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Hypoglycemia and Headaches

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Updated May 16, 2014

Written or reviewed by a board-certified physician. See About.com's Medical Review Board.

Mid adult woman with headache
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When we think of how sugar impacts our health, it's often because we’re watching our waistline or are worried about cavities. However, the levels of sugar in our bodies can also affect our headaches.

What is Hypoglycemia?

To better understand how sugar triggers headaches, let’s first talk about hypoglycemia. Hypoglycemia occurs when the body’s glucose (or sugar) levels drop below 70mg/dL. This can not only trigger a headache, but also confusion, dizziness, shakiness, hunger, irritability, and weakness. If your glucose levels are not brought back up to 70-100mg/dL, then symptoms can worsen to include numbness, poor concentration, poor coordination, passing out, and even coma.

There are a few causes of hypoglycemia. One cause is fasting, as the body is not able to take in enough glucose to maintain proper levels. Hypoglycemia is also common in patients with diabetes and can occur when someone takes the wrong amount of insulin or diabetes medicine, takes the medicine at a different time than usual, waits too long to eat or doesn’t eat enough, exercises at a different time of day, or drinks alcohol. Hypoglycemia can also occur without diabetes. It can come from excessive alcohol consumption, chronic illnesses like kidney disease, overproduction of insulin by the pancreas, and endocrine-related issues.

What Does a Headache Caused By Hypoglycemia Feel Like?

Headaches from hypoglycemia are usually described as a dull, throbbing feeling in the temples. The pain can occur with other hypoglycemia symptoms, like blurry vision, increased heart rate, nervousness, fatigue, irritability, and confusion. Hypoglycemia can also trigger a migraine headache. In fact, some migraine sufferers report craving carbohydrates before the migraine hits, which may be the body’s way of regulating blood sugar and preventing the headache. Migraine headaches caused by hypoglycemia will usually not be accompanied by typical migraine symptoms like nausea, vomiting, and sensitivity to light and sound. Instead, the migraine is more likely to be accompanied by the hypoglycemia symptoms noted above.

How Can Hypoglycemia-Induced Headaches Be Prevented?

To prevent your hypoglycemia-induced headache, it’s best to prevent the hypoglycemia. Preventing blood sugar from dropping is the best route. If you have diabetes, it is important to follow the medical management plan established with your doctor. Be sure to check in regularly with your doctor so he or she can monitor you for any changes that may affect your treatment plan. If your hypoglycemia is not caused by diabetes, then it is important to change your diet to prevent low blood sugar. Doctors suggest that people who suffer from hypoglycemia eat smaller, more frequent meals and snacks throughout the day. It is advised to go no more than three hours between eating. A well-balanced diet rich in protein and fiber will also help to maintain your blood sugar levels. Foods that contain sugar and alcohol should be limited, especially on an empty stomach. Regular physical activity is another important management technique.

What Do I Do To Treat A Hypoglycemia-Induced Headache?

It is important for individuals with hypoglycemia to have their blood sugar monitor and a snack with them at all times. If your blood sugar dips, it is important to get your glucose level back up between 70mg/dL and 100mg/dL. Try:
  • Eating 15 grams of a fast-acting carbohydrate, such as hard candy, fruit juice, honey, sugar, or syrup.
  • Taking over-the-counter glucose tablets or gel
  • Eating a snack with carbohydrates and protein, such as crackers and cheese or peanut butter

If you are concerned about your symptoms or the headaches don't subside with one of the quick fixes above, consult with your doctor and get a ride to the hospital. It is very important not to drive yourself when having a hypoglycemic episode. If there is no one who can drive you, then call 911. Sometimes, hypoglycemia will cause a person to pass out or lose consciousness. Be sure to not try to feed an unconscious hypoglycemic, as this can cause choking. Keep your friends and family informed about ways they can act quickly to help you with a hypoglycemic episode.

Sources:

Moskowitz MA. Basic mechanisms in vascular headache. Neurol Clin. 1990 Nov;8(4):801-15.

Torelli P, Manzoni GC. Fasting headache. Curr Pain Headache Rep. 2010 Aug;14(4):284-91.

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