Sugar, Sugar Substitutes, Headaches & Migraines

Is there a Connection Between Sweets and Migraines?

Indeed there is — as I too found out over the holidays this year. As most of you who read my blog and have read my book probably know I have had migraines for well over 20 years (30 years is more like it) before I realized what caused it. Since then I have been migraine free except for this holiday season. So what is different?

Let me recap the cause of migraine, which is preventable and treatable without any medicines. The details of how and what are in my book Fighting the Migraine Epidemic (shop around for prices if you buy it!) and in several articles at HormonesMatter but here I would like to give a little summary and some additional information about how sweets connect to pain in the head–any pain, be it headache or migraine.

Migraine in Brief

Migraine is not necessarily pain. Migraine is a chemical chain of events that in about 80% of the time culminate in pain but there are silent migraines and many aura migraines that are not followed by pain. The events that lead to migraine are also chemical chain of events that start by ionic imbalance of the brain. In the body everything we eat breaks down into molecules and then ions so that our cells can have their meals. Cells “eat” by having openings (pores, channels, pumps, gates) on the cell membrane through which ions can pass. But an ion by definition has a polarity, meaning it is either positive (+) or negative (-) and if you have ever taken any physics or chemistry or just know about the magnetic poles of earth, you know that “++” or “- -” repel and “+ -” attract. Thus something in ionic form may only enter a cell if it has the right polarity for affinity (attraction), otherwise it is not permitted into the cell.

There are two key ions that initiate the electrical contraction of a cell by creating voltage. Voltage difference causes a contraction that opens some of these pumps, gates, pores, channels, etc., and allows nutrients to go in and toxins to come out in particular order and ion numbers. Two responsible ions for this electricity are the key to migraine. If there is not enough of these ions on both sides of the cell membrane for the creation of voltage, the cell cannot open and depolarization (areas without the capability to create voltage) appear. Depolarized regions in the brain prevent that part of the brain from functioning which after a chain of events creates migraine. The two elements of discussion are Na+ and Cl-, which combined form salt. Thus not enough salt will cause migraines.

What Do Sweets Have to Do with It?

There are basically two kinds of sweets: sugars (sucrose, fructose, glucose) and artificial sweeteners (any kinds other than sugar).

Lets talk about real sugar first. As you can see there are 3 main types. Glucose is the same as what is in our blood so it can be called blood sugar. Lactose, sugar in milk is a type of glucose. Sucrose is sugar the body can convert to glucose. It can be found in carbohydrate foods such as rice and potato, which many people avoid as “bad carbs” but are in fact way better than the last group: fructose. How bad fructose is for your body is probably news to you since fruits have tons of fructose in them and we are told that fruits are healthy and we are told to eat them. And so they are! Fructose when you eat it as a fruit with fiber is great. There is a long explanation via video and by book titled Fat Chance by Robert Lustig, M.D. of what fructose is and what it becomes. Few actually understand the seriousness of it so let me explain in as simple way as I can what fructose is and what it does so you can understand its bad effects on the body and on migraine.

Fructose

Fructose is sugar in the fruit. If you eat a spoon of fructose (they sell fructose on its own, try it), your body will experience no change. You will not feel hot (as you would from glucose) and you will not bounce off the walls (as children do from glucose and sucrose) if you only eat fructose as powder, crystal, or liquid. The reason why not is because fructose is not seen by the body as sugar. It doesn’t make it to the brain or muscles as energy source! It goes straight into the liver, where it converts by a long chain of events into ethanol–the alcohol you put into your car to improve mileage. Eating fructose without fiber causes non-alcoholic fatty liver disease and causes obesity.

See when the body does not see sugar and insulin is not released to deposit sugar into fat that later can be converted to blood glucose for the use of the brain, a hormone called leptin tells the brain that there is obviously a famine so it slows all bodily functions to the minimum to save energy, reduces metabolism, and makes you hungry for sugar. So you eat more fructose. The more fructose you eat the more lethargic and obese you will also get and will have no energy to get off the sofa. This is Fat Chance book in a very short summary.

The connection of fructose to migraine is simpler: sugar, similarly to salt, attracts water and collects it. But unlike salt, it cannot enter any cell without creating voltage, which sugar does not do. Thus instead of hydrating cells, it dehydrates via osmotic gradient by pulling water out of the cells. Eating fructose dehydrates cells, interrupts the hydration process, thereby interrupting the very thing that prevents and stops migraines: ionic balance hydration. Fructose causes migraines or headaches that are hard to combat because fructose does not leave the body easily; it is chemically tied down to become other elements, such as ethanol. How it reaches the brain for its dehydration action? Via the circulatory system. Eating fructose removes water from blood circulation via osmotic gradient and since there is less volume of blood (same number of blood cells only each dehydrated), blood pressure increases from eating fructose. You can check all of these out at home using blood pressure meter, placing fructose near water and see how it sucks it up like it had lips, etc.

