Around 45 million people in the US alone suffer from frequent headaches, and, according to studies, around 25.5% of the population report experiencing cephalgia – or pain in the head – at least once in the past three months.
But while headaches are so common, they differ in causes, symptoms, and severity from one person to another. That is why, for medical professionals, it can be hard to pinpoint an underlying root cause and find an efficient treatment.
Luckily, in most cases, you can ease your pain by enjoying a meal! In this guide by the experts at Dr House, you can find out all you need to know about hunger headaches, what causes them, and how to prevent them.
Can You Get a Headache From Not Eating?
You might be familiar with the concept that your diet impacts your health. Indeed, a good, balanced diet provides the body with the needed energy, nutrients, and minerals, while also curbing the risk of conditions like diabetes, heart disease, and even cancer.
However, the frequency at which you eat, and your specific eating habits can also impact your overall health and wellbeing. For example, not properly chewing your food can lead to severe digestive problems, while a full stomach can increase breathing difficulties in people with asthma and COPD.
Seeing the tight relationship between eating and health – and the range of psychophysical reactions our body goes through due to the presence or lack of food – it isn’t surprising that yes, you can get a headache from hunger.
Learning to recognize headaches caused by the lack of food can help you treat them, prevent them, and treat them.
Pro Tip – for some people, skipping meals or not eating enough can also be the triggers leading to migraines, or chronic severe headaches.
What Is a Hunger Headache?
So, what happens in the body when there are long periods between one meal and another? When you are not eating enough or you are skipping meals, your body will have to deal with a range of changes.
While hunger itself does not cause headaches, the lack of food triggers a series of reactions in the body. These include:
- Dehydration – depending on your normal diet, the food you eat contributes 20-30% to your total water intake. Skipping meals can thus reduce the volume of fluids in your body, which can cause added pressure on pain receptors.
- Lack of energy – food represents the primary energy source for the body. Skipping meals can curb your energy intake, causing you to feel fatigued and tired.
- Low blood sugar (hypoglycemia) – low blood sugar can be a trigger for patients suffering from migraines and cause non-migraine headaches in healthy patients. If your blood sugar falls below 50, you are likely to experience the symptoms associated with hypoglycemia, which include weakness, lightheadedness, sweating as well as headaches.
If you are eating at irregular times or trying out different dieting regimes (i.e.: intermittent fasting), you should consult a specialized nutritionist who can help you manage the side effects of these eating patterns.
Pro tip – changes in your caffeine use can also lead to hunger-like headaches.
Hunger Headache Symptoms
Hunger-related headaches can lead to severe migraines and long-lasting throbbing pain in the temples. Some of the physical symptoms often associated with hunger headaches include:
- Low blood sugar
- Dull or throbbing pain in the temples
- Pressure around the circumference of your head
- Discomfort in the back of your head and neck
- Experiencing a pulsating or squeezing feeling
Headaches that arise from skipping meals or not eating enough also lead to a wide range of psychophysical symptoms, including sweating, high levels of stress, and muscle tension.
What Does a Hunger Headache Feel Like
Understanding what a hunger headache might feel like in your case can help you address it. While symptoms might vary slightly from one person to another, you are likely to feel:
- Fatigued or tired
- Dizzy and lightheaded
- Cold or sweaty
- Stomach pains and rumbling
These symptoms might appear all at once or they might gradually worsen.
How To Treat a Hunger Headache?
If you are looking for a fast hunger headache treatment, you can be sure that the solution is just around the corner. All you need to do to ease the symptoms of a hunger headache is eat. If your headache stems from a lack of caffeine or dehydration, having a glass of water or a cup of coffee can also help.
Your symptoms should start to slowly disappear when your body processes the food and increases blood sugar levels – this might take around 15-30 minutes.
When choosing what to eat to settle a headache, healthy snacks high in sugar – including protein bars, fruits, and juices can help.
If you have a history of migraine, changing your eating routine can be a trigger – and just eating some sugary foods might not be enough to stop a headache. In this case, consider working with an online doctor to access anti-inflammatory or steroidal medications, and find a strategy that works best for your needs.
How To Prevent Hunger Headaches?
Suffering from frequent headaches can be a life-changing condition that impacts all areas of your life, from productivity to social interactions and the ability to concentrate on work matters.
Luckily, not all headaches are created equal, and hunger headaches are among the simplest ones to prevent and treat. If you are prone to this condition, consider working with a nutritionist to:
- Find a dietary plan that allows you to maintain your blood sugar levels within the range
- Avoid intermittent fasting diets
- Eat snacks throughout the day
- Always keep a healthy, portable snack at hand
- Prevent dehydration by drinking enough water throughout the day
- Reduce your caffeine intake instead of going “cold turkey” if you are trying to quit caffeinated drinks
- Increase your portion sizes to ensure your body gets all the necessary nutrients
Pro tip – if you suffer from Type 1 or Type 2 diabetes, frequent headaches can be a symptom that your blood sugar is too high or too low. Consider monitoring your blood sugar levels and working with a specialized professional.
When To See a Doctor?
In the case of most hunger-related headaches, you won’t need to see a doctor. However, it is important to understand when to worry about headaches and contact a healthcare professional.
Some signs that you should immediately see a doctor about your headache include:
- Pain that lasts beyond 72 hours
- Experiencing uncontrollable vomiting
- Experience loss of vision or consciousness
- Sudden, very intense headaches
- High fever
Get Help From an Online Doctor
In some cases, accessing efficient and immediate medical attention can help you address your headache before it transforms into a chronic, severe, and impactful medical condition. If in doubt, getting help from an online doctor at DrHouse can help you find the answers you need.
Hunger headache is a common and easily preventable health condition that causes you to experience pain in the head due to dehydration, lack of food, or low blood sugar. Eating a snack and following a balanced diet can help you prevent hunger headaches and treat an arising one. Since some headaches can be a telltale sign of an underlying, more serious medical condition, seeking the help of an online doctor can help.
- QuickStats: Percentage of Adults Who Had a Severe Headache or Migraine in the Past 3 Months, by Sex and Age Group — National Health Interview Survey, United States, 2018. MMWR Morb Mortal Wkly Rep 2020;69:359. Available from: http://dx.doi.org/10.15585/mmwr.mm6912a8
- Carolyn Denton. How Does Food Impact Health? University of Minnesota, Taking Charge of Your Health & Wellbeing. Available from: https://www.takingcharge.csh.umn.edu/how-does-food-impact-health
- Guelinckx I, Tavoularis G, König J, Morin C, Gharbi H, Gandy J. Contribution of Water from Food and Fluids to Total Water Intake: Analysis of a French and UK Population Surveys. Nutrients. 2016 Oct 14;8(10):630. Available from: https://doi.org/10.3390%2Fnu8100630
- Hypoglycemia (2007) . National Headache Foundation. Available from: https://headaches.org/hypoglycemia/
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- Jayne Leonard (2022). Why does diabetes cause headaches? MedicalNewsToday. Available from: https://www.medicalnewstoday.com/articles/319770