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 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 Angela A Stanton, Ph.D.

Angela A Stanton, PhD, is a Neuroeconomist focusing on chronic pain, electrolyte homeostasis, and genetics. She lives in Southern California. Her current research is focused on migraine cause, prevention and treatment without the use of medicines. 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 gated channels that modulate electrolytes and voltage in the brain, insulin and glucose transporters, and several other related variants, such as the MTHFR variants of the B vitamin methylation process and many others. Migraineurs are glucose sensitive and should avoid eating carbs as much as possible. As a result of the success of the first edition of her book and new research and findings after treating over 4000 migraineurs world wide, all ages and both genders, she is now finishing the 2nd edition. The 2nd edition is the “holy grail” of migraines, incorporating all there is to know and also 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. It is a "Complete Guide". Due out in the summer of 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, 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
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3 Responses to Sugar, Sugar Substitutes, Headaches & Migraines

  1. Pingback: Genetics and the Migraine Brain: Mutation, Adaptation, or Variance?- Hormones Matter

  2. My sugar whether from cake or fruit often give me a migraine 😦


    • Sugar causes migraine Mary because sugar block hydration. I discuss a lot about this in my migraine group on Facebook and an article will be put up today on the connection of sugar and migraine. 🙂


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