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How It Works: Brain Freeze

How It Works: Brain Freeze

If one thing is going to ruin a bowl of Ben and Jerry's more than reading the ingredients label, it's getting that searing ice cream headache. It's almost enough to put you off having a second bowl. Almost enough, but not quite. Riaz Bhunnoo goes in search of the truth behind the pain.

It’s a long, hot, lazy summer day. Thankfully, it’s one of those rare occasions where you’re lucky enough not to be stuck in the office. Instead you lie on the beach, enjoying the warm enveloping sunshine; elevated by a euphoric glow. The crystal-clear blue water stretches for miles into the distance, and you massage your toes in the warm golden sand as the waves roll up the shore. All you need now to complete this idyllic scene is an ice-cream. Or is it?

Now don’t get me wrong, I’m not an ice-cream snob. In fact I love the stuff, with the exception of really cheap ice-cream*. There is one thing, though, that always manages to spoil my enjoyment of this refreshingly satisfying dessert – the infamous ice-cream headache.

Diagram of why you get a headache from eating ice cream.
A quick guide to the ice cream headache. Click to enlarge.
Apparently, only a third of the population are affected by this, so not everyone will know what I’m alluding to. I’ll clarify – when scoffing something really cold you end up getting a really excruciating, sharp headache that lasts around thirty seconds. It usually subsides after this time, but because you’re enjoying your ice-cream so much you readily suffer it all over again, in true pleasure-pain fashion.

Ice-cream headache is caused by something very cold touching the roof of the mouth and is thought to involve a nerve centre located directly above the palate. The cold sensation activates the nerve centre causing the blood vessels in the head to dilate. This chain of events unfolds because the nerve centre over-reacts to the cold and tries to warm the brain, in order to protect it.

The dilation of the blood vessels results in the release of pain-producing substances called prostaglandins along with other chemicals that cause inflammation and increased sensitivity to pain. These chemicals stimulate pain receptors in the brain and result in a headache.

So can we side-step the agony by eating ice-cream slowly? A randomised ice-cream eating trial, involving some very lucky middle school children, was conducted by Janusz Kaczorowski from McMaster University in order to answer this very question. He found that eating ice-cream rapidly more than doubles the risk of ice-cream headache; so it’s definitely best to sit and savour.

In some cases, however, the pain still occurs even if the ice-cream is eaten slowly. There are therefore two options available for avoiding the pain: stop ice-cream coming into contact with the roof of your mouth or simply abstain from eating it altogether. I know which I’ll be doing.

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* I once had the misfortune of sampling a product at the lower end of the market which contained actual crystals of water. This is clearly wrong, and is not in the nature of ice-cream which should surely be creamy, smooth and reasonably soft.

Your Say

Placing a nice warm thumb up against the roof of your mouth is a nice way to relieve what us Americans call Brain Freeze. Brought to you courtesy of: www.IceCreamJunkies.com.
The ConeKing

Images: Steve Knight (title) Andy Reid; Daniel Wildman (ice cream baby); T. rolf (crybaby)

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14 Jul 2011
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