Created for Greatist by the experts at Healthline. Read more
Sugar is delicious. Sadly, it’s also a primary cause of all kinds of bodily troubles — including headaches.
Though there are lots of ways to get a headache, sugar headaches are no fun. Thankfully, they’re fairly easy to prevent (and you won’t have to give up candy forever to do it).
Shakespeare probably pondered this as he was writing “Romeo and Juliet.” And just as he was perplexed by the joyous agony of true love, we wanna know why sugar is such a wiley b*tch sometimes.
First of all, when we say “sugar” — as in, “Good god, this sugar headache makes me regret my choice to eat a sleeve of Oreos in one sitting” — we’re talking about added sugar. Added sugar is just what it sounds like, it’s sugar that’s added to foods.
Why does this matter? Well, many foods have naturally occurring sugars, like fruits and dairy. When you eat a piece of fruit or some plain Greek yogurt, you’re getting some sugar, but the fiber or protein in the food helps balance the effects of the glucose.
When you eat something with lots of added sugar (i.e., fiendishly tempting Oreos), the lack of fiber, protein, or other good stuff with nutritional value means the sugar hits your bloodstream, causes a spike (or dip) in glucose, also known as blood sugar, and off you go to headache town.
Radical dips and spikes in blood sugar are the main cause of sugar headaches. Your body actually runs, not on Dunkin’, but on sugar (among other things).
We need a steady supply of glucose for energy and our brains in particular need glucose to make sure the body can function. When there’s a sudden change in glucose levels, our brains are the first to feel the effects.
If your blood sugar rises rapidly, for example, the body has to send out a bunch of insulin to get the numbers down. This increase in insulin also creates hormonal changes in the body and this whole stressful upheaval will literally and figuratively give you a headache.
Primary headaches, like migraines, happen when things directly around the brain (muscles, nerves, cells) send pain signals.
For the most part, sugar headaches are considered secondary headaches. Secondary headaches happen because of an indirect cause like fever, stress, high blood pressure, or in this case, blood sugar fluctuations.
So can sugar cause a migraine? Possibly. Sadly, migraines are still pretty mysterious and everyone who experiences them has different triggers.
More research is needed, but one study found sugar to be a very triggering substance. Additionally, patients who abstained from the sweet stuff had fewer migraine episodes.
Another study determined that people who experience migraines tend to be insulin resistant. That means the body has a harder time regulating blood sugar (the body literally resists the insulin).
That study doesn’t imply that sugar causes migraines, but if people with migraines are more likely to have unstable blood sugar, it’s possible that added sugars in the diet will cause bodily stress, which could trigger a migraine.
Again, there’s no direct link between sugar and migraines. But if you suffer from migraines, notice if there are any patterns. If you find you have a symptom shortly after eating or when you go a long time between meals, sugar might be part of the problem.
Sugar makes your head hurt. The End. Please check out Greatist.com for more articles you might be interested in.
Okay, so it’s *slightly* more complicated than that. Sugar headaches can be broken down into two categories:
1. Too much sugar
When you have too much sugar in your blood, you become hyperglycemic. To compensate, your brain cranks up insulin to try to get everything under control. As a result of your sugary eating habits, hyperglycemic headaches typically come on gradually and get worse over time.
The pain can range from mildly annoying to “put me in the darkest, quietest room you can find.” On the plus side, once you balance out your blood sugar, the headache will usually go away.
2. Not enough sugar
On the other hand, neglecting sugar can lead to hypoglycemia, i.e., when your brain doesn’t get enough glucose to properly function. When sugar gets too low, you might get a headache, feel dizzy, or even pass out.
If you skip meals, fast, or just wait too long to eat, your blood sugar can dip down to dangerous levels. Or, you could have reactive hypoglycemia, where your blood sugar spikes and then drops right after a meal.
Eating a bunch of added sugars or a very carby meal on an empty stomach can increase your chances of reactive hypoglycemia.
For low blood sugar headaches, make sure you eat something right away. Have some juice or even a small piece of candy. This should ease the headache and help your blood sugar return to normal.
