Mind Candy

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Why people get headaches eating ice cream

Posted by mandyf on January 13, 2012

Nearly everyone has dove into a great looking dish of ice cream – or yogurt if that’s your thing – and just as the sweet taste is making you feel good and satisfied – BAM! You have a brain freeze moment! You might call it ice cream headache, but brain freeze does sound a lot cooler. Why does it happen? How does something so good have the ability to make you feel so bad?

Packed with flavor, or pain?!?!

When it comes to what causes brain freeze there are two schools of thought and each sounds pretty rational. It is possible that both are actually in play at the same time which is pretty funky, but possible. Let’s look at what is going on in and around your mouth first and then get to how ice cream, yogurt, or even a 7-11 Slurpee can cause brain freeze.

There is a thing called the trigeminal nerve which branches off into three separate areas in your head – in fact it is the largest cranial nerve and it is transporting loads of info around. Take my word for it, it’s a heavy hitter among nerves. The trigeminal nerve deals with what is going on in the front of your head – that includes your teeth, palate, and tongue which are all things ice cream comes in contact with. Whatever is going on in those areas, the trigeminal nerve is carrying it to the brain.

With that piece of the puzzle out of the way, it’s time to explain what that has to do with brain freeze specifically. In simple terms, when you eat really cold ice cream it is like declaring war on the nerve endings in your mouth. The sensation is so intense and hits so fast that your nerve endings go into overdrive. Those nerve endings are all blasting out signals from those three areas discussed above – teeth, tongue, and palate – straight to the root of the trigeminal nerve. When that all hits the trigeminal nerve it has no choice but transmit it all at once.

Where this gets really cool is that the nerve endings in your mouth are transmitting the pain signal – but you don’t feel pain in your mouth – you feel it in the upper region of your head – or brain as is the common term. It has to be felt somewhere, so the pain is felt in the top of your head, possibly the forehead, or maybe your temples. Technically speaking, the term is referred pain, but what are the odds that if you tell your kid he or she is experiencing referred pain that they are going to get that concept right off the bat?

There is another theory, and although some camps say the answer has to be one explanation or the other, others believe it can be both. This theory again centers around the trigeminal nerve (Told you it’s a big deal!). In this scenario the idea is that when you eat really cold ice cream fast, the trigeminal nerve senses the quick flash of cold and its automatic response is to try to get your mouth warmed back up as fast as possible.

One way the body warms itself up is by increasing blood flow to the area that is cold – especially when it is localized. So what happens when the trigeminal nerve relays that “cold” message to the brain is that blood vessels dilate in your head and extra blood is pushed through to warm you up. When you alter blood flow that fast – especially in your head, it creates a pulsing headache – the first sign of which is the sensation of brain freeze. Once blood flow is restored to its normal routine the brain freeze goes away.

The only way to avoid an ice cream headache – or brain freeze which still sounds cooler – is to eat slower. Don’t take big bites or slurps or whatever it is you’re doing to get that sticky frozen goodness inside of you. If you can’t help yourself and have to scarf it down like a glutton – be prepared!

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11 Responses to “Why people get headaches eating ice cream”

  1. Interesting, I never had any idea what caused this before I read the article. Now, time for some rocky road!

  2. Anne Thomas said

    Thanks for the info 🙂 Eating slow is a good idea for many reasons, and this is another!

  3. Grace Alexander said

    The second theory would explain why if you press and rub your tongue against the roof of your mouth to warm it up the headache goes away more swiftly.

  4. danajlange said

    Interesting facts about the “ice cream headache”. I’d never heard the first explanation. I’m going to use this information at my next cocktail party. Yeah, I’m a nerd like that.

  5. I don’t get an ice cream headache very often but when I do I break in a little dance and look like a top spinning around and around, after a few complete circles I feel much better if not all the way back.. Thanks for sharing.

  6. I always thought the ice cream was cooling the blood flowing through arteries going by/through the mouth, particularly the roof of the mouth, which then goes into the brain and causes contraction of blood vessels all along the way.

  7. Mott said

    Interesting conclusion about the brain-freeze, ice cream headache. I can say that I consume more than my share of this frozen delicasy and have not experienced head discomfort.

  8. mandyf said

    You are a lucky man! I get them all the time.

  9. Christian said

    Good to know, thanks!

  10. If someone invented warm ice cream for people who suffered from brain freeze, would it still be called ice cream? 🙂 Sorry… its just the mood I’m in!

  11. The tongue on the roof of the mouth does work for me at least 😉

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