Sugar is an important source of energy for your body — but it can also be a primary cause of all kinds of health problems, including headaches.
Foods with added sugar can spike your blood glucose. This glucose spike can trigger reactions in your brain that have it working overtime to circulate hormones, like insulin, and bring down glucose levels.
The dramatic shift in hormones and your brain’s tendency to feel the effects of sugar first (as it runs the whole show) can lead to painful headaches. But it’s not only too much sugar that can cause headaches — super low glucose levels can also trigger them.
Sugar headaches are fairly easy to prevent (and you won’t have to give up candy forever to do it).
Yes. But first of all, when we say “sugar,” we’re talking about added sugar. Added sugar is just what it sounds like: It’s sugar that manufacturers add to foods. But why does sweetness cause such pain?
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, the lack of fiber, protein, or other nutrients means that sugar hits your bloodstream, causes a spike (or dip) in glucose, and might trigger headaches.
Radical dips and spikes in blood sugar are the main cause of sugar headaches. Your body runs on sugar — it’s not evil at all. You need a steady supply of glucose for energy. And your brain needs glucose to make sure the body can function. As a result, your brain is usually the first to feel the effects of a sudden shift in glucose levels.
If your blood sugar rises rapidly, for example, the body has to circulate 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.
Sugar headaches fall into two categories: Headaches after eating sugar, and low blood sugar headaches. Doctors consider sugar headaches to be a secondary headache.
Primary headaches, like migraine, happen when muscles, nerves, and cells around the brain send pain signals. Sugar headaches are mostly considered secondary headaches. Secondary headaches happen because of an indirect cause like blood sugar fluctuations, fever, stress, or high blood pressure.
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 sugary eating habits, hyperglycemic headaches typically come on gradually and get worse over time.
The pain can range from mildly annoying to quite severe. 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.
There’s no confirmed relationship between sugar and migraine.
A small research review of 25 studies, for example, found no significant link between chocolate and migraine, discouraging doctors from advising patients not to eat it. And most chocolate, unsurprisingly, contains a bunch of sugar.
So, can sugar cause migraine? Possibly. The causes of migraine are still pretty mysterious, and everyone who experiences them has different triggers. A small study found that people who experience migraine tend to be insulin resistant. That means the body has a harder time regulating blood sugar.
This study doesn’t imply that sugar causes migraine. But if people with migraine are more likely to have unstable blood sugar, it’s possible that added sugars in the diet could be more likely to disrupt sugar levels and link to bodily stress. This might result in a migraine attack.
But if you live with migraine, try and take notice of any patterns. If you find you have migraine attacks shortly after eating or when you go a long time between meals, sugar might be part of the problem.
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. These 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. These appear more swiftly and often appear alongside other fun symptoms like 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 symptom of diabetes. (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 symptom 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).
Your sugar headaches are probably just the result of a day of eating. If you keep an eye on your symptoms and dietary patterns, you should be able to kick those headaches to the curb.
Thankfully, you can find most treatments for sugar headaches in your home or at 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 return your glucose 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. Magnesium can cause loose stools, so start with a small dose to avoid an unpleasant evacuation situation. And, as with any supplement, consult your doc before making any major nutritional changes.
- Nap. If your headache is really severe, a nap might be out of the question. But if it’s mild, a short snooze can help. A lack of sleep makes everything worse, including the regulation of blood glucose. Some Zzz’s might be all it takes to help 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), you could relieve some head pain. This doesn’t work for everyone, but it’s free and certainly worth a try.
- Take 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 pain reliever, like an acetaminophen or ibuprofen, then it might be best to talk with a doctor to see if the sugar headache is something more serious.
- Check your blood sugar/take your insulin. If you live 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.
There’s not really a prescription for sugar headaches. But if you get them every week or more, it’s best to seek consultation with 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.
Avoid or reduce added sugar intake
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.
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 Coca-Cola, an ice cream cone — it’s all fine as long as it’s part of a balanced diet and paired with regular exercise.
We’ve got the full rundown on foods that can help lower your blood sugar here.
Limit your simple carb intake
After you’ve limited added sugars, it’s also good to limit simple carbohydrates.
Not all carbs are bad! You can have restaurant breadsticks — really — but it’s best to avoid 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 glucose levels 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. If you’re using that sugar as movement fuel, it hangs around in your bloodstream less, sparing you from headaches.
Fluctuations in your blood sugar cause sugar headaches. If it gets too high, it causes stress and a flurry of hormones that lead to headaches. Too little sugar starves your brain of energy and triggers head pain.
Usually, sugar headaches are no big deal. But if you get them often, call the doctor to be sure they aren’t a symptom of something more serious.
For immediate relief, you can drink water, try magnesium, or take an acetaminophen or ibuprofen.
Overall, it’s better to avoid blood sugar dips and spikes, which you can manage with simple lifestyle changes. Try to be mindful of added sugars, eat whole grains instead of refined carbs, and add a little activity to your life.
In the meantime, you can take a pain reliever, curl up for a nap, and maybe don’t down so many Oreos in one sitting.