An occasional headache once every couple of months isn’t a big deal. But regular headaches are likely related to something more significant.

If you live with type 1 or type 2 diabetes or prediabetes, those headaches could be directly related to your blood sugars. This means you might even be able to prevent them from occurring or reduce how often they occur!

In this article, we’ll look at how and why diabetes can lead to recurring headaches, and what you can do to reduce the frequency of “diabetes headaches” or prevent them altogether.

Diabetes & Headaches - Does diabetes cause headaches?

How and why diabetes might be causing your headaches

The cause of headaches in those of us with diabetes isn’t really much of a mystery. Your blood sugar levels feed and fuel your brain. In fact, your brain relies on a second-by-second delivery of glucose in order to function.

When your blood sugars aren’t in the ideal range that a healthy human body would prefer, your brain (and many other areas of your body) are going to notice.

Here’s a deeper understanding of blood sugar levels and headaches:

When your blood sugar is low…

The headache that comes with a mild or severe low blood sugar can feel like your skull is cracking apart — it’s brutal. And often times, the headache will linger long after you’ve treated the hypoglycemia and your blood sugar is back up to a safe range.

As mentioned earlier, your brain requires that second-by-second delivery of glucose in order to think and function. Some of the symptoms that come with some low blood sugars — like a lack of coordination or sudden confusion — are perfect evidence of what it looks like when your brain is struggling to function when that “gas tank” of sugar is low.

In one way, you could think of your headache during a low blood sugar as your brain’s way of trying to get your attention — begging you to give your body the fast-acting carbohydrates it needs to recover.

When your blood sugar is high…

It’s easy to forget that your brain isn’t getting the proper fuel it needs when your blood sugar is high, too, because while there is plenty of glucose in the bloodstream, it requires insulin to help your body (and your brain) actually make use of it.

While the effect of high blood sugar levels doesn’t feel as emergent as the symptoms of low blood sugars, your body is still struggling in other ways.

Flooded with glucose but without adequate insulin quickly leads to varying levels of:

Diabetes-related ketones (versus non-harmful nutritionally-induced ketones) are the result of your body being forced to burn fat for fuel in a very dangerous way, producing ketones at a very dangerous rate and quantity. It is a state of stress for your entire body — including your brain.

Additionally, when your blood sugar is high, your body will become dehydrated. The higher your blood sugar is and the greater the length of time it’s high, the more dehydrated you’ll become.

Dehydration — even in those without diabetes — is an obvious and well-known cause of headaches. But keep in mind that dehydration can also lead to high blood sugars. The less water there is in your bodily tissue and bloodstream, the more concentrated the glucose in your bloodstream becomes.

Drinking enough water as a person with diabetes ought to be considered as critical as taking your medications, but it’s an easy one to overlook.

If you have high blood pressure…

Considering that nearly two-thirds of people with diabetes struggle with high blood pressure, it’s very likely contributing to your headaches. This is especially important to discuss with your doctor because very few people with high blood pressure actually have symptoms.

High blood pressure can easily go undiagnosed and untreated. Consequences of long-term high blood pressure include:

  • Severe damage to your heart
  • Severe damage to your arteries
  • Severe damage to your kidneys
  • Severe damage to your eyes
  • Increased risk of stroke and blood clots
  • Difficulty sleeping (which can lead to more headaches!)
  • Risk of sleep apnea (which can lead to more headaches!)

If your headaches are unrelated to your diabetes…

And of course, if your headaches persist to an unmanageable level…you may be suffering from migraines which is really a different beast than your basic headache. There’s also a slew of other diagnosable health conditions unrelated to diabetes that can result in a headache.

Don’t hesitate to contact your healthcare team if you think your headaches have become severe or are actually migraines.

How to treat and reduce the frequency of your headaches

There are many things you can do to manage your headaches instead of simply taking over-the-counter painkillers every day. And the reality is that no amount of acetaminophen is going to help a headache that is the result of persistent blood sugar or blood pressure issues.

Get those high blood sugar levels down

High blood sugars aren’t random — they are the what happens where there’s an imbalance of any combination of food, activity, medications, stress, and hormones.

If you have type 1 diabetes and persistent high blood sugar levels, it’s definitely time for a tune-up of your insulin doses and how you dose insulin for the food you eat.

High blood sugars in type 1 diabetes mean one very simple thing: you’re not getting enough insulin. While making nutritional changes can eventually lower blood sugar levels, the most important thing right now is to make sure you’re getting adequate insulin.

Our insulin needs change throughout our entire life — don’t resist making changes with your healthcare team.

For patients with prediabetes or type 2 diabetes, it can be very daunting to start a diabetes medication after your diagnosis, or if other approaches aren’t working. Remember, for many people with type 2, diabetes is a progressive disease which means your body’s ability to properly produce and use insulin is going to decrease over time.

Starting a diabetes medication is the most important thing you can do to not only reduce your headaches, but also to save your eyes, your kidneys, your stomach, and your feet! Don’t let shame or fear of starting a medication get in the way of doing what you need to do right now to get your blood sugars down to a safer level.

Make gradual changes in your diet. This step will always have a remarkable impact on reaching your blood sugar goals. If your blood sugars are persistently high, but the idea of trying to follow a strict diet is so overwhelming that you’re already feeling defeated, you need to remember this one thing:

No “diabetes diet” needs to be 100% perfect.

