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