On Artificial Sweeteners and Migraine Headaches

If you know someone who can’t pinpoint the cause of his migraine headaches, consider my daughter’s story.

Around the time she turned 3 1/2-years old, my daughter suffered from terrible migraine headaches about once per month, with symptoms including severe headaches and high fever, culminating in vomiting anywhere from 2-4 hours after the onset of the headache. On a scale of 1-10 in intensity, some of these headaches were a 10.


Fortunately, we noticed that within minutes of her vomiting, she felt better, her fever dropped and she would ask for food and water. This led us to assume (correctly as it turned out) that the migraines were triggered by certain foods.


We quickly traced the source to ARTIFICIAL SWEETENERS, specifically anything with Aspartame or Sorbitol. Any food with either ingredient would trigger a migraine within a couple of hours of her digesting it. Other artificial flavorings may also be a problem. We discovered this about 6 months ago, and since eliminating these sweeteners from her diet, she has not had any problems. (About two months ago, I slipped and unknowingly gave her a breakfast bar sweetened with Sorbitol, and sure enough she got a terrible migraine. We now check every label very carefully.)

One doctor was skeptical of the link between the sweeteners and the headaches (although a second doctor believes there is a connection), and I found a couple of medical websites stating that there is no solid link proven between these specific sweeteners and migraines. Still, there’s no doubt in our case: no artificial sweetener equals no attacks.

If you know someone suffering from migraines, you might check this as a possible cause. To learn more about migraines, visit Mayo Clinic’s website at www.mayoclinic.com/health/headaches/HE99999.


30 Responses to “On Artificial Sweeteners and Migraine Headaches”

  1. 1 Viki July 21, 2009 at 3:07 pm

    I’ve been getting migraines for years and I finally have pinpointed them to certain foods. Sorbitol has just been added to my list along with red tomatoes, red grapes, and cinnamon. I think the problem is some of the triggers are so difficult to track down with something like a food diary. I’m glad you’ve found the source of your daughter’s migraines. Some people aren’t so lucky.

    I hope this blog helps at least a few people start to track down the source of their migraines. I was absolutely convinced food had nothing to do with mine until I accidentally eliminated all triggers for several weeks. Thanks for the information. 🙂

    • 2 robertpeek July 22, 2009 at 9:16 am

      Sorry to hear you suffer from migraines. I have no doubt that certain foods trigger a reaction in my daughter’s body, leading to a migraine. There is a great book called “The Migraine Brain” written by a Harvard doctor, Carolyn Bernstein, who herself suffers from migraines; she also founded a headache institute. She writes in simple language about migraines and their triggers. I recommend the book. I wish you the best of luck with you migraine treatments. Take care.

  2. 3 seajay August 5, 2009 at 8:23 am

    I suffered for years with migraines. knowing it was food related but not able to pinpoint the cause. After reading food labels forever it seems, it finally hit me like a ton of bricks. Certain foods would always make me sick, the key was sorbitol, polysorbate 60, polysorbate 80, or any form thereof. It is in almost everything, from ice cream to pancake syrup to chewing gum to Advin Migraine liqui-gels. Go figure. The medicine actually made my migraines worse. About 8 hours after eating something with sorbitol, I will have a migraine that lasts for about 24 hours, I guess until the stuff leaves my system. The good news is that I can now control it somewhat unless I eat out and don’t know the ingredients. Doctors who say that artificial sweeteners or preservatives can’t give you a migraine are completely wrong. If you have migraines often try reading the labels for sorbitol. It can’t be good for us if our bodies react so violently to it.

  3. 4 robertpeek August 7, 2009 at 7:53 am

    Thanks for the comments. Sorry you are a migraine sufferer. Glad you are working on pinning down the source of the problem.

  4. 5 Rob Dumais February 12, 2010 at 1:58 am

    I suffered a major migraine type headache last night which a few hours of vomiting.

    I thought that maybe something that I ate brought this on. I had a couple of chocolate pops which gave me a slight headache. I took a couple of tylenol which had a candy coating on it. The headache got worse. I took a couple more tylenol. The headache became severe and I started to vomit.

    Today I started to suspect the pops. They had Polysorbate 80. I checked the tylonol and the candy coating had Polysorbate 80. Interesting!

    I found you comments about your daughter and want to thank you for possibly confirming my suspitions.

    Rob Dumais

    • 6 robertpeek February 12, 2010 at 9:47 am


      Sorry to hear you suffer from migraines. Glad, though, that you’re isolating the triggers. Another reader (below) also reported a problem with Polysorbate 80. The more stories I hear the more I realize that almost anything could be a trigger… it can be different for each person. In case you did not see one of my responses in this thread: there is a great book called “The Migraine Brain” written by a Harvard doctor, Carolyn Bernstein, who herself suffers from migraines; she also founded a headache institute. She writes in simple language about migraines and their triggers (and treatments). I recommend the book. I wish you the best of luck with your migraine treatments. If you make any revelations about your cause or cure, please let me know! Take care!

