We've all had a busy day that had us rushing out the door before breakfast or skipping lunch. Unfortunately, days like these are prime opportunities for a hunger headache to strike. In fact, about 30 percent of people get a headache when they're hungry, says the American Academy of Pediatrics.
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What Causes a Hunger Headache?
You might have experienced a headache from caffeine withdrawal as your body reacts to missing the stimulant or from dehydration due to not drinking enough water. Not eating can cause a headache as well. When you forgo your morning muffin or lunchtime chicken wrap, the main headache trigger is low blood sugar.
"Skipping meals can cause headaches due to the drop in blood sugar that the brain senses," says Adelene Jann, MD, clinical assistant professor in the Department of Neurology's headache division at NYU Langone Health in New York City.
When your blood sugar drops, your body releases certain hormones in response. And that can trigger the headache.
How Can I Tell if I’m Having a Hunger Headache?
Hunger headaches tend to resemble tension headaches. You'll likely notice a dull pain, tightness around your head and tenderness on your scalp muscles, neck or shoulder muscles, the Mayo Clinic explains, When blood sugar falls, you may also experience sweating, weakness, fatigue, confusion, lightheadedness and shakiness, according to the National Headache Foundation.
Usually, a hunger headache will go away within 30 minutes of eating food. If not, you'll need a plan B. "Typically, treatments are available over-the-counter, like ibuprofen, naproxen, acetaminophen or aspirin," says Dr. Jann. "Other treatments like rest, ice, heat, relaxation techniques or massage may help."
But beware of frequently taking medication for headaches triggered by hunger because this can lead to recurring headaches. Instead of treating your hunger headache every time they occur, you're better off taking steps to prevent them altogether.
Preventing Hunger Headache
Some simple lifestyle habits can keep your blood sugar on an even keel. For instance, try eating small meals four to six times a day. "It's important to eat regular meals to avoid triggering a headache," Jann says. This is true even if you're trying to lose weight. Intentionally starving yourself to cut calories can bring on a hunger headache just as easily as unintentionally skipping a meal because you worked through lunch.
What you eat counts, too. "Certain foods, like those with preservatives or nitrates in them, could also lead to headaches," warns Dr. Jann. "Artificial sweeteners like those found in diet sodas can be triggers." And, according to the Migraine Trust, high-sugar foods can be, too.
While not missing a meal is important, be sure that your diet is balanced. Enjoy a variety of fruits and vegetables, lean proteins and whole grains. Vitamins such as magnesium and riboflavin (vitamin B2) can also be helpful, says Dr. Jann.
If your daily schedule is unpredictable and you frequently experience headaches associated with hunger, consider carrying healthy snacks, like a banana and unsalted nuts, with you to hold you over. You can also reduce the likelihood of hunger-induced headaches by scheduling balanced meals and snacks ahead of time. Put reminders in your smart phone's calendar so that it's nearly impossible to forget to eat.
And be sure to stay hydrated, which usually calls for drinking eight glasses of water daily. Herbal teas count, but remember that coffee and teas with caffeine can act have the opposite effect because they act as diuretics, causing you to excrete water.
Read more: 8 Surprising Things Giving You a Headache
When to Worry About Headache
Experiencing frequent headaches could be a sign of a more serious health problem. Check with your doctor if you get headaches—or need to take headache medicine—two or more times a week or if you notice any changes in headache severity.
As a reminder, get immediate help if a headache gets worse after taking pain medication, causes pain severe enough to wake you up, starts after a head injury or is accompanied by a rash, fever, numbness, blurred or double vision, a stiff neck or impaired speech.
Is this an emergency? If you are experiencing serious medical symptoms, please see the National Library of Medicine’s list of signs you need emergency medical attention or call 911.