Fasting Headaches – Causes, Symptoms, and Remedies

By Ashley LoseApril 7th 2021

Had enough of painful headaches while fasting?

Wondering how you can reap the rewards of a fast but skip the pounding headaches. In this article, we’ll get to the causes, symptoms, and remedies of headaches brought on by fasting and help you navigate the pain.  (Read also: How Losing Weight Affects Your Body and Brain)

Whether you’re fasting for religious reasons, to lose weight, or to try one of the newest nutrition trends, it’s common to also experience headaches.1 There are many different types of fasting methods – some ask that you go for hours or days without food or drink while others require you abstain from a specific food item for a short period of time. In either case, when your head is painfully throbbing and your stomachs growling from hunger, you might begin to ask yourself if you’re doing something wrong. 

Fasting Headaches – Causes, Symptoms, and Remedies

Studies show that fasting could have many potential health benefits for people: 

  • Helps with weight loss.2
  • Reduces insulin resistance.3
  • Reduces inflammation that can lead to chronic diseases.4,5
  • Improves brain health but increasing the brain hormone BDNF.6 
  • May prevent some cancers.7

Fasting Headaches – Causes, Symptoms, and Remedies

So why does it also trigger headaches? 

While the onset of a headache may differ from person-to-person studies summarize that fasting headaches are often caused by your body’s reaction to missing something like sugar or caffeine.8 When you’re fasting you put your body at a deficit of things that it’s been using to function. This can cause a disorder in homeostasis –  it corresponds to the capacity of a system to maintain the balance of its internal environment, whatever the external constraints.9 Thus, bringing on the tension-type headaches you’ve likely experienced.10 

Fasting can also come along with other symptoms like:11 

  • Fainting
  • Weakness
  • Hunger pangs
  • Dehydration
  • Mood swings

Fasting Headaches – Causes, Symptoms, and Remedies

How to prevent headaches and other side effects when fasting?

While in many cases the pros outweigh the cons, fasting is not for everyone and you should speak with your doctor or dietician prior to going hours or days without eating. However, depending on the type of fast that you’re doing there are some preventive measures you can take to ensure your safety. 

Fasting Headaches – Causes, Symptoms, and Remedies

Start with a short fast period. Like any changes you make in your diet, you want to begin introducing your body to it slowly. So instead of sporadically putting a halt to your food consumption you can cautiously cut-back on the amount of food you eat. Also, do your homework on which fasting regimen would be best for you and the desired results you are looking to achieve. Long-term fasting can be dangerous, especially if it is not supervised by a health professional so starting with an intermittent fasting period may be a good introduction for you. Some of the popular intermittent fasting techniques are:

  • The 5:2 method. This is where you eat with no restriction on five days of the week and fast for two days out of the week. On your days that you fast you’ll restrict your daily calorie consumption to 500 calories to 600 a day. It is also important to note that these two days can’t be consecutive. 12 
  • Alternate-day fasting. This is where you fast every other day. On the in-between days, you follow your usual eating habits, assuming you’re making healthy food choices. On the days that you’re fasting, you have the option of minimizing your calories or eating nothing at all.13 
  • Periodic fasting. This is where you fast for once a month, several days in a row, commonly 5 days restricting your calorie intake. On the other days of the month, you return to your regular diet.14 
  • Time-restricting fasting. There are lots of different variations of this fasting technique but oversimplify the approach, you’ll eat your meals with a specific time frame of the day (let’s say 6-8 hours). Outside of that window for eating, you eat nothing and fast.15

No matter which method you choose you may still be prone to headaches. However, eating small amounts of food could help, rather than completely cutting all foods which may reduce your risk of experiencing some side effects we listed above. While fasting is commonly self-managed, you can speak with your doctor about the best strategy for preventing a headache, even before you begin your fast. Medications like NSAIDs (nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs) have been proven to be safe and effective drugs for treating headaches and migraines.16 That said, it is not recommended to take any medications, including over-the-counter drugs without the consent of your doctor first.  (Check out: Can My Chiropractor Help Me Lose A Few Pounds?)

