Pop, Soda, Soft Drinks – the Headache Connection

So – does drinking soft drinks cause headaches?

Well – cause?  Probably not.  Trigger?  Maybe.  Make things worse long term?  Possibly.

The relationship between pop/soda/soft drinks and headache or migraine is complex.  There’s a lot of information online, but unfortunately a lot is incomplete, overblown, or simply incorrect.  More and better studies need to be done.

Soft drinks - a real headache?

When people talk about the headache connection it usually is a conversation about caffeine.  But there are a number of concerns even in non-caffeinated beverages.

We need to be clear that a moderate amount of fizzy drink isn’t going to cause problems (at least, not immediate, visible problems) for many people.  But here are a few things to think about if you’re wondering if your soft drinks are making your headaches worse…

  • Caffeine:  Yes, caffeine is a factor.  The best advice when it comes to caffeine seems to be – keep your caffeine intake low, and constant.  Don’t have a litre of cola one day, none the next, and a can the next.  For more on caffeine, particularly in common beverages, check out A Coffee Headache? Caffeine and Headaches
  • Sugar:  It’s not unusual for a soft drink to contain the equivalent of 1/4 cup of sugar.  That’s a lot of sugar, and it won’t break down slowly.  That means sugar spikes.  That alone could trigger an attack.  There could also be a cumulative effect (too much sugar over and over for several days).  There’s also a more complex relationship with glucose, insulin, and nitric oxide.  The longer term issues could include things like diabetes and obesity, both closely related to migraine.  More about sugar and migraine here.
  • Artificial sweeteners:  Aspartame, sucralose (Splenda), acesulfame potassium, saccharin, cyclamates – these are examples of artificial sweeteners that you may find in your soft drink.  Good evidence suggests that these “diet” drinks may lead to the same or more weight gain than sugar drinks.  But that’s only the beginning.  Each of these chemical formulations has its own problems, including migraine attacks and joint pain.  Some people find an obvious, direct relationship (drink diet soda = headache).  Others find that the effect over time leads to more or more severe headache symptoms.
  • Phosphoric Acid:  There are increasing concerns about phosphoric acid because it upsets the balance of calcium in the body.  It may upset magnesium balance, which is tends to be a major factor in migraine in particular.
  • Acidity:  The acidity in your soft drink comes mostly from the phosphoric acid and carbonation.  Because headache conditions are often related to issues in the gut, the added acidity from many soft drinks may trigger certain symptoms, in the short term or in the long term.  Although there is great debate over how much of a problem acidity is in the general population, it does seem to irritate some conditions.
  • Artificial colours:  Again, these chemicals will vary from drink to drink, and the effects from person to person.  But some people believe that this often-overlooked set of ingredients may be one of the biggest problems for people with headache conditions.  Colour additives are regularly pulled from the market because of health concerns – is the one in your soda the next to go?
  • Sodium:  The amount of sodium in soft drinks is low enough that it should not cause any problems on its own.  However, large amounts of sodium in your diet may trigger some headache conditions.

Each of these items deserves an article of its own.  Meanwhile, don’t let anyone tell you that avoiding caffeine or sugar is enough.  It may be – for some people.  But for others, the extra hidden ingredients could be a real pain.

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