Sugar plays an important role in your body’s chemistry. In fact, some people may get headaches when they consume too much or too little sugar.
A lot of things can cause headaches, including stress, caffeine, high blood pressure, drugs and alcohol, dehydration, poor posture, poor sleep quality, artificial sweeteners, and even sugar.
Chiropractic care is an important part of a balanced treatment plan for sugar headaches, in conjunction with dietary changes and lifestyle adjustments.
Why does sugar cause headaches?
Low or high blood sugar may alter the balance of your hormones (such as insulin, epinephrine, cortisol, etc.) in a way that contracts blood vessels in the brain, causing headache pain.
- Hypoglycemia is when you have low blood sugar levels (below 70 mg/dL). Especially in individuals with diabetes, hypoglycemia can cause headache or migraine attacks through multiple means, primarily hormone dysregulation. Eating less sugar could also result in sugar withdrawal, which may cause lightheadedness, fatigue, anxiety, and head pain.
- Hyperglycemia is when your blood glucose levels are too high (above 125 mg/dL while fasting, above 180 mg/dL after eating), indicating your body isn’t making enough insulin to process and regulate blood sugar. Though less understood, blood sugar spikes seem to be an independent trigger for headache pain.
What do sugar headaches feel like? Sugar headaches feel like dull, throbbing pain on the side of the head, at your temples.
Who is at risk for sugar headaches?
The following conditions increase your risk for sugar headaches:
- Diabetes (both type 1 diabetes and type 2 diabetes)
- Eating disorders
- Alcohol consumption
- Hormone fluctuations
- Migraine headaches
- Cancer of the pancreas
- Certain medications (primarily prescription insulin; in rare cases SGLT2 inhibitors, beta-blockers, cibenzoline, quinidine, indomethacin, pentamidine, and gatifloxacin)
- Sugar addiction
Do sugar headaches mean diabetes? If you get sugar headaches, your risk of developing type 2 diabetes is higher. However, other conditions may lead to sugar headaches, like eating disorders, hormonal changes, certain medications, and cancer.
Recognizing a Sugar Headache
How do I know if I’m getting a sugar headache? If you get a headache within 2 hours after eating, or when you’re feeling hungry, your headache may be caused by diet. If you’re able to measure your blood glucose levels, you can get a better picture of whether sugar is the primary cause.
Diagnosing Sugar Headaches
Your doctor may need to diagnose your condition in order to adjust your medication or recommend dietary and lifestyle changes.
Discuss the frequency of your headaches in correlation to your eating schedule and blood sugar levels. Let them know any other symptoms that occurred around the time of the headaches.
Tell your healthcare provider about your:
- Current medications
- Exercise regimen
- Alcohol consumption
- Tobacco habits
Treating Sugar Headaches
Treatment for sugar headaches depends on the root cause. If you have a sugar headache, reducing your sugar intake should ease your head pain. If you haven’t had enough sugar, consume more sugar (like a fruit juice or granola bar) to reduce headache pain.
How do I get rid of a sugar headache? You get rid of a sugar headache by getting your blood glucose levels back to normal — whether by eating a snack to increase blood sugar or fasting to decrease the levels.
Treating Sugar Headache with the 15-15 Rule
The American Diabetes Association (ADA) recommends you check your blood sugar every 15 minutes when you’re facing this problem. If your blood sugar levels remain below 70 mg/dL after eating 15 grams of carbohydrates, eat another sugary food, like a small amount of non-diet soda or chocolate.
Check every 15 minutes. If your blood sugar isn’t over 70 mg/dL, eat another snack with at least 15 grams of carbs. Record every time you measure low blood sugar, so you can tell your doctor next time you visit.
Keep the sugary snacks small during these intervals. Eating a lot at once can lead to a blood glucose spike, and a sugar crash later on.
This ADA recommendation is called the 15-15 rule. Children may need fewer carbohydrates, so discuss with your doctor.
How to Prevent Sugar Headaches
Don’t eat too much sugar. Sugar tolerance thresholds are different for every person. Discuss with your doctor or dietitian how frequent your meals should be, and what to include in your diet.
