Why Do We Get Brain Freeze?

With the summer heat comes refreshing, frozen treats, peach-pineapple wine slushies and gin and tonic popsicles with raspberries, or for something really decadent, classic ice cream cakes. But, eaten too quickly, these can come with an all too familiar pain: Brain freeze. What is it about cold foods that causes this sharp pain and how can we prevent it from ruining summer's cooling treats?

Have you ever experienced brain freeze? What are your favourite tips and tricks for combatting it? Share with us in the comments below!

What causes brain freeze?

Brain freeze, ice cream headaches, or, for the scientifically inclined, ‘sphenopalatine ganglioneuralgia’,' is a physiological reaction that occurs when something cold touches the warmer roof of your mouth and causes rapid constricting and swelling of blood vessels. This painful reaction and instant headache is like a defense mechanism that is meant to slow or even stop you from eating of the too-cold item to protect the body (more specifically, the mouth and head) from a rapid change in temperature.

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So, here’s the real life scenario: You’re gulping down an ice-cold glass of water on a hot summer day. The cold water is hitting the roof of your mouth and the back of your throat very quickly, changing the temperature of two main blood supplies to your brain. These two blood supplies are the internal carotid artery and the anterior cerebral artery; brain freeze shocks them both, causing them to contract quickly. In order to warm up and return these arteries back to their normal states, the brain sends blood to them, causing them to expand. This rapid contraction and expansion causes our pain receptors to go off, and we begin to feel the brain freeze.

While the brain itself doesn’t feel any pain, the outer covering where these two arteries meet (called the meninges) does. Though these pain receptors are going off at the base of your head, you'll most likely feel the painful freeze at the front of your head or right behind your eyes—the familiar pangs of pain that last for several seconds.

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What about hot beverages?

The mouth is highly sensitive and full of delicate tissues and nerve endings. This means that any extreme changes (both temperature- and spice-wise) can cause the brain to react in pain. There isn’t a similar ‘headache’ for hot beverages—think of that piping hot cup of coffee that scalded the top of your mouth—as we generally spit out anything too hot for our bodies to enjoy and the physical pain of the burn is enough of a cue for us to stop. But with cold food, we don’t typically experience such a high level of localized pain.

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Possible benefits

Researchers are using brain freeze to study other neurological conditions and headache types, like migraines. It has been found that migraine sufferers are more prone to experience brain freeze than those who don’t. By inducing brain freeze in their patients, doctors are attempting to better understand the causes of migraine headaches to develop new treatments.

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How do you solve it?

The cure for brain freeze? It’s embarrassingly simple. Stop eating or drinking the cold item.

Warming the roof of your palate with your tongue or sipping on a warm beverage can also return your mouth to its normal temperature. This will stop the artery contractions, and in turn, the brain pain.

Remember that brain freeze happens when something too cold gets eaten too quickly. Just enjoy that ice cream at a normal pace. Allow your mouth to acclimatize to the cooler temperature and keep colder food at the front of your mouth. With this in mind, you shouldn’t have to worry about brain freeze at all.