Artificial Sweeteners

Less is discussed about artificial sweeteners in literature but logic prevails. By artificial sweeteners  I also mean all “natural” sweeteners with zero calorie. Sugar, no matter how natural, with zero calorie is not sugar to the body. Artificial sweeteners do some really nasty stuff: they cause diabetes mellitus type II. How does that happen?

Artificial sweeteners–even zero calorie sweeteners–release insulin. The job of the insulin is to grab the sugar in the blood and convert it to fat for future use by the brain and muscles as sugar–as mentioned earlier. Insulin is in the blood in search of sugar but there is none!! Sugar was not consumed! So insulin floats in the blood for a long time in search of sugar. The constant insulin in the blood signals the body to ignore insulin and hence one develops what is called insulin resistance. This is greatly simplified here for understanding. Something floating in the blood looking for sugar and not finding any will eventually be ignored by the body. Insulin resistance is diabetes mellitus type II.

Should you ever eat or drink foods or drinks, respectively, that contain artificial sweeteners? Never.

How artificial sweeteners connect to migraines should be straight-forward based on what I wrote on fructose. Artificial sweeteners attract water exactly the same way as fructose does, thereby acting as diuretics in addition to causing diabetes mellitus type II.

Your Holiday Desserts

So what did you have for your holiday sweets? Did you eat a bunch of sweets? Cranberry sauce with the turkey, pies with whatever sweets, candies hanging on the Christmas tree if you celebrate Christmas or elsewhere if you celebrate other holidays at the end of the year. Every time you eat sweets of any kind–other than fruit with the skin on, which heads straight to the gut to feed the good bacteria–your chances for a migraine are pretty good.

I normally don’t eat sweets of any kind but this time I was invited to a party full of sweets on every table; in fact there was more sugary stuff than food. Yes, I am human and could not resist. Yep, I did get a migraine and because it was caused by sugar, the treatment of salt did not work right away. Sugar had to reach a low enough concentration in my body to allow the hydration to return to normal. It took 2 days to do that. And to me this was proof that sugar in any form is trouble! And if you are a migraineur, it is double trouble!

Your comments are welcome as always!

Angela

About Angela A Stanton, Ph.D.

Angela A Stanton, PhD, is a Neuroeconomist focusing on chronic pain--migraine in particular--physiology, electrolyte homeostasis, nutrition, and genetics. She lives in Southern California. Her current research is focused on migraine cause, prevention and treatment without the use of medicine. As a forever migraineur from childhood, her discovery was helped by experimenting on herself. She found the cause of migraine to be at the ionic level, associated with disruption of the electrolyte homeostasis, resulting from genetic variations of all voltage dependent channels, gates, and pumps that modulate electrolyte mineral density and voltage in the brain. In addition, insulin and glucose transporters, and several other variants, such as MTHFR variants of B vitamin methylation process and many others that are different in the case of a migraineur from the general population. Migraineurs are glucose sensitive (carbohydrate intolerant) and should avoid eating carbs as much as possible. She is working on her hypothesis that migraine is a metabolic disease. As a result of the success of the first edition of her book and her helping over 4000 migraineurs successfully prevent their migraines world wide, all ages and both genders, and all types of migraines, she published the 2nd (extended) edition of her migraine book "Fighting The Migraine Epidemic: Complete Guide: How To Treat & Prevent Migraines Without Medications". The 2nd edition is the “holy grail” of migraine cause, development, and prevention, incorporating all there is to know. It includes a long section with for medical and research professionals. The book is full of academic citations (over 800) to authenticate the statements she makes to be followed up by those interested and to spark further research interest. It is a "Complete Guide", published on September 29, 2017. Dr. Stanton received her BSc at UCLA in Mathematics, MBA at UCR, MS in Management Science and Engineering at Stanford University, PhD in NeuroEconomics at Claremont Graduate University, fMRI certification at Harvard University Medical School at the Martinos Center for Neuroimaging for experimenting with neurotransmitters on human volunteers, certification in LCHF/ketogenic diet from NN (Nutrition Network), currently working on her certification in physiology, and functional medicine. Dr. Stanton is an avid sports fan, currently power weight lifting and kickboxing. For relaxation (yeah.. about a half minute each day), she paints and photographs and loves to spend time with her family of husband of 44 years, 2 sons and their wives, and 2 granddaughters. Follow her on Twitter at: @MigraineBook, LinkedIn at https://www.linkedin.com/in/angelaastantonphd/ and facebook at https://www.facebook.com/DrAngelaAStanton/
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10 Responses to Sugar, Sugar Substitutes, Headaches & Migraines

  1. MissSensitive says:

    I think I have problem with dried fruit, I seem to get a headache after dried fruit often, which may or not turn into a migraine. Are you saying in your comment above that dried fruit is okay or not okay for us migrainers.

