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 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!


About Be Healthy

Angela A Stanton, PhD, is a Neuroeconomist who evaluates changes in behavior, chronic pain, decision-making, as a result of hormonal variations in the brain. She lives in Southern California. Her current research is focused on migraine cause, prevention and treatment without the use of medicines. As a migraineur, 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 mutations of insulin and glucose transporters, and voltage gated sodium and calcium channel mutations. Such mutations cause major shifts in a migraine brain, unlike that of a non-migraine brain. A non-migraineur can handle electrolyte changes on autopilot. A migraineur must always be on manual guard for such changes to maintain electrolyte homeostasis. The book Fighting The Migraine Epidemic: How To Treat and Prevent Migraines Without Medicines - An Insider's View explains why we have migraines, how to prevent them and how to stay migraine (and medicine) free for life. As a result of the success of the first edition of her book and new research and findings, she is now finishing the 2nd edition. The 2nd edition is the “holy grail” of migraines, incorporating all there is to know at the moment and also some hypotheses. It includes an academic research section with suggestions for further research. The book is full of citations to authenticate the statements she makes to be followed up by those interested and to spark further research interest. While working on the 2nd edition of the book she also published academic articles: "Migraine Cause and Treatment" Mental Health in family Medicine, November 23, 2015, open access "Functional Prodrome in Migraines" Journal of Neurological Disorders, January 22, 2016, open access "Are Statistics Misleading Sodium Reduction Benefits?", Journal of Medical Diagnostic Method, February 3, 2016, open access “A Comment on Severe Headache or Migraine History Is Inversely Correlated With Dietary Sodium Intake: NHANES 1999-2004” Angela A Stanton PhD, 19 July 2016 DOI: 10.1111/head.12861 not open access, subscription is required to read it. 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, and fMRI certification at Harvard University Medical School at the Martinos Center for Neuroimaging for experimenting with neurotransmitters on human volunteers. For relaxation Dr. Stanton paints and photographs. Follow her on Twitter at: @MigraineBook
This entry was posted in Fibromyalgia, Interesting reading, Migraine-Blog, Must Read, This & That, Thoughts and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

6 Responses to Sugar, Sugar Substitutes, Headaches & Migraines

  1. Pingback: Ha! One More Post for the Day! | cluelessdoctors

  2. 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!


  3. 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.


I would love to see your thoughts!

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s