Why Do I Crave Carbs When I Have a Headache?

The craving for carbohydrates when suffering a headache stems from the fact that many people commonly experience headaches from low blood flow to the brain and scalp muscles.

The low blood flow is due to an imbalance of the autonomic nervous system that is commonly associated with insulin resistance, obesity, diabtes and high blood pressure. 

The carbohydrate cravings (as well as salt cravings) come about because carbohydrate consumption (especially processed carbs Рthink Red Bull) results in an increase of the amount of blood pumped by the heart (cardiac output), a squeezing effect of the arteries in our limbs (increased peripheral resistance) and a sudden release of adrenaline (catecholamine) from our adrenal glands.  The sum total of all these effects is an increase in blood flow to the brain and scalp muscles and the increased blood flow alleviates some of the symptoms.

The headache pain is primarily due to low blood flow to the scalp muscles and often the neck (known as Coat Hanger Pain).  Patients may also be experiencing fatigue, poor mental acuity, sleepiness after meals and occasional lightheadedness when standing. 

The cravings are the brain’s learned behavior that carbs (as well as salt) will transiently increase brain blood flow and relieve the symptoms somewhat.¬† It’s a Pavolian¬†reflex – our¬†subconscious¬†brain senses the increase in blood flow from carbohydrates, learns this association¬†and commands us to eat carbs when brain flow is again¬†suboptimal.¬†

 This is the real driving force behind many of your cravings.  The headaches are just a more prominent symptom of the same poor blood flow.

Low cerebral blood flow¬†is also the reason why pregnant women will crave “pickles and ice cream” during pregnancy.¬† This is really a craving for salt and carbohydrates to relieve the fatigue and foggiheadedness (“Mommy Brain”) from poor brain blood flow that is common during pregnancy.

The solution? Increase your pickles (salt) intake for a few weeks while reducing your ice cream (carbohydrate) intake and the blood flow to the brain will normalize, the headaches will resolve and your carbohydrate cravings will disappear.

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Patrick Nemechek, D.O.

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February 22, 2017 9:35 pm

I’ve never heard of this explanation! For nearly 9 years, I’ve experienced migraines around my cycle. I’ve talked with my gyne doctors (I’ve had a few over the years). They each wanted to push meds. My theory is my body wants/needs something around this time and I need to find what that is then meet that deficit. I’ve been on a lower carb diet for two months but in the throws of peri-menopause, I’m also getting lighter cycles every two weeks or so. That means the migraines are now coming every two weeks or so. I’d appreciate any suggestion you… Read more »

Patrick Nemechek, D.O.
Patrick Nemechek, D.O.
February 22, 2017 9:48 pm
Reply to  Cyndi

I recommend you read my posts on Brain Fog, DHA is Brain Food and Menopause is Permanent PMS.

If the recommendations in these articles don’t help, you may need to see me for a more thorough autonomic evaluation and start Vagus nerve stimulation. We routinely fix your type of symptoms.

Dr. N

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