  5. 7 Barbara March 8, 2010 at 7:21 pm

    Here is a list of artificial sweeteners that can be found in food… I suffer from severe migraines, vomitting, muscle pain, hives and more if I ingest any of these… Be very careful with all prescription medications as they are used in there and not always listed. Always google inactive ingredients in medications.

    Any and ALL Polysorbate (60, 80, etc)
    Potassium sorbate,
    acesulfame k,
    sorbitan monostearate,
    sorbitan monolaurate

  6. 8 Fred May 19, 2010 at 11:48 pm

    Things in food that give me migraines (in no particular order):
    Artificial sweeteners;
    Mono sodium glutamate (MSG) and its hidden names (textured protein, modified protein, hydrolyzed protein, and worst of them all: ‘natural flavor’);
    Preservatives (sulfates, nitrites and nitrates);
    And tyramine (naturally occurring in aged foods).
    Oh, and grapes and asparagus. Broccoli gives me fierce headaches, but not migraines per se (no aura, no photophobia…)

    And things I breathe: Volatile solvents (from paint, glue, perfumes, etc). Those are the hardest to avoid.

    Not everyone has the same triggers, but keep an eye out for those, and good luck keeping your kid’s brain safe. The hard part is when it’s triggered from an ingredient OF ingredients (and is therefore unlisted), I learned to look out for brightly colored foods (they have sulfates added to keep them brightly colored) like paprika, and dried tomatoes.

  7. 9 Bill August 3, 2010 at 10:33 pm

    Thank you! I’ve been trying to figure out why I’ve had two migraines lately. Just started taking a vitamin substitute that has Sorbitol in it.

    • 10 robertpeek August 6, 2010 at 8:29 am

      Many toothpastes also use Sorbitol but you won’t find the ingredient on the tube. If you search on the toothpaste manufacturer’s website, you’ll find the first ingredient often is Sorbitol. We now buy our toothpaste at a health food store which sells only natural paste…..

  8. 11 Bob T August 5, 2010 at 8:50 am

    I am positively guaranteed to get a headache whenever I consume food containing Sorbitol, or anything that sounds like Sorbitol, such as Polysorbate 60. I am amazed at how many foods contain Sorbitol or its relatives.

    It took me four years to pinpoint the cause of my daily headaches. I was eating Frosted Mini Wheats for breakfast each morning. That white frosting wasn’t sugar, it was Sorbitol. Kellogg’s has since changed their formulation for Frosted Mini Wheats and no longer uses Sorbitol. That makes me quite suspicious that someone else figured this out.

    Basically, I had a headache for 4 years because I was eating Frosted Mini Wheats for breakfast, every morning.

    What foods contain Sorbitol or Polysorbate 60/80?

    · Just about everything made in a bakery
    · Sugar free gum
    · Lite anything (Lite margarine, lite salad dressing, lite sour cream, lite ice cream)
    · Cool Whip
    · Breads
    · Toothpaste
    · Pickles
    · Medicines (check Robitussin)

    As you can see, Sorbitol is hard to avoid.

    When I have a “Sorbitol headache” it’s a tension type headache. My head feels like I have a tight band around it, and it hurts most just behind my forehead. Mine are not migraine headaches, but are debilitating all the same.

    Thanks for your posts to this site. It’s somehow good to know I’m not the only one who reacts to Sorbitol and its relatives.

    • 12 robertpeek August 6, 2010 at 8:26 am

      Sorry to hear you suffer when you ingest Sorbitol; it is not a rare problem. Glad you finally found the cause.

      Everytime we buy food, we check the ingredients or ask at the restaurant if any artificial sweeteners were used. By the way, our experience with bakeries is that the base cake itself is usually safe, but many icings use Sorbitol or similar sweeteners, particularly on cupcakes and birthday-style cakes.

  9. 13 robertpeek October 12, 2010 at 9:59 am

    One more possible food trigger: a number of breath mints and gum contain Sorbitol. Like some toothpastes, you may not find Sorbitol on the label, but if you visit a manufacturer’s website, you’ll find it under the ingredients, often as the first ingredient listed.

  10. 14 daylily1111 March 15, 2011 at 5:43 am

    I had been suffering from crippling ocular migraines at the rate of 2-3 per week. A month ago, I cut all artificial sweeteners from my diet and I have not had a single episode since. No one had told me about a possible connection, but in my quest to find the triggers, I decided to try eliminating Equal, Sweet and Low, diet drinks and Orbit gum from my diet. I am thrilled! Moreover, I just might have saved my life because, if an ocular migraine hits when you are driving, you are effectively blinded for up to 30 minutes. Feel free to share this reply with others.

    • 15 robertpeek March 15, 2011 at 8:44 am

      Sorry to hear you are a sufferer, but very glad to hear you likely found the cause. Good luck with your pain management. Remember, stay away from articifical sweeteners!