For the most part, sugar headaches feel like normal headaches. There are a few clues, however, that can help you identify if it’s a sugar headache or not.
- Hyperglycemia headaches, for example, don’t show up right away. Usually, people hang out with high blood sugar for a few days before the body starts putting out pain signals.
- Hypoglycemia headaches appear more swiftly and are often accompanied by other fun symptoms, such as dizziness, fatigue, and nausea.
If you have recurring sugar headaches, you may want to schedule a doctor’s appointment. Consistently irregular blood sugar levels could be a sign of diabetes, which can be fatal if untreated. (And don’t panic if you do get a diagnosis — diabetes is a totally manageable condition.)
In very rare cases, consistent sugar headaches are a sign of ketoacidosis, a complication most commonly associated with type 1 diabetes. In a nutshell ketoacidosis occurs when someone has high blood sugar and high ketone levels at the same time (you can get the full scoop here).
Odds are your sugar headaches are just the result of an off day of eating. If you keep an eye on your symptoms and eating habits, you should be able to kick those headaches to the curb.
Thankfully, most treatments for sugar headaches can be found in your home or the local drugstore. Here are some of the most helpful ways to reduce the pain:
- Drink water. Hydration helps regulate your blood sugar. Getting extra H2O will help your glucose get back to normal, which should help your head.
- Try a magnesium supplement. Magnesium not only helps calm down blood sugar spikes, it’s also a natural headache remedy. A daily dose can also help prevent headaches. On the
browndown side, magnesium can cause loose stools, so start with a small dose to avoid an unpleasant evacuation situation. And of course, as with any supplement, consult your doc before making any major nutritional changes.
- Go nap nap. If your headache is really severe, a nap might be out of the question. But if it’s mild, a tiny snooze can help. Lack of sleep makes everything worse, including the regulation of blood glucose. A couple of Zzz’s might be all it takes to let your body stabilize and take the pain away.
- Apply some pressure. Some people experience great pain relief by triggering acupressure points on the body. By gently squeezing or massaging the Hegu point (the space between your thumb and forefinger), could relieve some head pain. This doesn’t work for everyone, but it’s free and certainly worth a try.
- Pop an ibuprofen or acetaminophen. This drugstore classic works on almost any kind of headache. Also, if your headache persists or gets worse after taking a Tylenol or Aleve, then it might be best to go to a doctor to see if the sugar headache is something more serious.
- Check your blood sugar/take your insulin. If you’re a person with diabetes, you should check your blood sugar as soon as a sugar headache hits. You may need to take or adjust your dose of insulin.
Ultimately, there’s really no prescription for sugar headaches, but if you get them every week or more, definitely see a doctor. They’ll be able to find out if there’s an underlying condition that’s causing your sore head.
The best offense is a good defense. Meaning, if your blood sugar doesn’t spike or dip in the first place, you won’t get a headache.
The first thing to do is avoid added sugar. That doesn’t mean you have to kiss all candy goodbye, but be mindful of how much added sugar you eat each day.
The Cleveland Clinic found that most adults eat 22 teaspoons of sugar per day, when really we should stick to 9 teaspoons daily for men and 6 for women! That’s a little less than one can of Coke per day.
When you have a craving for sweets, try to have a piece of fruit instead. Or have a treat, but keep it small. A can of coke, an ice cream cone, it’s all fine as long as it’s part of a balanced diet and paired with healthy lifestyle habits.
After you’ve limited added sugars, it’s also good to limit simple carbohydrates. Again, not all carbs are bad! You can have Olive Garden breadsticks — really! Just don’t indulge in the “never-ending” portion size.
Simple, or refined, carbohydrates break down into glucose in your body very quickly, which makes them fodder for blood sugar spikes and drops.
Regular exercise is another great way to keep your blood sugar level. It helps reduce stress (oh yeah, reducing stress also helps) and keeps your numbers down. Whether you want to take regular walks, go on a bike ride, or try a pole dancing class, it’ll all help your sugar headaches in the long run.