The most successful changes in a person’s relationship with food are generally the result of making gradual changes, bit by bit, meal or meal, and always making room in your daily food intake for a high-quality “treat.”

That “treat” might be a homemade brownie or a few slices of French bread slathered in butter — regardless, it’s not your entire diet for the whole day. It’s a small portion, ideally 20 percent or less, while the other 80 percent of your diet is made up of healthier options.

Get moving — even just walking after a meal! You’ve likely heard this one before — right? Well, it’s a big one. If your day-to-day life doesn’t currently include regular activity, chronic headaches related to high blood sugars could be a helpful motivator.

Your daily exercise doesn’t have to be at a CrossFit gym or jogging 8 miles to be worth your while.

Walking for 15 minutes after lunch and/or dinner can have a big impact on your post-meal blood sugars. And if you stick with it, that increased activity will help you lose weight, which will help reduce your insulin resistance, and thus, reduce your blood sugar levels.

Lose weight. Easier said than done, but the point of everything above is going to inevitably help your body lose weight. Insulin resistance makes it more challenging to keep your blood sugars in a healthy range. The more you can combat this through changes in your diet, getting more active, and talking to your doctor about medications that include a side-effect of weight-loss…the more likely you can nip those high blood sugars and headaches in the bud!

High blood sugars are not random, and there are so many medications and things you can do to get them down. Let those headaches inspire you!

Reduce the frequency of your low blood sugars

For people with type 1 and type 2 diabetes who take insulin and other medications that lower blood sugar levels, low blood sugars are something we’ll always have to deal with.

First of all, make sure you are treating low blood sugars with fast-acting carbohydrate food items that don’t contain a great deal of protein or fat. The protein and fat slow down the digestion and absorption of glucose, which means your blood sugar will drop further and stay low longer.

Regardless, if lows are happening frequently, that means your medications are definitely in need of some fine-tuning.

For patients with type 2 diabetes, it’s not uncommon for doctors to prescribe a set insulin dose for all your meals without teaching you how to count carbohydrates and make sure your insulin matches what you’re eating.

For anyone taking insulin, remember that our insulin needs change throughout our life. If you lose 10 pounds or suddenly stop eating dessert, your insulin needs may decrease. If you don’t adjust your doses, you’ll start experiencing a lot of low blood sugars!

And exercise — which can be incredibly challenging if you take insulin — has plenty of logic to learn around it, too. Don’t accept frequent hypoglycemia as an inevitable part of exercising with diabetes. You can prevent those lows by learning more about how different types of exercise impact your blood sugars.

Learning more about your body’s insulin needs can be life-changing if you’re struggling with frequent blood sugar levels that appear to be random, or lows directly related to exercise, dosing insulin for food, or blood sugar roller coasters with swings from high to low and high again.

Talk to your healthcare team or a great diabetes coach and invest some of your time and energy into getting things tuned up to prevent those recurring lows.

Get your blood pressure down

Reducing your blood pressure isn’t just going to help spare you from headaches, it could save your life. In addition to persistent high blood pressure, some people with blood pressure issues can experience a rapid increase that puts your entire life at risk.

Here are several things the American Diabetes Association recommends to lower your blood pressure:

  • Talk to your healthcare team about all of your treatment options
  • Research medications that lower blood pressure, including ACE inhibitors, ARBs, beta blockers, calcium channel blockers, and diuretics
  • Get more whole grains (versus highly processed grains) in your diet
  • Reduce your salt intake with a low-sodium salt substitute, and herbs and spices
  • Avoid packaged foods with more than 400 mg of sodium per serving
  • Eat more whole foods that don’t contain any sodium in the first place
  • Make a weight-loss goal and start walking at a comfortable pace every day
  • Reduce your alcohol consumption
  • If you smoke, it’s time to quit!

In the end, reducing blood pressure comes down to living a healthier lifestyle. You don’t have to be perfect, but if 80 percent of your day consists of healthy choices combined with more activity, you’ll see those numbers gradually come down.

Drink more water!

Well, this sounds like a no-brainer but it’s harder than it sounds.

Getting dehydrated as a person with diabetes can bring a double-whammy: a headache and high blood sugar levels.

The less fluid there is in your bloodstream, the more concentrated the glucose in your blood becomes. And this results in high blood sugar levels which will only add to your dehydration headache.

Staying hydrated as a person with diabetes is a must. And the goal is two liters of water per day!

Here are a few tips to help you get there:

Don’t just drink from a water glass, use a large reusable drink container. Fill it up at the start of the day. Determine how many servings of that container equals 2 liters, and make that number your goal!

Start your day with a hearty chug of water…then have your coffee. This one is painfully challenging if you’re a well-established coffee drinker because that hot cup of coffee is so comforting at 6 a.m. But if you get just one quickly-chugged glass of water in before you spend the next three hours drinking coffee, you’ll be ahead of the hydration game.

Set reminders on your phone. Set a reminder to ding quietly every 3 hours as a reminder to drink water. Or you could try an 11 a.m. reminder that asks, “Have you had enough water to drink so far today?” After a few weeks of being bossed around by your phone, it just might become something your body craves!

And of course, if your headaches persist to an unmanageable level…you may be suffering from migraines which is really a different beast than your basic headache. There’s also a slew of other diagnosable health conditions unrelated to diabetes that can result in a headache.

Don’t hesitate to contact your healthcare team if you think your headaches have become severe or are actually migraines.