When you haven’t had enough to eat, you may not only hear your stomach rumble, but also feel a strong headache coming on.
A hunger headache occurs when your blood sugar starts to dip lower than usual. Being hungry can also trigger migraine headaches for some people.
Read on to learn more about hunger headaches, including how to treat and prevent them.
Hunger-related headaches often closely resemble tension headaches in symptoms.
Some of the common symptoms include:
- dull pain
- feeling as if there’s a tight band wrapped around your head
- feeling pressure across your forehead or the sides of your head
- feeling tension in your neck and shoulders
When your blood sugar gets low, you might notice other symptoms as well, including:
- stomach pain
- feeling cold
These additional symptoms tend to come on gradually. You might start with just a dull headache, but as you delay eating, you may start to notice other symptoms.
Hunger headache symptoms tend to resolve within about 30 minutes of eating.
Seek immediate medical attention if your headache is severe, sudden, and accompanied by any of these symptoms:
- weakness on one side of your face
- numbness in your arms
- slurred speech
This type of headache could be a sign of a stroke.
Hunger-related headaches may stem from a lack of food, drink, or both. Some of the most common hunger headache causes include:
- Dehydration. If you haven’t had enough to drink, the thin layers of tissue in your brain can start to tighten and press on pain receptors. This side effect is a common cause of another headache type — the hangover headache.
- Lack of caffeine. Caffeine is a stimulant the body becomes accustomed to, especially if you have a three- or four-cup per day habit. If you haven’t had caffeine in a while, the blood vessels in your brain can enlarge, increasing blood flow to your brain and causing a headache.
- Skipping meals. Calories in food are a measurement of energy. Your body needs a consistent energy source in the form of food as fuel. If you haven’t had anything to eat in a while, your blood sugar levels can drop. In response, your body releases hormones that signal your brain that you’re hungry. These same hormones may increase your blood pressure and tighten blood vessels in your body, triggering a headache.
In addition, you may be more likely to develop hunger headaches if you already regular experience headaches or migraine.
You can usually relieve a hunger headache by eating and drinking water. If caffeine withdrawal is to blame, a cup of tea or coffee may help.
Keep in mind that it can take 15 to 30 minutes for your body to adjust and re-build its blood sugar stores. If you feel like your blood sugar is really low or have a history of hypoglycemia, you may need to eat something high in sugar, such as fruit juice or soda. Just make sure to follow up with some protein later.
Sometimes, a hunger headache can trigger a more significant headache, such as migraine. This involves chronic headaches that cause severe pain.
You can check for migraine symptoms using the POUND acronym:
- P is for pulsating. The headache usually has a pulsating sensation in the head.
- O is for one-day duration. They usually last 24 to 72 hours without treatment.
- U is for unilateral. The pain from is usually on one side of your head.
- N is for nausea. You might also feel nauseated or vomit.
- D is for disabling. Migraine symptoms can make it hard to think clearly. You might also be extra sensitive to light, sounds, and smells.
When you have a hunger-related migraine headache, eating may not be enough to relieve the pain. Start by taking a nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drug (NSAID), such as ibuprofen or naproxen. Acetaminophen (Tylenol) also may help.
In addition, some people find that a bit of caffeine helps as well, so consider drinking a cup of tea or coffee.
If home treatment doesn’t provide relief, you may need prescription medications, such as triptans. These medicines include eletriptan (Relpax) and frovatriptan (Frova). If these aren’t effective, there are other medication options, including steroids.
Unlike other types of headaches, hunger headaches are fairly easy to prevent. Try to avoid skipping meals. If you don’t have time for full meals throughout the day, try eating several smaller ones.
Keep portable snacks, such as energy bars or bags of trail mix, nearby when you go out or know you’ll have a busy day. Opt for things that you can eat quickly to keep your blood sugar stable.
Aim to drink plenty of water throughout the day. Not sure if you’re drinking enough? Check your urine — if it’s pale yellow, you’re probably hydrated. But if it’s dark yellow, or even brownish, it’s time to reach for some water.
If you frequently get headaches related to caffeine withdrawal, you may want to consider cutting back on the amount of caffeine you drink entirely. Since quitting “cold turkey” can cause uncomfortable headaches, you can try some strategies to cut back on your intake.
- pouring a half-caffeinated, half-decaf cup of coffee or tea to reduce the overall amount of caffeine
- reducing your caffeine intake by one cup or drink every three days
- drinking a cup of tea, which is usually lower in caffeine, instead of your usual drip coffee
Cutting back over the course of two to three weeks can usually help you reduce your caffeine intake without too many side effects.
According to Seattle Children’s Hospital, an estimated 30 percent of people get a headache when they are hungry. If you’re prone to hunger headaches, keeping snacks with you and eating meals at regular intervals can help.
If you find you are experiencing hunger headaches several times a week, it might be worth following up with your healthcare provider. They may recommend changes to your eating habits or recommend testing your blood sugar levels more frequently.