January 19, 2023
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Photography by Jeff Wasserman/Stocksy United
Sugar intake may have a significant effect on your overall health, but the research into sugar’s impact on migraine isn’t well understood.
My migraine attacks didn’t start until I was a teenager. My sweet tooth, however, has always been a part of my life. Over the years, I’ve come to wonder if there was a link between the two.
I was in my teens when my eye doctor told me I had ocular migraine. This confused me because I didn’t experience any actual pain during my attacks. I only had visual disturbances that didn’t cause pain and didn’t last longer than half an hour, tops. Whenever one occurred, I knew what it was and simply waited for it to pass.
As I got older, I started getting headaches more often. Even then, they never came with vision abnormalities. Instead, they came with nausea, lightheadedness, and vertigo.
Eventually, these headaches became more frequent, more painful, and more debilitating. They also became less responsive to over-the-counter pain medicines.
It makes sense to me now, knowing that they weren’t actually headaches but migraine episodes.
Once I figured this out and got a prescription for triptans, I was able to more easily manage my attacks. Still, they were a common occurrence.
Every time I had one, I would try and determine what triggered it. Unless I could point to something obvious, like extreme weather or lack of sleep, finding the common denominator was a challenge.
Most of the time, I couldn’t find anything.
People around me, who knew little about migraine, constantly floated the idea that my diet was to blame. Loved ones would point out that I ate a lot of sugar and said maybe that was triggering my migraine attacks or making my symptoms worse.
This frustrated me because I knew there’s no strong science to support that sugar — or anything diet-related — causes (or cures) migraine.
For as long as I can remember, I’ve been an avid lover of sugar. My preference for candy and sugary treats didn’t diminish with age. I had the same desire for desserts at 30 that I did at 13.
One day, for reasons completely unrelated to migraine, I decided to try a sugar detox. If you’ve never heard of one before, it’s exactly what it sounds like: eating no sugar for a specific period of time. The goal is usually to improve health, regulate energy levels, or reduce cravings.
There’s no one-size-fits-all approach to cutting out sugar. Some people eliminate all sugar, including natural sugars like the ones found in fruit. Others only cut added sugar and still eat whole fruits and vegetables. The latter sounded more doable to me, so I made a plan to stop eating anything with added sugar.
If you’ve ever looked at a nutrition label, you’ll know that’s a lot easier said than done.
Seriously, it seems like everything has added sugar. Bread, peanut butter, salad dressing. Just trying to make a plan for what I could eat was giving me a headache.
So, I amended the detox a bit.
The American Heart Association recommends no more than 25 grams of added sugar each day for women. Following that guideline, I decided I wouldn’t eat anything that had more than 5 grams of added sugar. This meant paying attention to labels and keeping track of my total sugar intake each day.
I replaced my typical breakfast of Pop-Tarts (16 g of sugar) with whole grain toast (2 g) and almond butter (1 g). Instead of a midday granola bar snack (11 g), I ate plain Greek yogurt (3 g). And I swapped candy, cookies, and ice cream for fresh fruit.
I went from eating an average of 75 grams of added sugar every day to less than 20.
Within a week of changing my sugar habits, I noticed a change in my migraine attacks. That first week, I had one attack as opposed to three. What’s more, I was able to effectively get rid of the pain with Tylenol alone.
Since then, I’ve maintained my sort of sugar-free diet. I don’t eat more than a total of 25 grams of added sugar a day. The cravings haven’t completely disappeared — I can’t tell you how hard it can be to reach for an apple when a plate of cookies is right there — but they’ve diminished substantially.
My migraine attacks have responded similarly. They have not been entirely eliminated but seem to occur less frequently.
So, was the sugar to blame all along? I really can’t say.
Research on the link between sugar and migraine has been mixed. Some research in 2022 suggests hypoglycemia (low blood sugar) may contribute to attacks.
The effect of eating too much sugar, on the other hand, hasn’t been thoroughly researched.
It may be possible that my sugary diet was contributing to my stress levels — which in turn, triggered my migraine attacks.
Research, like this study in 2017, suggests that sugar consumption can lead to anxiety and depression and can make it harder for your body to respond to stress. In a 2016 study, researchers observed that nearly 80% of participants reported stress as a trigger for their migraine attacks.
Despite the lack of scientific evidence, I still think it’s possible that sugar contributed to my migraine episodes. Or maybe the sugar was increasing my stress, which was contributing to my migraine episodes.
No matter the reason, eating less sugar has given me more migraine-free days, and I’d take that over cake any day.
Still, it’s important to remember that migraine is a complex disease. Everyone living with migraine experiences different symptoms and has different triggers.
The connection between diet and migraine is largely unknown. If you think food sensitivities may be contributing to your attacks, it’s a good idea to talk with your doctor or headache specialist.
Medically reviewed on January 19, 2023
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