Experts Explain Why You Get a Headache After Eating Carbs and Sugar


Alice Callahan

CNA/The New York Times – It’s common for people to notice a headache after eating certain foods, and foods high in sugar or refined carbohydrates, such as a slice of chocolate cake or a bowl of pasta, are among usual suspects. Such food triggers are often reported by migraine sufferers, said Dr. Peter Goadsby, professor of neurology at King’s College London and the University of California, Los Angeles. “The person asking that question, pounds to pennies, has migraine,” he said, particularly if certain foods seem to be repeated triggers and their headaches are bothersome enough to go away. interrogate.

Unlike the more common tension headaches that most people experience from time to time, migraines — which affect about 18 percent of women and 6 percent of men each year in the United States — are much more debilitating, said Dr. Rashmi Halker Singh, associate professor of neurology and specialist in headache medicine at the Mayo Clinic in Scottsdale, Arizona. Migraine sufferers have recurrent episodes of moderate or severe headache, often accompanied by symptoms such as nausea or sensitivity to light, which can interfere with normal functioning. activities, said Dr. Halker Singh. And many people don’t realize their headaches are actually migraines, she added.

In a review of studies published in 2018, researchers concluded that almost 30% of patients said that certain foods or eating habits triggered their headaches.

But recent research by Dr. Goadsby and others suggests that it’s probably not the foods that cause migraines, but rather the migraines that cause people to eat certain foods. And the evidence for this counterintuitive explanation may lie in the brain.

During the initial phase of a migraine attack – called the premonitory or prodrome phase, which can begin hours to days before the headache phase occurs – people may experience symptoms such as fatigue, foggy brain, mood changes, sensitivity to light, muscle stiffness, yawning and increased urination, Dr. Goadsby said.

Meanwhile, he added, brain imaging studies have shown that the hypothalamus, a region of the brain that regulates hunger, is activated, causing people to want – and eat – certain foods. . “It’s pretty clear that this area changes activity before the pain starts,” he said. What a person is looking for in response is often high in carbohydrates and very palatable, although the exact food varies from person to person.

Some people crave salty or salty snacks, while others crave sweets and chocolate, Dr Goadsby said.

Then, after the craving is satisfied and the headache phase of migraine begins, it’s natural for people to wonder if something they ate contributed to the pain, Dr. Halker Singh said. “Sometimes people come to me and say, ‘I drank chocolate, and soon after my migraine attack started,'” leading them to guess that the chocolate itself triggered the headache . But what could also have happened, she says, “maybe the chocolate craving was actually the start of the migraine.”

Chocolate is one of the most reported food triggers for migraines, but in a review of studies published in the journal Nutrients in 2020, researchers concluded that there was not enough evidence to say that the chocolate can cause migraines. In the above scenario, Dr. Goadsby said, the person would likely have had a headache whether they ate chocolate or not. So if you’re craving a treat during the early stages of a headache, he says, it’s fine to take advantage of it.

If you often experience food cravings before migraines, it’s always a good idea to take note of these and other symptoms of the prodromal phase, so you can prepare for what’s to come. You could use this time to find your migraine medication and opt for an early bedtime.

Rachel J. Bradford