    Is it possible to be sensitive to fructose and not other types of sugar? I seem to be able to eat cake ok (although I know you wouldn’t recommend it).

    Unfortunately I like to snack, and I can’t see that changing. I was losing weight on weightwatchers eating alot of fruit but I can only do this on medication. (Propranalol daily). What else could I eat for snacks, are rice cakes, popcorn, okay (without added sugar of course). Are tomatoes and carrots okay as they are quite sweet. Does the fibre make them ok. I think I need a whole book on this subject.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Hi MissSensitive,

      To cut to the chase: just about everything you listed is full of both fructose and glucose. Let me show you how and why and explain why what you eat matters for migraines.

      So dried fruits: even if you dry them in your own dehydrator, from your own fruit growing on your own bushes or trees, dried fruit is worse for you than fresh fruit. It becomes smaller, water removed and its chemical properties changed, the fiber is pretty much destroyed in them as well, so dried fruit is equal to eating concentrated sugar.

      Now you note that you may be more sensitive to fructose than glucose. Such exists though if you can eat a cake, with sugar in it, you have no fructose problem. That is because sugar is 50% fructose and 50% glucose. It appears you are not more sensitive to fructose. With this said and done, fructose and glucose are what builds fat around our middle and makes us fat. Some of the fructose converts into glucose in our intestines but not all. What didn’t convert to glucose moves to the liver and is converted to ethanol first (same as what alcohol is converted to and which causes non-alcoholic fatty liver disease, NAFLD) and then to triglycerides. Triglycerides are fats that are deposited into fat cells where there is still room. When the fat cells run out of room, the fat starts to deposit in and around organs, like in your liver causing NAFLD as ectopic fat (inside organ) and visceral fat (around organs), and also in your pancreas–hampering your insulin production–and elsewhere, starting you on the road to type 2 diabetes and other metabolic diseases.

      Lucky that you are a migraineur!! You get a migraine from sweets! That is a warning. Migraineurs are carbs intolerant–this as a result of various genetic variants that are specific to migraineurs and which are all described in my book “Fighting The Migraine Epidemic: A Complete Guide: How To Treat & Prevent Migraines Without Medicine” that you can find everywhere. Here is the link to it on amazon: https://www.amazon.com/dp/B076BZG2V3/ref=dp-kindle-redirect?_encoding=UTF8&btkr=1

      In terms of snacks: everything you listed that are not sweet are starches (grains) that convert into glucose in your mouth before you swallow them. I have not yet mentioned that glucose itself is not really sweet. It is fructose that makes sugar sweet rather than glucose. Weight Watchers serve processed foods void of any nutrition. I would not touch any processed foods with a ten foot pole. Sorry.

      Fiber doesn’t make anything OK. In fact, if you eat no fruits, no vegetables, no grains, no nuts, and no seeds for the rest of your life–aka “carnivore diet” you would be totally healthy, migraine free, and would eat 0 fiber.

      Since you need a whole book on the subject, start by reading mine because in addition to explaining what migraine is, it also explains what foods to eat or not eat to remain migraine free. You are welcome tojoin our migraine group on Facebook but in that group you need to commit to a lifestyle change: https://www.facebook.com/groups/MigraineSufferers/

      Hope you find this helpful.

      Angela

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  2. Kristen says:

    Ya this confirms my suspicions…. I have been a migraine sufferer for the last four years and recently went on Keto diet. The only time I get a migraine now is when I go off my diet by eating fruit. I’m fine when eating stevia though, this doesn’t seem to cause problems. What would be your advice for Someone like me who gets a migraine even from fruit? What should I be eating when I have a sweet tooth if even Stevia and natural non-nutritive sweeteners are bad? I’m a woman so I definitely get a sweet tooth sometimes!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Hi Kristen,

      You are like me with fruit–I don;t get a migraine after years of keto but I instantly put weight on. Fruits (fructose I suppose) is not for us.

      Unfortunately Stevia and other sugar substitutes cause problems–not with migraine but with insulin resistance that migraineurs are so incredibly predisposed to by their genetics. Stevia is also the one that is making you crave sweets, because insulin releases from the expectation of sweet flavor (the brain cannot tell if the sweet will be caloric or not. And since stevia is non-caloric, the brain gets nothing, so you build up a good dose of insulin but no glucose to use it for. This will make you crave sweets.

