Sugar and Migraines?

by James on 3 May 2012

Is there a connection between sugar and migraines, or as we like to call them, migraine attacks?  Could sugar be a hidden cause or trigger behind many migraine attacks today?

We should start by admitting that there is a difference of opinion about just how much sugar consumption impacts migraine symptoms.

Sugar and migraines

 Some say that it’s a major cause or trigger, but most would admit that there is a connection between blood sugar levels and at least some migraine attacks.

To understand the connection, we need to clear up some misunderstandings about sugar.  There are all kinds of terms floating around, like "unrefined sugar" (wow, that sounds natural!), or course there’s "natural sugars" (as opposed to supernatural sugars, I suppose) and "sugar from natural sources".

What sugar does…

When we talk about blood sugar, what we’re referring to is glucose.  All these different types of sugars (and we could talk about all the different kinds in foods) impact glucose levels in the blood, though to different extents.

So if you want to make it real simple, you can simply say that carbohydrates such as sugar will raise your blood sugar levels.

But here’s the rub – they change glucose levels to different degrees, and on different time tables.

For example, if you eat a raw carrot, it’s sweet (if it’s a good one).  It will raise your blood sugar levels.

If you eat a white bagel, it might not taste as sweet, but it will raise your blood sugar levels too.

However, there’s a difference.

Sugar packaging

 You could say it this way, to use a very rough analogy.  The sugars in the carrot are carefully packaged up, using a lot of scotch tape and wrapping paper.  The sugars in the bagel are hardly packaged up at all – in fact, you just pop open the lid and there you are.

So the when you eat the bagel, the package is very quickly opened and your blood sugar levels rise very quickly.

When you eat the carrot, your body unwraps the sugars slowly, and so your blood sugar levels don’t spike the same way – the glucose is gradually added to your blood stream over time.

Now there are other differences with different types of sugar, which can make the situation much more complex.

So could sugar cause migraines?

But we do know that the migraine brain does seem to have a special alarm that goes off when there are sudden changes.  This could do with hormones in your body, with temperature, with sudden exercise, environmental changes, any number of things.

So these things do not cause migraine, but they can trigger migraine attacks.

What is the relationship between sugar and migraines?

Let’s be clear.  This does not mean that eating too much sugar will cause migraine.  In other words, neither is sugar a direct cause, nor could anyone get migraine disease by eating too much sugar.

But if you’re a migrianeur, predisposed to migraine attacks, eating a lot of sugar – and here we’re talking about "poorly packages" sugars – could lead to more attacks, more symptoms.

How?

It could simply by that alarm that goes off when there are sudden changes in the body.  But for some people, it could be something more.

For example, some have noticed a "cumulative effect" – eating sugars over two or three days, for example, may trigger an attack.

Others have found that if they completely cut out refined sugars, they lessened or eliminated their migraine attacks after a time.

There could be some complex reasons for this relationship.  We do know that glucose, insulin, and nitric oxide are closely related.  We’ve talked about glucose, and if you know anyone with diabetes you know a little about insulin.  But people with diabetes are also likely to have impaired nitric oxide pathways.  Problems with these pathways could lead to problems with insulin, and with blood sugar levels.

A study in 2009 suggested that migraineurs are also more likely (than the general population) to have impaired nitric oxide pathways.

This could be at least one other clue into why migraineurs may be more sensitive to refined sugars (and refined flours and any poorly packaged carbohydrates) than most people.

Migraineurs should be cautious about blood sugar level spikes.  One way people often address this is by using the Glycemic Index.  Others have completely cut sugar out of their diets for several months.

What have you tried?  Any success stories?

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{ 12 comments… read them below or add one }

Heather May 7, 2012 at 5:29 pm

Then why is it that, during a migraine attack, the only thing I want to eat are refined carbs (sugar-heavy)?

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Peggy December 26, 2012 at 11:08 am

I also want sugary foods during a migraine. It may be that carb intake brought on the headache, then when the post-carb blood sugar drop happens, you want more sugar. Eating sugar makes you want more sugar. I have found that if I eat sugary foods, drinking two large glasses of water will prevent a migraine. But I am working on reducing my sugar intake.