  11. 16 Erin July 15, 2011 at 8:50 am

    I have had migraines off and on for eight years. At first I thought it was stress related until I realized that every time I had an episode, I had eaten or drinked something with an artificial sweetener. It has been about three years since my last migrain until today. I had bought a package of EXTRA sugarfree gum, and had one of the worst migrains I’ve ever had after chewing only one piece. When I looked at the ingredients, sure enough…SORBITOL was the main ingredient. I wish more research would be done on the correlation between the two. People need to be informed that atrificial sweeteners do cause migrains in many people. Thanks for posting your aricle. I’m glad you discovered the correlation too.

  12. 18 Carrie November 18, 2011 at 4:13 am

    I also wrote a blog about my daughter’s, and my experiences with Sorbitol.

    But I have another daughter to used to have migraines all the time. We traced her problem to Aspartame and Sucralose. I’m glad you found the solution and are helping to spread the word!

    • 19 robertpeek November 18, 2011 at 9:32 am

      Sorry to hear your daughter has had this problem; I believe it is much more common than many people realize. Thank you for posting a blog ebtry about it, as this will help other parents and children to learn about the solution.

  13. 20 Catheryn Hime February 10, 2013 at 11:24 pm

    Products that are labeled zero calories are not that promising. It’s true. There are no calories in them but to make them taste as good as they are, substitutes are added. Artificial sweeteners that come with side effects are included in the ingredients. They have to be, to redeem the flavor. Otherwise, the products will end up too awful to be a delight.You’d think you’re in the right track with artificial sweeteners. With no calories, you can say goodbye to some extra pounds in your system. You feel as if you’re doing alright. Well, you’re not. Truth be told, if you intend on losing weight through these empty calories, you are kidding yourself. Not only do they not have any dieting advantage, they, also, puncture your body with other effects..

    Newest article content on our own blog

  14. 22 JAMES August 23, 2013 at 5:26 pm

    yep, i’m 36 and found the same problem with artificial sweeteners. It comes on so quickly, awful headache and I get kind hot flushes. I can tell so quickly when I’ve slipped up, or someone has mixed up a diet coke and a coke at the table etc. They are toxic for me

  15. 23 Cindy Gillen September 10, 2013 at 7:38 pm

    I have long known that artificial sweetners trigger my ocular migraines, so I read all labels carefully. Was surprised to learn about toothpaste and that sorbitol is an ingredient but not listed on the label. A recent ocular migraine (have not had one in many months) was traced to consumption of an orange flavored vodka. No mention of artificial sweetner on label (not required I learned), but their website states that the vodka is sugar free, so the sweetness has to come from somewhere!

    • 24 robertpeek September 11, 2013 at 7:20 am

      Glad to hear you have discovered a lot already about triggers, Cindy. Artificial sweeteners crop up everywhere, so we have to stay vigilant all the time. Thank you so much for sharing!

  16. 25 Brenda October 8, 2013 at 1:41 am

    2 gumdrops from Mentos and a raging headache later I found your website – I have always known I was getting headaches from the artificial sweetners in alot of products but this one gum has all of the below listed, and it felt like my head was going to explode within 20 minutes:

    Any and ALL Polysorbate (60, 80, etc)

    I should have known from the flavor – too full of sweetness. Keep the notices going – more people should be aware.

    • 26 robertpeek October 8, 2013 at 2:55 am

      Sorry to hear you had the migraine(s), but thank goodness you’ve identified the cause! Thanks, too, for alerting others who might benefit knowing what to avoid. Thank you!

  17. 27 dee January 17, 2014 at 6:59 am

    Had terrible migraines 2 to 3 times weekly for years and then by accident discovered that it was sorbitol causing them. I have not had a single migraine since eliminating sorbitol from my diet. Before this you could not have made me believe that just avoiding sorbitol could eliminate my migraines. People need to spread the word, if I can help even one other person who suffers from migraines it would be worth it.

  18. 29 Liz March 21, 2016 at 9:55 am

    I used to be addicted to Pepsi Max and had almost constant migraines. I cut it out and had a five-day withdrawal migraine. I had a Pepsi Max as an experiment a few weeks later & had a 5-day migraine. Proof enough for me. Anything with aspartame does the same, also sucralose and what brought me to this page – my daughter didn’t like her vitamin C sweeties so I’ve been eating them & now have a migraine – just looked at the ingredients – sorbitol. I don’t yet know if xylitol does the same but I daren’t risk it and have gone back to good old sugar!

  19. 30 Kelly December 20, 2017 at 2:16 pm

    Your daughter is lucky you figured it out so fast. I didn’t discover my daily migraines were caused by artificial sweeteners until I was in my 20s. It’s mind-blowing how many foods have sorbitol, aspartame, etc. in them. Even savory foods.
    It’s interesting to read that other readers have had bad reactions to polysorbate 60/80. It makes sense because of its chemical structure (similar to sorbitan). I’ll have to watch that one more closely. I have had some migraines without a known cause. That might be the culprit.
    Thanks for sharing. Best of luck to your daughter.

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