      I am also a woman and used to be an amazing sweet tooth!! It is interesting to see how once you cut all sweeteners out of your life, within a few weeks you completely stop craving all sweet tastes. So I recommend you stop all non-caloric sweeteners as well.

      In terms of no fruits, I just gave it a try for a week and I ate just one fruit a day–like a small apricot or a very small peach. I did this for 3 days and each day I gained a pound!! Eeek!! so I still have 2 peaches, one nectarine, and a box of strawberries all ending up in the trash today–even my hubby didn’t want them. He is LCHF and not keto–sort of borderline.

      I moved back on the diet now that feels the best for my migraine head and body in general, and which keeps me in ultimate energy: carnivore diet, which includes and meat, any fat, any dairy. I also eat some nuts like almonds for it fiber, some sunflower seeds for a bored moment, and the only non-carnivore meal I allow a little bit from for its high fiber and nutrition is black beans that I cook from scratch so I know that only pork lard, water, and salt are in it and nothing else. I eat this with sprouted almonds added into the pressure cooker at the very end for only 1 minute. I absolutely eat no other carbs.

      So a typical day starts with a 16-hour fasting minimum, so first meal is after noon. It is usually a glass of milk, a small decaf (2-3 oz) with about 5 oz heavy whipped cream (unflavored). Both of these get a dash of salt and a quarter teaspoon mix of raw cold pressed organic cacao butter that I grind up to be powder fine and mix it into unsweetened cacao powder. These give great flavor to milk and decaf and some nutrition. If I eat anything else at this time, it is pork rinds or I make 3 eggs (4-minute soft eggs) for extra protein–I work out 4 times a week so those days I eat that.

      I usually don’t snack at all and for dinner I cook some major meat or seafood. I also eat organ meats, and weird stuff like chicken feet (loads of collagen).

      Special notes:

      I take a LOT of salt a day. I consume between 4000 and 7000 mg sodium a day. 2400 mg sodium is 1 teaspoon. I use salt capsules by Health by Principle: https://www.healthbyprinciple.com/ because I hate the taste of salt and vomit up loose salt or pressed salt. This one I designed (I am not connected to the company financially at all but I am their scientist) with iodine, which is needed in our diet. I also drink a lot of water. My formula for water calculation for women: [(your weight in pounds x 0.55)/8 ] +1. This is the minimum amount of just pure (or sparkling) water you need to drink a day. I think that keeping your electrolyte well filled reduces your cravings and I definitely recommend you stop stevia.

      I now reached the point of not having any of the sensitivities migraineurs have: barometric pressure, full moon, cold, hot, noise, smell, light, etc. I seems to still be alerted by them but they no longer cause pain. It is definitely a fun diet because it is simple, satisfying, and you can get really creative with spices to get your food taste good. 🙂

      Good luck!
      Angela

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  4. Stephen plant says:

    The fact that Fructose can cause fatty liver disease is well know now in the UK. it has been widely reported in the national press for some time. But never in such detail ,I might add. And it has also been made clear that fructose is safe when eaten as ‘whole fruit’, as part of a healthy diet for a ‘normal person’. But what about migraine sufferers ? Is it safe to eat whole fruit or should we avoid or limit the amount we eat?

    Liked by 1 person

    • Hi Stephen–Happy New Year by the way!! Fructose eaten with insoluble fiber of the fruit (like a banana will not be sufficient for this since one removes the skin and thus the insoluble fiber) will be fine because the fiber changes the metabolism of fructose to be in the gut rather than in the liver. Some minor portion will end up in the liver but most will head to the gut where it has the essential function of feeding the good bacteria. When choosing fruits to eat though, one must consider the sugar to fiber ratio. For example, an average size apple only has 3 gr of fiber, which is very little relative to the amount of fructose it contains–equal nearly to a slice of cheesecake. Thus if one is a diabetic or is concerned about sugar in general, one should pick fruits that have a higher ratio of fiber to sugar: most berries, grape, orange (the white stuff inside the orange is insoluble fiber), all dried fruits, peaches, etc. Things that appear “fibrous” as you eat the fruit itself contain more fiber than those that seem to just become a paste on your tongue–like a banana. I hope this helps!

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  5. deborah says:

    I had no idea sugar was that terrible for migrainers. I had a small migraine during the holidays…must of been the chocolate, butter tart and white wine combo.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Sounds like a delicious reason for getting a migraine though Deborah. 🙂 But yes, sugar and sugar substitutes are evil. A trick: if you eat chocolate, eat the very dark kind and eat it with salt. Dark chocolate has the least amount of sugar and salt will balance the amount of potassium in the chocolate; you will not get a migraine. Alcohol also dehydrates (in fact the best hangover cure is electrolytes!), so you must hydrate after drinking alcohol.

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