Why You Get "Brain Freeze" When You Eat Ice Cream

Beautiful young woman talking on mobile phone while eating ice cream in the city on sunny summer day
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Summertime, and the living's easy. Patio drinks, beach days, ice cream, and brain freeze are solid summer staples. Wait, brain freeze? If ice cream is one of your go-to summer faves, you've probably experienced your brain going numb. Here's why you get brain freeze when you eat ice cream, according to science. Brain freeze, also known as the dreaded ice-cream headache, happens when you consume something cold faster than your body can process it.

I tend to be very impatient when presented with things I want to eat. I always burn the roof of my mouth when eating pizza because I literally can't wait for the cheesy goodness to cool off. With ice cream, I tend to take a big bite and then jump up and down when the brain freeze hits. Even though I know this is going to happen, I can't seem to stop myself.

According to research, the mind-numbing cold that travels across your head happens when something extremely cold touches the roof of your mouth. Brain freeze, technically called sphenopalatine ganglioneuralgia, is basically your body's way of telling you to slow down. And, even though it happens over and over again, it's hard to put the breaks on when you want to eat that ice cream ASAP.

Why You Get An Ice-Cream Headache

"Brain freeze is really a type of headache that is rapid in onset, but rapidly resolved as well," Wake Forest Baptist Medical Center Neuroscientist Dwayne Godwin, Ph.D. explained in Science Daily. "Our mouths are highly vascularized, including the tongue that's why we take our temperatures there. But drinking a cold beverage fast doesn't give the mouth time to absorb the cold very well."

When you gulp a really cold drink, or eat ice cream too fast, you rapidly change the temperature in the back of your throat at the juncture of the internal carotid artery, which supplies blood to the brain, and the anterior cerebral artery, which is where brain tissue starts, according to Science Daily,

And, if you, like me, barely skated by in biology, here's what that means. While it might feel like your brain is freezing, it's really not because your brain actually can't feel pain. Wait, what?

That's right, "the pain associated with brain freeze is sensed by receptors in the outer covering of the brain called the meninges, where the two arteries meet," Godwin explained. "When the cold hits, it causes a dilation and contraction of these arteries and that's the sensation that the brain is interpreting as pain."

Studying Brain Freeze Helps Migraine Research

Perhaps you think scientists have too much time of their hands if they're putting so much energy into studying brain freeze, but by doing so researchers are uncovering potential migraine and chronic headache treatments.

June is National Migraine and Headache Awareness Month, and Dr. Jorge Serrador, a cardiovascular electronics researcher, noted in The FASEB Journal that migraine sufferers are more likely to suffer brain freeze after consuming cold foods or drinks than people who never have migraines.

Additionally, Medical News Daily reported that Dr. Serrador suggests that "some of what occurs during brain freeze may be similar to what causes migraines, and possibly other kinds of headaches, including those caused by traumatic brain injuries."

This discovery could lead doctors to explore treatments that focus on widening blood vessels to help halt headache. "If dilated arteries cause a sudden rush of blood to the brain, which raises pressure and causes pain, a drug that constricts the blood vessel should reduce pressure and eliminate the pain," Medical News Daily reported. "Also, constricting the blood vessels that supply the brain could help prevent pressure building up dangerously high."

How To Stop Brain Freeze

The aforementioned research is good news for migraine sufferers like me. But, in the meantime, just how can you stop that ice-cream headache? Your brain freeze should resolve itself within 30-60 seconds, but if that's too long for you here are some thing you can do to speed up the process.

  • The first thing to do is touch your tongue (which is warm) to the roof of your cold mouth.
  • If your head still feels like it's stuck in a meat locker you might want to make yourself a warm drink to counteract the chill.
  • You can also put your hand over your mouth to make a mask; then blow warm air into the mask and breathe it back in.

As long as you have these tools, brain freeze is kind of worth it, because — ice cream!

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