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What Causes Brain Freeze?

24 min read -

You sit down on the couch with your pint of ice cream in your hand. You take out your spoon and dig in. You’ve been excited for your favorite sweet treat all day, and then it happens. That tiny bite starts an incredible, intense headache that only lasts for just a moment. In some cases, it’s uncomfortable enough to get you to put the pint back in the freezer.

This phenomenon is called brain freeze. It happens to a lot of people, but it doesn’t necessarily happen every time you eat cold foods. It’s almost as though brain freeze lurks in the shadows, waiting to sneak up on you at the least opportune moment. 

What is brain freeze, and what causes brain freeze? How do you avoid it, and when it happens, how should you deal with it?


What is Brain Freeze?

Sphenopalatine ganglioneuralgia is the technical term for brain freeze. If you attempted to pronounce that, it’s likely clear why it’s been reduced to “brain freeze” in layman’s terms. The sphenopalatine ganglioneuralgia nerves are connected to the trigeminal nerve in the brain, and certain kinds of negative stimulation of those nerves can cause the rapid onset of a headache that usually doesn’t last longer than a few minutes. 


What Causes Brain Freeze?

The SPG nerves don’t respond well to sudden cold, but medical researchers have been unable to determine exactly why that happens. There are a few theories as to why it may happen. The common sense theory is that the tissue in your mouth is very thin. Some of the tissue is actually so thin that it allows things to pass directly into your bloodstream. That’s how things like CBD tinctures and dissolvable melatonin tablets work. 

This thin tissue immediately receives messages and starts to send them. When a sharp jolt of cold hits the roof of your mouth, the signal travels to the SPG nerves very quickly. Cold shrinks blood vessels, and the blood in the shrinking vessels advances rapidly. 

This causes an increase of blood flow and a restriction of blood flow at the same time, stalling your brain’s ability to regulate blood flow to its desired level. The end result is a headache that will continue until the blood vessels begin to behave normally. 

People with a history of migraines may be more prone to brain freeze, but the link is not perfectly established. If you’ve had a migraine within the past year, your chances of getting an “ice cream headache” are a little higher than someone who has never experienced a migraine before. 

There’s still a lot that scientists don’t understand about brain freeze. They do know that it usually isn’t dangerous or indicative of a larger problem. Complications relating to brain freeze are very rare. In people with certain conditions, brain freeze may cause irregular heartbeat or atrial fibrillation. These people should avoid cold foods entirely. 


What Does Brain Freeze Feel Like?

Most people describe brain freeze as a sharp and sudden pain behind their face. Some people say it feels like being stabbed between the eyes. This pain can go away in as little as 30 seconds, but in some cases, it can last up to three minutes. It resolves itself as soon as the nerves return to their normal temperature. Brain freeze is usually here and gone in a flash.

If you’re still dealing with headache pain after ten minutes, you might not have a brain freeze. It could be a migraine that happened to start while you were eating cold foods. If you don’t have a history of migraines and a treatment plan in place, you should talk to your doctor. 


What Should You Do When You Have a Brain Freeze?

If you’re experiencing a brain freeze, press your tongue against the roof of your mouth as hard as you can. The warmth from your tongue will warm up the cold nerves. You can also take a sip of something warm or room temperature to help the nerves return to normal. 

Most people find that they can resume eating their dessert as soon as their brain freeze goes away because the nerves have figured out the issue and resolved it. Brain freeze is unlikely to happen consecutively. If your unpleasant experience with your cold treat has left a bad taste in your mouth, you can stick it back in the freezer for another time. 


Can You Feel Brain Freeze In Your Teeth?

If your cold induced headache starts at your teeth and travels upward, this isn’t brain freeze. Brain freeze affects the nerves through the roof of the mouth, rather than through the gums or the teeth. Pain in your teeth won’t go away and allow you to resume eating cold foods. It will recur with every single bite you take. 

If ice cream gives you headaches from the teeth up, this is a sign of cold sensitivity from enamel erosion. If your dentist has already told you that you have weakened enamel, you should avoid foods that cause you pain. 

When your enamel is eroded, the soft center of your teeth is closer to the surface. This soft material is called dentin, and it contains tiny tubules that connect to nerves. If something cold makes its way to these tubules, you’ll experience pain that can travel throughout your mouth, face, sinuses, and the front of your head.

This isn’t something you can fix at home, and it isn’t something you should ignore.  You may need dental work, or at the very least, a great remineralizing toothpaste to help fortify your teeth against extreme temperatures. When your dentist treats the problem appropriately, you may be permitted to resume eating cold foods. 


Avoiding Brain Freeze

You can reduce the potential for brain freeze by starting slowly with cold foods. Make your first few bites or sips very tiny, and space them apart. Gradually work up to larger bites or sips when it comes apparent that your nerves aren’t reacting to the temperature.

You can also enjoy your ice cream with a cup of hot coffee or tea. Alternating between warm and cold will keep your nerves from overprocessing the cold sensation. 

You also have the option of enjoying cold foods and warm foods together. Putting a scoop of ice cream on top of a warm pumpkin brownie or a vegan protein waffle will help to balance out the temperatures when you take a bite. A little bit of warmth helps the ice cream melt in your mouth faster. 


The Takeaway

Brain freeze is really unpleasant. Thankfully, it’s only temporary. It’s like a little blip of confusion that your nerves are good at sorting out on their own. You can help them by sipping on warm tea and enjoying your cold snacks slowly. If it happens to you a lot, you might want to avoid very cold foods. Warm or room temperature desserts will solve the problem.

Snow Monkey might help you enjoy your frozen desserts without the risk of brain freeze. Our ice cream is made of fruits, seeds, and superfoods, so it’s the perfect treat to enjoy in ways that don’t require it to be completely frozen. For example, if you allow it to come closer to room temperature before you eat it, you can enjoy it like a smoothie. After all, it’s just as nutritionally beneficial as one. 




Sources:

https://americanmigrainefoundation.org/resource-library/sphenopalatine-ganglion/ 

https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/22914815/

https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4718113/

https://www.healthline.com/health/sensitive-teeth

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