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Evelyn May 30, 2012 at 6:08 am

Yes! About a year ago I realized that around each major holiday (you know, when you either eat the cookies while you make them or end up eating an entire apple pie that was left over from Thanksgiving dinner) I’d get a migraine. Then I started to realize that I’d feel headachey more days than not if I regularly ate anything containing sugar. I put the pieces together and have cut out almost all refined sugar from my diet. Instead I use real maple syrup, agave, or raw honey – all of which are much lower on the glycemic index and don’t spike your glucose level (with the inevitable nose dive a little while later) the way refined sugar does. I try to drink more water and if I do eat something with sugar, i try to dilute it (though this could be in my head) by drinking a lot of water. I also found that as much as I’d love to be a vegetarian, I need the protein from meat, so I try to have some meat (organic chicken), nuts, and greek yogurt every day. I stick with whole grain breads (though I don’t eat much) and try to eat everything in as natural a state as possible. I ‘graze’ throughout the day and try to keep my glucose level as steady as possible. I believe this helps a lot! I also noticed that I didn’t have a ‘holiday headache’ this past holiday season. Honestly, just knowing that too much sugar could trigger a headache makes me not want to eat it anyway, so I don’t miss it.

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Kelly May 31, 2012 at 1:09 pm

Evelyn, I absolutely agree. It’s the same with me. I have fewer migraines when I cut out the refined sugars and eat the way you mentioned. It was a hard lifestlye for me to get started on but very worth it. Any time I get away from it and start eating alot of sugary foods and candies I am in bed or on the couch for a wk or longer with migraines. It starts a cycle. It’s not worth the suffereing.

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Evelyn June 4, 2012 at 5:54 am

Hi Kelly! I also found this stuff called Lipigesic – you can buy it at the drug store (it costs about $20.00 for 8 doses, so go to the website and print down a coupon) – and its a combination of feverfew and ginger and you take it sublingually at the first sign of a head monster. I used it the other day and it worked!!! I won’t take prescription meds for anything unless I absolutely have to and actually found that the triptans (as well as other pain meds like fioricet) might work sometimes, but when they don’t – look out, cuz you’re in for a doozy. Something else you might want to investigate that I just happened to look up yesterday (i’m ALWAYS looking for a cure) is your copper level. Google this and check it out. I also take magnesium (as people who get head monsters are notoriously low in magnesium), riboflavin, fish oil, co Q10, B-complex, and I just started taking feverfew. They say vitamin C is a very effective pain relever when taken in high doses too. I know its a lot of pills to take, but its a more natural way to prevent those dreaded monsters from eating up my life. Pharmaceuticals are just so bad for you. Since I’ve been on this regimen, I get them much less often, they’re not as bad, and don’t last as long (used to be three days), and I’m so, so grateful and thankful. Doctors don’t know much about this so they just prescribe pain meds, which actually dehydrate you and make things worse. Speaking of which, you need to keep yourself hydrated and keep your plumbin’ hummin’, if you know what I mean, cuz constipation can cause them too. Good luck.

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Suzanne March 24, 2013 at 4:02 pm

Evelyn-your reality sounds much like mine-only you wised up sooner than I did. I LOVE sweets and probably always will…. but if it means no more headaches, then it’ll be worth it to give this up too. I’ve found some yummy cookie recipes that are very low in refined sugar/glycemic index foods, and those help tremendously when I get my cravings at night. For now, I’m just happy to have made it 2 weeks.
I’m curious how you’ve progressed since you first posted this?

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evelyn August 26, 2013 at 7:35 pm

