Five Ways Diabetes Causes Headaches

What causes your diabetes headaches?

For many people, having a headache is, unfortunately, a fact of life. Headaches are extremely common, and the World Health Organization (WHO) states[1] that almost half of adults are estimated to have a headache over the course of a year. There are many different types of headaches, ranging from migraines[2] to tension headaches to cluster headaches — and even “ice cream” headaches that result from eating or drinking something that is extremely cold. Headaches can also occur due to sinus infections, high blood pressure, and medications. If you have diabetes, headaches are even more common. Given all of the possible causes of headaches, it’s not surprising that so many people suffer from them.

For those who have diabetes and find that a pounding head is more than just a passing nuisance, it’s time to sort out possible causes. Some of the likely culprits may be directly related to your diabetes. Let’s take a look at five ways diabetes causes headaches.


Hyperglycemia[3], or high blood glucose, is typically defined as a blood glucose level above 180 mg/dl. Causes of hyperglycemia include:

• Not taking (or not taking enough) diabetes medicine, including insulin, non-insulin injectables, and diabetes pills
• Eating more carbohydrate than usual
• Not being physically active[4]
• Illness, injury, or surgery
• Stress
• Getting too much or too little sleep[5]
• Certain medicines, such as corticosteroids

Depending on high how your blood sugar is, you may or may not have symptoms. However, typical symptoms of high blood sugar include:

• Increased thirst
• Having to urinate often
• Fatigue
• Blurred vision
• Headache

What can you do?

If you have a headache, either by itself or combined with other typical symptoms of hyperglycemia, check your blood glucose. You may find that the higher your blood glucose, the worse the headache. Drinking water to lessen the chance of dehydration is important, and depending on how high your blood sugar is or if you have ketones[6] in your urine, doing some physical activity can help to lower your blood sugar level. To lessen the frequency of hyperglycemia, follow your diabetes treatment plan as closely as possible. Talk with your health-care provider if your blood sugars are still high despite taking your medicines as directed, as you may need a change in your dose or an additional medicine.


On the opposite end of the spectrum is hypoglycemia[7], or low blood glucose. A blood glucose below 70 mg/dl is considered to be “low” for most people. Symptoms of low blood glucose tend to come on more quickly than symptoms of highs. These include:

• Sweating
• Shakiness
• Dizziness
• Hunger
• Irritability
• Confusion
• Headache

What can you do?

If you get headaches when you’re low, you probably will have other symptoms of hypoglycemia, as well. Again, the best course of action is to check your blood glucose. No meter handy? To be on the safe side, eat or drink 15 grams of carbohydrate[8], such as 4 glucose tablets, a pouch of glucose gel, 4 ounces of juice, or 6 ounces of regular soda (avoid reaching for a candy bar, peanut butter, or anything that contains fat). Once your blood sugar comes back up to a safe level, your headache should gradually subside.

High blood pressure[9]

According to the American Diabetes Association, 2 in 3 people with diabetes have high blood pressure[10] or take medication to lower blood pressure. For most people with diabetes, the blood pressure goal is less than 140/80 mmHg (your goal may be lower, so it’s wise to check with your doctor). Most people who have high blood pressure don’t have symptoms; however, if your blood pressure is high and stays high over a period of time, you may have headaches.

What can you do?

Uncontrolled blood pressure can cause serious problems including stroke, heart attack, and kidney disease[11]. You can get and keep your blood pressure at your target by doing the following:

• Staying physically active
• Losing weight
• Stopping smoking[12]
• Limiting alcohol
• Cutting back on sodium
• Eating fruits and vegetables
• Taking medicine to lower blood pressure

In addition, ask the medical assistant what your blood pressure is at every doctor’s visit. Talk with your doctor about using a home blood pressure monitor to keep tabs on how your blood pressure treatment plan is working.

Sleep apnea[13]

Sleep apnea is a common and serious condition that can occur when the upper airway becomes blocked repeatedly during sleep. People who have Type 2 diabetes[14] have a higher risk of sleep apnea compared to people without diabetes; it’s also more common in people who are overweight or obese and who have heart disease. And men are two to three times more likely to have sleep apnea[15] than women. Common signs and symptoms include:

• Snoring
• Stopping breathing for periods of time during sleep
• Gasping for air
• Dry mouth
• Daytime sleepiness
• Irritability
• Morning headaches

Untreated sleep apnea can do more than cause headaches — your risk of high blood pressure, high blood sugars, heart attack, stroke, and liver problems increase, as well.

What can you do?

First things first — if you or your partner suspect that you may have sleep apnea, talk with your doctor. Your doctor may refer you to a sleep specialist or a center for a sleep study. A sleep study can detect your breathing patterns, and will monitor your blood oxygen levels, as well as brain and heart activity during sleep. If you’re diagnosed with sleep apnea, you may need to wear a mouthpiece or use a CPAP machine while you’re sleeping. Lifestyle measures, such as weight loss[16], healthy eating, physical activity, and stopping smoking can also help control or treat sleep apnea.