Fasting Headaches – Causes, Symptoms, and Remedies

Some of the most common NSAIDs on the market are:17

  • ibuprofen
  • naproxen
  • diclofenac
  • celecoxib
  • mefenamic acid
  • etoricoxib
  • indomethacin
  • high-dose aspirin (low-dose aspirin is not normally considered to be an NSAID)

Fasting Headaches – Causes, Symptoms, and Remedies

If you are not partial to medications you could also try natural remedies to ease your fasting headache. These natural treatments may not put an end to your headache but they may relieve the tension. (Read also: How to Lose Weight In 12 Weeks)

  • Creating a calming environment for yourself. Dim or turn off the lights in your home, office, or wherever you are when your head begins. Migraines have a tendency to increase your sensitivity to light.18 If you can find a place to relax and keep the room dark. If possible you may also want to take a nap. 
  • Make use of heat therapy options. Hot packs and warm towels have a tendency to help your muscles relax and ease tension in your body. If you can take a hot bath or warm shower with the lights off and a warm rag over your head or neck, wherever you feel the most tension.19 
  • Get some good sleep. Outside of fasting, sleep loss and oversleeping are typical triggers for headaches.20 It would be to your advantage to establish consistent sleep hours for yourself – even on the weekend. You can do this by powering off your devices an hour before bedtime. Turning off or dimming your lights to signal to your brain you’re winding down. Drink a cup hot cup of chamomile tea to help you relax and reduce your anxiety from the day.21 
  • Stay hydrated. Even if you’re just mildly dehydrated you can trigger a headache.22 As you’re fasting remember to keep up with your fluids and drink plenty of water throughout the day.
  • Continue taking any medications prescribed by your doctor. 

Sources: 

  1. Torelli, P., & Manzoni, G. C. (2010). Fasting headache. Current pain and headache reports, 14(4), 284–291. https://doi.org/10.1007/s11916-010-0119-5

  1. Johnstone A. (2015). Fasting for weight loss: an effective strategy or latest dieting trend?. International journal of obesity (2005), 39(5), 727–733. https://doi.org/10.1038/ijo.2014.214

  1. Adrienne R. Barnosky, Kristin K. Hoddy, Terry G. Unterman, Krista A. Varady, Intermittent fasting vs daily calorie restriction for type 2 diabetes prevention: a review of human findings, Translational Research, Volume 164, Issue 4, 2014, Pages 302-311, ISSN 1931-5244, https://doi.org/10.1016/j.trsl.2014.05.013.

  1. Johnson, J. B., Summer, W., Cutler, R. G., Martin, B., Hyun, D. H., Dixit, V. D., Pearson, M., Nassar, M., Telljohann, R., Maudsley, S., Carlson, O., John, S., Laub, D. R., & Mattson, M. P. (2007). Alternate day calorie restriction improves clinical findings and reduces markers of oxidative stress and inflammation in overweight adults with moderate asthma. Free radical biology & medicine, 42(5), 665–674. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.freeradbiomed.2006.12.005

  1. Faris, M. A., Kacimi, S., Al-Kurd, R. A., Fararjeh, M. A., Bustanji, Y. K., Mohammad, M. K., & Salem, M. L. (2012). Intermittent fasting during Ramadan attenuates proinflammatory cytokines and immune cells in healthy subjects. Nutrition research (New York, N.Y.), 32(12), 947–955. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.nutres.2012.06.021

  1. Lee, J., Duan, W., Long, J. M., Ingram, D. K., & Mattson, M. P. (2000). Dietary restriction increases the number of newly generated neural cells, and induces BDNF expression, in the dentate gyrus of rats. Journal of molecular neuroscience : MN, 15(2), 99–108. https://doi.org/10.1385/JMN:15:2:99

  1. Siegel, I., Liu, T. L., Nepomuceno, N., & Gleicher, N. (1988). Effects of short-term dietary restriction on survival of mammary ascites tumor-bearing rats. Cancer investigation, 6(6), 677–680. https://doi.org/10.3109/07357908809078034

