As the heat wave continues in the UK, we revel in it for a bit longer and indulge in a guilt free ice cream (or 10…) to relieve us from these unusual weather conditions. However, we have all indulged a bit too much from time-to-time, eager to eat our ice cream quickly, and given ourselves brain freeze. What causes this annoying occurrence and can we avoid it?
If you haven’t given yourself brain freeze whilst eating ice cream or gulping a slush puppie, you clearly don’t enjoy ice cream as much as I do…For those of you who have not experienced this sensation before, I pity you for not enjoying a cold food/drink on a hot day (and I also envy you). The best way to describe it would be with this face to the right: a sharp, sudden pain in your head and behind your eyes, kind of like a headache but one with very quick onset and no warning: this is brain freeze. And yet, the pain passes and we continue to eat/drink the cold substance as though nothing happened. Why do our bodies do this?
In fact it is our body’s way of telling us to SLOW DOWN. When we eat or drink something very cold, very quickly, there is a rapid change in temperature at the back of our throats. This area is next to our internal carotoid artery, (which delivers blood to the brain) and the anterior cerebral artery (where the brain tissue starts). Brain freeze is a way for the brain to react and instruct us that it didn’t like the sudden change, please stop. However, although the pain feels like your brain is stabbing itself, the brain cannot actually feel pain! Instead, brain freeze pain is sensed by receptors in the meninges (i.e. the outer covering of the brain) where the two arteries meet. When the cold sensation is felt at the back of the throat, the arteries dilate and contract (i.e. get smaller, then bigger) which is interpreted by the brain as pain. Hence, brain freeze is a sudden onset of pain but it also passes quickly.
Knowing what causes brain freeze has helped researchers deduce how different headaches are caused, and how to better treat them. You cannot induce migraines, tension, or cluster headaches in individuals, but brain freeze is sudden and quickly reversible. By studying how brain freeze was caused and what happened internally, the understanding of headaches and how to treat them is greatly improved. So even if it feels like an inconvenience at the time, just think of the science your eagerness to eat an ice cream has contributed to. However, if you insist (as I do) of devouring an ice cream in seconds, or downing an ice cold drink in one, what can we do to limit brain freeze? Try pressing your tongue to the roof of your mouth, as the heat from your tongue should limit the change in temperature experienced. You could also drink/eat something at room temperature between the gorges, normalising the temperature in your mouth.
As we enter possibly a third week of this (practically) tropical weather in the UK, I wish you luck as we inevitably over-indulge in brain freeze inducing substances.