Why do carbohydrates give me headaches?

It’s common for people to notice a headache after eating certain foods, and foods high in sugar or refined carbohydrates, such as chocolate cake or pasta, are among the usual suspects.

This type of food triggers they’re often flagged by people with migraines, said Peter Goadsby, a professor of neurology at King’s College London and the University of California, Los Angeles.

“If a person is asking this question, there’s a good chance they have a migraine,” he said, especially if certain foods seem to be repeated triggers.


Rachel Gohmann, at home with the many medications prescribed to help control her “chronic migraine headaches”. AP photo_ Janet Hostetter.

Unlike common tension headaches, which most people get from time to time, migraines — estimated to affect 18 percent of women and 6 percent of men each year in the United States) are much more debilitating, explained Rashmi Halker Singh, associate professor of neurology and specialist in headache medicine at the Mayo Clinic in Scottsdale, Arizona.

In an analysis of studies published in 2018, researchers concluded that nearly 30 percent of patients indicated that certain foods or eating habits they gave them headaches; however, recent research by Goadsby et al. suggests that it’s most likely not food that causes migraines, but migraines that cause people to eat certain foods.

In the initial phase of a migraine attack (the premonitory phase or prodromewhich can start a few hours to a few days before the headache phase) people may experience symptoms such as fatigue, brain fog, mood swings, sensitivity to light, muscle stiffness, yawning, and increased urinationGoadsby explained.

During this time, brain MRIs have shown that the hypothalamus is activateda region of the brain that regulates hunger, which makes people crave certain foods.

“It’s pretty clear that this area changes activity before the pain starts,” Goadsby said. Some people want salty or savory snacks, while others crave sweets and chocolate.

So after your craving is satisfied and the headache phase of a migraine begins, it’s natural for people to wonder if something they ate contributed to the pain, Halker Singh said.

“Sometimes people tell me, ‘I ate some chocolate and soon after my migraine attack started,'” leading them to assume that the chocolate itself triggered the headache.

However, it could also happen that “the craving for chocolate was actually the start of the attack migraine,” said Halker Singh.

Chocolate is among the foods most cited as triggers for migraines, but in a 2020 analysis of studies published in the scientific journal Nutrientsthe researchers concluded that there was not enough evidence to claim that chocolate can cause migraines.

In the scenario above, Goadsby said, the person likely would have had a headache whether or not they ate the chocolate.

So, if you crave a treat during the early stages of a headache, he said, you can enjoy it.

If you tend to have food cravings before your migraines, it’s still a good idea to make a note of them, along with other prodromal phase symptoms, so you can prepare for what’s to come.

You could take advantage of that moment to look for your migraine medication and deciding to go to bed earlysaid.

Margaret Slavin, associate professor of nutrition and food studies at George Mason University, said foods high in sugar or refined carbohydrates can also cause a spike in blood glucose, leading to “a exaggerated insulin response”.

Insulin helps normalize blood sugar, but too much insulin can overshoot the target and cause blood sugar to drop.

This is called reactive hypoglycemia, and headache is one of its symptoms, along with feelings of weakness, tremor, tiredness, and lightheadedness.

For migraine sufferers, it’s also possible that regularly eating a diet high in refined sugars and processed carbohydrates can increase levels of inflammation in your body and make you more susceptible to attacks, Slavin said.

There is some limited research to support this idea and it might be worth trying to cut back on added sugar and consume instead anti-inflammatory foods such as fruits, vegetables, nuts, beans, whole grains, and fish.

Skipping meals and fasting are also migraine triggers, so Halker Singh advises his patients to eat regularly and nutritiously, along with getting enough sleep, exercising regularly and managing stress.

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