  1. Torelli, P., Evangelista, A., Bini, A., Castellini, P., Lambru, G. and Manzoni, G.C. (2009), Fasting Headache: A Review of the Literature and New Hypotheses. Headache: The Journal of Head and Face Pain, 49: 744-752. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1526-4610.2009.01390.x

  1. Torelli, P., Evangelista, A., Bini, A., Castellini, P., Lambru, G. and Manzoni, G.C. (2009), Fasting Headache: A Review of the Literature and New Hypotheses. Headache: The Journal of Head and Face Pain, 49: 744-752. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1526-4610.2009.01390.x

  1. Torelli, P., Evangelista, A., Bini, A., Castellini, P., Lambru, G. and Manzoni, G.C. (2009), Fasting Headache: A Review of the Literature and New Hypotheses. Headache: The Journal of Head and Face Pain, 49: 744-752. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1526-4610.2009.01390.x

  1. Benjamin D Horne, Joseph B Muhlestein, Jeffrey L Anderson, Health effects of intermittent fasting: hormesis or harm? A systematic review, The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, Volume 102, Issue 2, August 2015, Pages 464–470, https://doi.org/10.3945/ajcn.115.109553

  1. National Institute on Aging. (2018, August 14). Calorie Restriction and Fasting Diets: What Do We Know? Healthy Eating. Retrieved January 12, 2021, from https://www.nia.nih.gov/health/calorie-restriction-and-fasting-diets-what-do-we-know

  1. National Institute on Aging. (2018, August 14). Calorie Restriction and Fasting Diets: What Do We Know? Healthy Eating. Retrieved January 12, 2021, from https://www.nia.nih.gov/health/calorie-restriction-and-fasting-diets-what-do-we-know

  1. National Institute on Aging. (2018, August 14). Calorie Restriction and Fasting Diets: What Do We Know? Healthy Eating. Retrieved January 12, 2021, from https://www.nia.nih.gov/health/calorie-restriction-and-fasting-diets-what-do-we-know

  1. National Institute on Aging. (2018, August 14). Calorie Restriction and Fasting Diets: What Do We Know? Healthy Eating. Retrieved January 12, 2021, from https://www.nia.nih.gov/health/calorie-restriction-and-fasting-diets-what-do-we-know

  1. Pardutz, A., & Schoenen, J. (2010). NSAIDs in the Acute Treatment of Migraine: A Review of Clinical and Experimental Data. Pharmaceuticals (Basel, Switzerland), 3(6), 1966–1987. https://doi.org/10.3390/ph3061966

  1. The United Kingdom National Health Service. (2019, February 27). NSAIDs. Health A to Z. Retrieved January 12, 2021, from https://www.nhs.uk/conditions/nsaids/

  1. Digre, K. B., & Brennan, K. C. (2012). Shedding light on photophobia. Journal of neuro-ophthalmology : the official journal of the North American Neuro-Ophthalmology Society, 32(1), 68–81. https://doi.org/10.1097/WNO.0b013e3182474548

  1. Britannica & Hogeback, J. (n.d.). Why Does Heat Relax Your Muscles. Health & Medicine. Retrieved January 12, 2021, from https://www.britannica.com/story/why-does-heat-relax-your-muscles

  1. American Migraine Foundation. (2019, April 25). Sleep Disorders and Headache. Retrieved January 12, 2021, from https://americanmigrainefoundation.org/resource-library/sleep/

  1. Srivastava, J. K., Shankar, E., & Gupta, S. (2010). Chamomile: A herbal medicine of the past with bright future. Molecular medicine reports, 3(6), 895–901. https://doi.org/10.3892/mmr.2010.377

  1. Price, A., & Burls, A. (2015). Increased water intake to reduce headache: learning from a critical appraisal. Journal of evaluation in clinical practice, 21(6), 1212–1218. https://doi.org/10.1111/jep.12413

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