If you think of your body like a car, glucose (sugar) is the gas. It fuels your cells so your body can run. When you’re low on glucose, your body sputters and slows, and that’s just the beginning. For people with migraine disease, the “empty tank” triggers a migraine attack.
Dr. Stanley Mathew, our triple-board certified physiatrist at American Rehabilitation Medicine, understands this lesser-known migraine attack trigger and wants our patients throughout Cedar Rapids, Dubuque, and Anamosa, Iowa, to know about the link between low blood sugar and migraine attacks.
Glucose: The “gas” your body runs on
Just about everything you eat contains carbohydrates (except meat) — even vegetables. And that’s a good thing, because as you digest food, you break down carbs into glucose, which you can think of as cell fuel. The glucose enters your bloodstream, which delivers it to cells throughout your body, as needed.
If your glucose levels drop, your body reacts, and your brain is the first organ to show signs, such as dizziness, irritability, shakiness, fainting, and seizures.
Low blood sugar, technically called hypoglycemia, occurs when your glucose level drops below 70 mg/dl. Normally, hormones keep your blood sugar in check: insulin stops it from getting too high, and glucagon prevents it from getting too low. Unfortunately, hypoglycemia can still happen despite these hormones’ best efforts due to:
- Excess alcohol consumption
- Kidney disease
- Pancreas problems (overproduction of insulin)
- Anorexia nervosa
- Chronic liver problems
You can even develop hypoglycemia from skipped meals, crash diets, and fasting.
The link between low blood sugar and migraine attacks
Low blood sugar doesn’t cause migraine attacks in everyone; it doesn’t even cause them in everyone with migraine disease. However, for some folks prone to migraine attacks, low blood sugar is a predictable catalyst. So if you’re trying to identify your specific triggers, check your blood sugar.
Since low blood sugar affects the brain almost immediately, it’s unsurprising that you feel the effects in your head as a migraine attack. The symptoms of hypoglycemia often mimic the warning signs of a migraine attack:
- Craving sweets
- Pale skin
- Mood changes
If low blood sugar is one of your migraine triggers, it’s important to eat regular meals and use extreme caution when dieting. Studies show fasting is a clear trigger in up to 66% of those with migraine disease. The good news is that you can improve and perhaps prevent some migraine attacks by maintaining adequate blood sugar levels.
Use a glucose monitor to check your levels, and if you drop below 70 mg/dl:
- Eat a small (15g) sugary snack, like honey, candy, or fruit juice
- Eat a protein and carb-rich snack like cheese or peanut butter
- Take a glucose supplement
Better yet, avoid the problem altogether by minding your meal schedule, eating more fruits and vegetables and less pasta and bread, and avoiding high-sugar foods, as an overload of sugar can cause your pancreas to flood your system with insulin that will tank your blood sugar.
Long-term migraine care
While there’s no cure for migraine, Dr. Mathew offers several effective therapies to help you manage migraine disease and reduce the frequency and severity of your attacks. As a physiatrist, Dr. Mathew calls upon multiple disciplines to address pain and illness. He considers every aspect of your condition, including your medical history, environment, lifestyle, age, and unique symptoms. Based on this information, he develops a personalized treatment plan for you that may include:
- Physical therapy
- Massage therapy
If you suspect low blood sugar triggers your migraine attacks and need help managing your symptoms, call us at any of our three Iowa locations, or request an appointment online.