Why your body's survival strategies cause ice cream headaches

Illustration for article titled Why your bodys survival strategies cause ice cream headaches

Some people have never gotten an ice cream headache. They tend to be entirely surrounded by people who have, and who are willing to offer theories as to why they aren't forced to undergo the agony of others. Maybe they eat too slowly, or maybe they eat too little. Or maybe, just maybe, if they were put out in the arctic wearing nothing but their underwear, they'd freeze to death first.

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Blood is running constantly around the body, supplying it with oxygen and nutrients. Its voyages take it from the tips of the fingers to the inner organs. The inside of the body is nice and toasty, but the outer parts get cold on a frosty day. Blood rushing through the extremities cools down, and when it comes back to the body, it cools the rest of the system. The body has negotiate a way to keep blood flowing to the fingers, toes, and nose, while protecting itself.

When the temperature starts to drop, the body constricts the blood vessels in the outer regions, so hands feel cool and faces start to pale. Later on, the body switches off between constricting and widening blood vessels. This allows blood to rush into the extremities, keeping them from freezing or dying off due to lack of supplies, and causes the red cheeks and noses that often mark a long stay in cold weather. When the temperature drops low enough, the body once again shrinks down the blood vessels, abandoning them to keep the rest of the body warm. It's then that the body starts to lose limbs to frostbite, but it serves a purpose. Suddenly warming the extremities causes the body to widen the blood vessels again. Blood pumps through quickly and chills, and then rushes back towards the body, cooling it even further. That's why people who have been hypothermic, or who have prolonged exposure to cold conditions, need to warm up slowly.

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Ice cream headaches don't usually happen in cold weather, but they are bound up with the body's response to it. When people eat ice cream, it chills the area around the head, and the blood vessels constrict. This constriction is painful - it's the same thing that causes intense and debilitating migraines.

But an cream headache isn't cause for extreme concern. It doesn't do damage and lasts only a few minutes. Still, people don't like discomfort with their desserts, and they've found a few ways to avoid it. One is to, yes, eat more slowly. Since the part of the head near the brain is sending out distress signals, it also helps not to hold the melting ice cream against the roof of the mouth, and to take sips of warm water between bites. Not directly therapeutic, but possibly mentally helpful, is to think about everyone who can chomp away at their cones without pain freezing to death in Antarctica.

Via Relieve Migraine Headaches, Straight Dope, and Cool Antarctica.

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DISCUSSION

I never get ice cream headaches and I've always wondered why, but I don't quite follow the connection between not getting them and the part about "they'd freeze to death first" in the first paragraph. Are you saying us brain-freeze-immune types aren't efficient enough at cutting off circulation to extremities, or that we cut off too much circulation to extremities? Part of my confusion is that while parts of the face may be extremities, the brain is obviously part of the "core" that the body wants to keep warm, so I'm not quite sure after reading this whether the headache is from blood vessels in the face constricting or whether it's from too much cold blood getting to the blood vessels right around the brain and making them constrict (the phrase "it chills the area around the head, and the blood vessels constrict" is a little ambiguous). I'd guess it's probably about constriction in blood vessels not too near the brain, like blood vessels in the sinuses (I think people sometimes grab the bridge of their nose when they get brain freeze), is that right?