Don’t eat too little sugar. Make sure you’re not letting your blood sugar levels drop too low, which leads to multiple symptoms, including head pain. You may need to talk to your doctor or dietitian about adjusting your sugar consumption.
What is the best way to avoid sugar headaches? Here are the best ways to prevent sugar headaches:
- Figure out the right range of sugar to consume in a day; talk with your doctor if you need guidance.
- Eat simple carbohydrates instead of complex carbs.
- Avoid processed sugar and opt for whole grains and raw sugar.
- Drink enough water.
- Reduce daily stress.
- Exercise regularly.
- Get plenty of quality sleep.
- Don’t skip meals.
- Eat at regular intervals.
- Limit extra snack time.
- Reduce caffeine intake.
- Avoid alcohol.
- Quit smoking.
- Report symptoms to your doctor as soon as you experience them.
How much sugar is too much?
More than 100-200 calories of added sugar a day is too much. Americans consume 272 calories (71 grams or 17 teaspoons) per day in added sugars. That’s up to 172% more than we should be eating, depending on which guideline you’re going by.
- According to the Dietary Guidelines for Americans, anyone over the age of 2 should be getting 10% or fewer of their daily calories from added sugar — meaning, if you consume 2,000 calories a day, you should get a maximum of 200 calories (50 grams or 12 teaspoons) from added sugar.
- The American Heart Association takes it further. The AHA recommends a maximum of 150 calories (36 grams, 9 teaspoons) a day of added sugar a day for men, and 100 calories (25 grams or 6 teaspoons) a day of added sugar for women.
- The Heart and Stroke Foundation of Canada goes even further and says, “ideally less than 5%” of your daily calorie intake should consist of added sugars. That’s about 100 calories a day for all adults.
Everyone is different. The same amount of sugar could give Juan a headache, but not Sally. Talk to your doctor about your individual tolerance for sugar.
When to Seek Help
Contact your doctor if blood sugar changes lead to recurring headaches. Your doctor can determine if a previously unknown root cause exists, and, if so, how to treat it. You may consult a dietician to discuss balancing sugar in your everyday diet.
If you get a sugar headache within 2-4 hours of eating, there may be an issue which requires immediate medical advice.
Chiropractic & Diabetes
Chiropractic care is a great adjunctive treatment for diabetes. It shouldn’t replace your medication, but chiropractic care can stimulate the nervous system and better regulate hormone production, including insulin.
- Sanon, V. P., Sanon, S., Kanakia, R., Yu, H., Araj, F., Oliveros, R., & Chilton, R. (2014). Hypoglycemia from a cardiologist’s perspective. Clinical cardiology, 37(8), 499-504. Full text: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6649367/
- Jacome, D. E. (2001). Hypoglycemia rebound migraine. Headache: The Journal of Head and Face Pain, 41(9), 895-898. Abstract: https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/11703478/
- Levenson, M. A., & BS, D. I. L. Annals Of Headache Medicine Journal. Full text: https://www.ahmjournal.com/submissions/Levenson-Insulin-Potential-Treatment-in-Selected-Migraine-Sufferers.pdf
- Destree, L., Vercellino, M., & Armstrong, N. (2017). Interventions to improve adherence to a hypoglycemia protocol. Diabetes Spectrum, 30(3), 195-201. Full text: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5556581/
- Lohman, E. B., Pacheco, G. R., Gharibvand, L., Daher, N., Devore, K., Bains, G., … & Berk, L. S. (2019). The immediate effects of cervical spine manipulation on pain and biochemical markers in females with acute non-specific mechanical neck pain: a randomized clinical trial. Journal of Manual & Manipulative Therapy, 27(4), 186-196. Full text: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC7025692/
- Maltese, P. E., Michelini, S., Baronio, M., & Bertelli, M. (2019). Molecular foundations of chiropractic therapy. Acta Bio Medica: Atenei Parmensis, 90(Suppl 10), 93. Full text: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC7233649/