Food and eating habits

Despite the constant recommendations to eat healthfully when you have diabetes, it’s not necessarily easy to change your eating habits. No one is perfect! But when it comes to your food choices or how and when you eat, it’s worthwhile to focus on a) trying to get into an eating routine and b) making healthful food decisions most of the time. You’ll reap a host of benefits by doing so, including more stable blood glucose levels, reaching and staying at a healthy weight, a lower risk of chronic conditions such as heart disease, and, yes, fewer headaches. What and how you eat (or don’t eat) can be directly responsible for headaches, especially migraines. Typical “triggers” for migraines include:

• Too much or too little caffeine
• Alcohol, especially red wine, whiskey, Scotch, and champagne
• Aged cheeses (blue cheese, brie, cheddar)
• Nitrates and nitrites, found in cold cuts, hot dogs, sausage, and bacon
• Monosodium glutamate (MSG)
• Dark chocolate
• Chili peppers
• Foods or drinks containing aspartame[17], a nonnutritive sweetener
• Citrus fruits

Other culprits: skipping or delaying meals, and not drinking enough fluids.

What can you do?

Consuming the foods listed above doesn’t necessarily mean that they’ll trigger a migraine; you’ll need to pay close attention to how certain foods or beverages affect you. In fact, it’s worthwhile to keep a diary of things that might bring on headaches. And as much as possible, aim to eat regularly. If you can’t eat a full meal at your usual mealtime, eat something, such as an energy bar, a piece of fruit and a handful of nuts, or a container of Greek yogurt, for example. If your headaches persist despite making dietary changes, you might benefit from medicines, such as beta blockers, antidepressants, antiseizure medicines, or a class of drugs called triptans.

Of course, there are apps for that…

In many cases, the cause of your headaches can be easily explained by factors such as changes in blood glucose levels, lack of quality sleep, or missing your morning coffee. But headaches that continue despite making lifestyle changes should always be brought to the attention of your doctor. He or she may refer you to a headache specialist. You can also keep tabs on your headaches by using an app. App suggestions include:

• Migraine Buddy[18]
• Curelator[19]
• IHeadache[20]
• Headache Tracker[21]

Want to learn more about the relationship between diabetes and headaches? Read “Diabetes and Headaches: Soothing That Aching Head.”[22]

  1. World Health Organization (WHO) states:
  2. migraines:
  3. Hyperglycemia:
  4. physically active:
  5. sleep:
  6. ketones:
  7. hypoglycemia:
  8. 15 grams of carbohydrate:
  9. High blood pressure:
  10. have high blood pressure:
  11. kidney disease:
  12. Stopping smoking:
  13. Sleep apnea:
  14. Type 2 diabetes:
  15. to have sleep apnea:
  16. weight loss:
  17. aspartame:
  18. Migraine Buddy:
  19. Curelator:
  20. IHeadache:
  21. Headache Tracker:
  22. “Diabetes and Headaches: Soothing That Aching Head.”:

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Amy Campbell: Amy Campbell is the author of Staying Healthy with Diabetes: Nutrition and Meal Planning and a frequent contributor to Diabetes Self-Management and Diabetes & You. She has co-authored several books, including the The Joslin Guide to Diabetes and the American Diabetes Association’s 16 Myths of a “Diabetic Diet,” for which she received a Will Solimene Award of Excellence in Medical Communication and a National Health Information Award in 2000. Amy also developed menus for Fit Not Fat at Forty Plus and co-authored Eat Carbs, Lose Weight with fitness expert Denise Austin. Amy earned a bachelor’s degree in nutrition from Simmons College and a master’s degree in nutrition education from Boston University. In addition to being a Registered Dietitian, she is a Certified Diabetes Educator and a member of the American Dietetic Association, the American Diabetes Association, and the American Association of Diabetes Educators. Amy was formerly a Diabetes and Nutrition Educator at Joslin Diabetes Center, where she was responsible for the development, implementation, and evaluation of disease management programs, including clinical guideline and educational material development, and the development, testing, and implementation of disease management applications. She is currently the Director of Clinical Education Content Development and Training at Good Measures. Amy has developed and conducted training sessions for various disease and case management programs and is a frequent presenter at disease management events.

Disclaimer of Medical Advice: Statements and opinions expressed on this Web site are those of the authors and not necessarily those of the publishers or advertisers. The information, which comes from qualified medical writers, does not constitute medical advice or recommendation of any kind, and you should not rely on any information contained in such posts or comments to replace consultations with your qualified health care professionals to meet your individual needs.