovascular disease and mortality. Participants suffering from chronic migraines at regular intervals had an increased risk of CoQ10 and riboflavin deficiency, compared to those with episodic migraines occurring at infrequent intervals.

Many of the patients in this study were also prescribed preventative therapy and too few were given just supplements for the researchers to determine if supplementation alone was enough to prevent migraines.16

The researchers found that an alarming 16 to 51 percent of participants had below average levels of vitamins depending on the vitamin tested.17

These deficiencies are based on levels determined by the National Academy of Sciences Dietary Reference Intakes (DRIs).18 These national levels are set to prevent disease and not necessarily to support health. This means the percentage of participants deficient in nutrients may have actually been higher.

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Another Important Vitamin to Migraine Sufferers

This was not the first study to associate mineral and vitamin deficiencies with migraine headaches.

In a paper published in 2012, researchers acknowledged the integral relationship between magnesium and multiple bodily processes.19 Unfortunately, less than 2 percent of magnesium is measurable. The remainder is stored in your bone and located inside your cells.

A lack of magnesium may promote a number of different illnesses, including depression, platelet aggression, serotonin receptor function and influence production and use of neurotransmitters.20

Researchers theorize that migraine sufferers may develop magnesium deficiency from a variety of reasons, including poor absorption, renal wasting, increased excretion due to stress or low nutritional intake.

No matter what the reason, past research has demonstrated migraine sufferers are more likely to suffer from magnesium deficiency.

However, as testing for magnesium deficiency is not easily accomplished and as magnesium administration is widely available and very safe, they recommend that empiric treatment with at least an oral supplement is justified in all migraine sufferers.21

An increasing body of research links chronic medication use to liver and kidney damage. Treatment and prevention of illnesses must begin with nutritional strategies.

The Association of Migraine Disorders recommends trying magnesium supplementation for at least three months to experience results. They also discuss supplementation with riboflavin and CoQ10.22

Is This the Full Story?

In this 18-minute video, "America's Pharmacist," Suzy Cohen speaks to the nutritional aspect of migraine headaches. Hagler, the study's lead author, was quoted in the Huffington Post, saying:23

"We think that there is a likelihood that patients with migraines are more likely to be deficient in these vitamins than the general population."

There have been other studies supporting the finding that migraine sufferers are more likely to be deficient in riboflavin, CoQ10 and vitamin D. Finding deficiencies in riboflavin and CoQ10 and positive results from supplementation lends support to the theory that migraines are a mitochondrial disorder.24

Other research using vitamin D supplementation demonstrated a reduction in C-reactive protein (CRP) and a statistically significant reduction in headache frequency.25 However, there are other studies which found no reliable scientific support for an association between migraines and vitamin D deficiency.26

Hagler points out that many of the studies that did not find significant improvement with vitamin supplementation were done with smaller populations, and researchers didn't always determine if the participants were deficient in the vitamin before supplementation began.27 In a press release, Hagler said:28

"Further studies are needed to elucidate whether vitamin supplementation is effective in migraine patients in general, and whether patients with mild deficiency are more likely to benefit from supplementation."

Turn Down the Blue Light

If you suffer from migraines, you know they are exacerbated by exposure to light. Many people become photosensitive during a migraine attack and are forced to lie down in a dark room to manage the pain. A study from Harvard Medical School found even blind migraine sufferers who still had melanopsin receptors were sensitive to light.29

Within full spectrum light is a blue wavelength. Many digital devices and LED light sources emit mostly blue light. Research has found that this light increases your migraine pain and activates your trigeminal nerve, associated with the pain of migraines.30

A recent study published in the journal Brain from Harvard Medical School, found individuals suffering from migraine pain would experience a reduction in pain and photosensitivity when exposed to pure green light.31 In this study, researchers exposed people during a migraine to bright blue, green, amber and red lights.

Each of the participants were asked to report their reactions to the bright lights. Researchers found that all the bright lights increased the participant's pain, except the green light. In fact, 20 percent reported that their pain reduced when exposed to bright green light.

At this time there are no lightbulbs or sunglasses that increase your exposure to pure wavelength green light that are cost effective. However, there are sunglasses that will block blue light linked to increasing your migraine pain. You may also consider eliminating your exposure to your digital devices while you're in the middle of a migraine.

Vitamin-Rich Diet and Lifestyle First

Although you may be considering supplements, it is important you receive as many vitamins from your diet as possible before supplementation. Your body can metabolize and absorb vitamins from your diet more effectively and efficiently than from supplements. You are also more likely to absorb the vitamins you need in the form your body can use.

In addition to adding these foods to your daily diet, it's important you look for non-genetically modified (non-GMO), organic and pastured products to reduce your exposure to toxins and additional stressors.

Foods Rich in Magnesium32

Dark leafy greens

Nuts and seeds

Wild Alaskan salmon



Yogurt made from organic and/or grass-fed milk with no added sugars

Foods Rich in Riboflavin33


Beet greens


Crimini mushrooms

Pastured eggs



Foods Rich in CoQ1034

Grass-fed beef


Organic pastured chicken

Rainbow trout

Sesame seeds



How to Optimize Your Vitamin D

Safe sun exposure is the best way to get all the vitamin D your body requires. Read more about how in my previous article, "Little Sunshine Mistakes That Can Give You Cancer Instead of Vitamin D."

+ Sources and References