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Brain Freeze

This experiment comes from a question that I got from a subscriber. As I researched the question, it was even more interesting than I expected. It also seemed like a good excuse to eat lots of ice cream.

First off, I don't recommend giving yourself a headache. If you have ever had an ice cream headache, you already know what it feels like. If you have not, you probably won't, as only about 30% of people get this kind of headache. They usually happen on hot days, when you quickly eat lots of ice cream or other very cold things. Suddenly you feel a strong pain in your head, which many people call brain freeze.

These headaches were studied by Dr. Robert Smith. He suffered from ice cream headaches and wanted to find out what caused them. By placing crushed ice against the back of the palate, he succeeded in causing the headache, but only on days when it was very hot. To feel your palate, rub your tongue across the roof of your mouth, from the front to the back. Near your teeth, the roof of your mouth feels fairly hard and somewhat bumpy. When you get about half way back, it suddenly becomes soft and smooth. The point where it changes is the back of the palate. There is a nerve center there, called the spheno-palatine ganglion. Dr. Smith decided that the intense cold against this nerve makes your body think that your brain is too cold. In order to warm the brain, your body causes some of the blood vessels expand, sending extra blood to the area around the brain. This causes a situation very similar to what causes a migraine headache. In fact, although only 30% of people get ice cream headaches, 90% of migraine sufferers get them.

One interesting part of this is the way that your body reacts to the cold. When your body get cold, the blood vessels in your hands and feet get smaller, so they get less blood. This makes them even colder! Why? Less blood to your hands and feet means more blood to keep your vital organs warm. As you get colder and colder, more and more of your blood is sent towards your brain and vital organs. Less and less goes to the rest of you. Knowing this can help you. If your feet are cold, put on a hat. This keeps your brain warm, meaning more blood for your feet and they stay warmer.

Luckily, ice cream headaches don't last long, usually from 30 seconds to a couple of minutes. I also found several things that are supposed to make them go away faster. Luckily, I don't get these headaches, so I can't test to see if they work or not. One source suggests placing your tongue against the roof of your mouth, to warm up the nerve center. Another suggested putting ice against your forehead, but did not say why. The best thing is to avoid getting them. To do that, eat cold things slowly, giving time between bites for your mouth to warm up a bit. Take smaller bites, again to keep from over cooling your palate. Luckily, slowing down makes your ice cream last longer and you enjoy it more.

I realize that we have not really done an experiment yet. If you are very dedicated and want an experiment, I suggest that you go eat a bowl of ice cream. Eat it very slowly and see if you can eat the whole thing without getting an ice cream headache. It might even be worthwhile trying several flavors, to be sure that you can avoid these headaches with chocolate as well as with strawberry, vanilla, peach, fudge ripple, rocky road, butter pecan............