Hi Suzanne!
Well, I fell off the wagon a while back and started eating sugary stuff again. Not a lot, but if there was cake in the room, it was in my mouth (and I’d eat someone else’s piece too). It didn’t really seem to bother me . . . UNTIL about three months ago. I was working part time on an organic farm, and this was bull work (I’m 58 and in really good shape, but there was a lot of lifting and carrying heavy stuff). Every day I started my day with oatmeal, pecans, and maple syrup (but I’d somehow worked my way up to at least 3 TBLS. in the oatmeal – I know, I’m ashamed) and then I’d have a bunch of mixed organic fruit (raspberries, nectarines, cherries, strawberries, watermelon, and pineapple) that I’d cut up ahead of time and store in mason jars. After about three weeks, I got a head monster. The pain was actually not as bad as in the past, but it still lasted three days. Three weeks later I got another one, and three weeks later another one! Now, this was NEVER my pattern – I was a once every 1-2 month gal. And along with that was I never felt safe (ya know, always feeling like anything could tip the scales). By the third one, I had started to really feel crappy, both physically and emotionally, cuz I’d always feel I was on the verge of one and that depressed me. I went and had my back adjusted and my doc told me all the heavy lifting could be causing it (problems with trapezius muscle), so I quit that job and stopped carrying a shoulder bag, but I still felt crappy. Then about a week later, I ate some RASPBERRIES (fresh, organic) and the next day felt like I was getting another one – this was only a week later! That was it – it was war! I started doing some frantic research and realized that fruit/sugar was the culprit (like, I guess I didn’t remember how good I’d done before). There are also substances in fruit and other foods called TANNINS that some people are sensitive to that can trigger head monsters. Then there’s TYRAMINE that’s in foods (actually, raspberries have tyramine AND tannin), and THAT can trigger one too. I’m already sensitive to NIGHTSHADES (tomatoes, potatoes, peppers, and eggplant). Nicotine is also a nightshade, which is probably why I abhor cigarette smoke cuz it’s a trigger. The thing is, these chemicals are in good food – fruits and veggies, so if you have a sensitivity to them, it probably won’t just be one fruit or veggie, but others too. Research these chemicals – you’ll be amazed. I also had a colonic the other day and was told I have a lot of sugar in my body. That’s all I needed to hear. I stopped ALL sugar (even my beloved maple syrup – at least for now) and am severely limiting my bread (one piece a day). I bought some Xylitol, which is a natural sweetener (google it). I stopped all fruit. I have acupuncture twice a week to work on my shoulder so that won’t be a trigger and am careful about picking stuff up and repetitive movement. I make my coffee (French Market Coffee – it’s coffee and chickory and has less caffeine) weaker so there’s even less caffeine (which has really never been an issue). Hot showers. Trigger point massage. Watch how you sleep – don’t lie on your belly with your head turned to one side. Sleep on one side. Exercise – I walk about 45 min. a day. I also take a heaping teaspoon of unrefined organic coconut oil a day and do oil pulling with it every day too. I’m trying to drink more water. Reasearch, research, research . . . I’m determined!

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Kelly June 15, 2012 at 3:16 pm

Evelyn I will check out the lipigesic and the copper level info online and see what I think. I am already taking Mag., B2, & fish oil. Have tried Fever Few in the past but it didn’t help. I have had migraines for most of my life but the past 2 yrs they have pretty much dominated my life, at times getting 20 a month. Not getting much help from the Drs. They just put me on Topamax and tell me it’s the best there is even though I am still having them! So I have done alot of research on my own trying to find natural remedies. One thing that helped me alot but that I slowly got out of the habit of unfortunately was EXERCISE! I am getting back into it now…it’s difficult when you feel so bad but it’s well worth it in the end. It has by far been the thing that has helped the most…that and getting rid of all the junk from my diet. I had gradually worked up to exercising 45-60 min. at least 5 days a wk and sometimes more. It was the best I had felt in so long I can’t even remember. Then I started getting lazy…BUT the headaches are just not worth it so I am getting busy again…it is slow going right now as I just have to do what I can do in between migraines and right now exercise can even bring them on…so it’s very frustrating..it will just take time and patience again but I’m going to keep going til I get thru it! :-)

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Natalie December 30, 2012 at 11:16 pm

Kelly, my husband had debilitating migraines for the last few years – July 2011 thru Jan 2012 he had them 20 to 25 days per month. He tried feverfew, fish oil, magnesium, B vitamins, topamax, nortriptylene, immitrex, etc. He finally went to a migraine specialist in Nashville last January. That made such a difference, seeing an actual specialist instead of a general neurologist. She has him on a couple of different preventative drugs – depakote and nortriptylene together, with relpax and naproxen as abortives. In the past eleven months, he has only had 2 days of migraines that didn’t respond to meds. I don’t know if this is any help for you, but seeing a neurologist who specializes in migraines really changed his life. I wish you the best of luck!

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Dee August 3, 2012 at 9:01 am

Kelly – have you ever tried propranolol for migraine prevention? I took Topamax for over a year, and it reduced the severity of my headaches, but I had a lot of eye pain while on it (and it affected my concentration/understanding, etc.). Now with propranolol, and following a gluten-free diet low in refined sugar, I’ve just gone 4 weeks without a migraine!! Compared to 10-15 a month. Good luck.

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Suzanne March 24, 2013 at 3:57 pm

Dee-are you still gluten-free? and more importantly, how are the headaches???

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Suzanne March 24, 2013 at 3:55 pm

I have been ‘off’ sugar for 2 weeks now-basically all the yummies I crave (ice cream, girl scout cookies, choc cake, lemon bars, etc). I’m taking saffron supplements to help with the cravings. Fingers crossed, but NO headaches yet! I’m feeling really encouraged and am trying to gather as much ammunition as I can on this to stay motivated. However sad it may be, this may be yet ANOTHER trigger. I’ve already given up all alcohol (cut out 90% of my headaches here alone), and caffeine.

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