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Carrageenan: A Sickening Thickener. Is it a Migraine Menace?

Let me tell you about my ride in an ambulance last night.

I woke up at six o'clock from a nap with a mild headache. I ate dinner and took my vitamins, along with a couple of extra magnesium pills. Since magnesium helps my TMJ flare-ups, I thought it might help my headache. Then I went to see my mother.

A few hours later, I had a severe headache, sinus pain and nausea. During a brief respite from the pain, I left for home, but less than a mile later, I got out of my car and threw up. A cop, Officer Fisher, pulled up behind me and asked if I was okay. He believed me when he said I hadn't been drinking, but he said I seemed lethargic and he wanted the paramedics to see me. (Later he mentioned that a man he'd recently stopped was having a stroke.)

Thinking I had a migraine headache, the paramedics wanted to take me to the hospital. But since I knew that doctors don't know what causes migraine headaches, and I didn't know what effect their medicine would have on me, I refused care. Besides, I just wanted to sit in a quiet, dark room, and I knew that wouldn't be possible at a hospital. (The risk I took was that I could have been having an aneurysm.) The paramedics took me and my dog to my parents' house and I promised to call 911 if I felt worse. But by around midnight, I felt as if I'd never had a headache. The next morning (today), I did some handyman work at my parents' house and went with a neighbor to jump start my car. (Note to self: check the battery.)

I'm not prone to migraine headaches. What could have brought this on? The paramedics asked me if I took any drugs, or didn't take any I was supposed to take. No to both. Did I ever have a reaction to fish or peanuts, the foods I ate that night? No. Did I ever have bad headaches? The last one I had was Memorial Day weekend, a Sunday when I had a lot of work to do, but the words on the papers I had to read wouldn't sit still. Hmm.

Last night, I thought I threw up from taking too many magnesium pills. But Memorial Day weekend, I wondered if my headache had something to do with the almond milk I drank. And I had quite a bit of it yesterday, too. But I drink it frequently without getting a headache--so what's going on?

The almond milk I buy contains carrageenan, a thickener made from seaweed. Poking around the web, some people say it gives them migraines (see this). It's also a substance used to induce inflammation in laboratory animals. Carrageenan is so harmful to animals that researchers have issued warnings since 1981 and before:

An increased number of reports have appeared in the literature describing the harmful effects of degraded and undegraded carrageenan supplied to several animal species in their diet or drinking fluid. The harmful effects include foetal toxicity, teratogenicity, birth defects, pulmonary lesions, hepatomegaly, prolonged storage in Kupffer cells, ulcerative disease of the large bowel with hyperplastic, metaplastic, and polypoidal mucosal changes, enhancement of neoplasia by carcinogens, and, more ominously, colorectal carcinoma. Degraded carrageenan as a drug or food additive has been restricted in the United States by the FDA, but undegraded carrageenan is still widely used throughout the world as a food additive. Its harmful effects in animals are almost certainly associated with its degradation during passage through the gastrointestinal tract. There is a need for extreme caution in the use of carrageenan or carrageenan-like products as food additives in our diet, and particularly in slimming recipes.(1)

Researchers have used carrageenan to induce hyperalgesia (increased sensitivity to pain) in laboratory animals to study drugs for migraine headaches (see this, this, this and this).

Carrageenan may also be a carcinogen and may cause intestinal ulcerations and neoplasms:

Although the International Agency for Research on Cancer in 1982 identified sufficient evidence for the carcinogenicity of degraded carrageenan in animals to regard it as posing a carcinogenic risk to humans, carrageenan is still used widely as a thickener, stabilizer, and texturizer in a variety of processed foods prevalent in the Western diet. I reviewed experimental data pertaining to carrageenan's effects with particular attention to the occurrence of ulcerations and neoplasms in association with exposure to carrageenan. In addition, I reviewed from established sources mechanisms for production of degraded carrageenan from undegraded or native carrageenan and data with regard to carrageenan intake. Review of these data demonstrated that exposure to undegraded as well as to degraded carrageenan was associated with the occurrence of intestinal ulcerations and neoplasms.(2)

For a few months now, I've felt like something wasn't quite right: I've been a little bloated, and wondered if something was blocked in my digestive system. I haven't had as much energy as I used to. I don't know for a fact that carrageenan gave me a migraine or it's what's been bothering me. It seems dose-dependent, and maybe added stress (like the mountain of work I had over Memorial Day weekend or my father's recent stroke) triggers some of the effects. But even if carrageenan isn't what made me sick, what I've found out is enough to make me stop eating it.

For further reading:


1. Cancer Detect Prev. 1981;4(1-4):129-34. Harmful effects of carrageenan fed to animals. Watt J, Marcus R.
2. Environ Health Perspect. 2001 Oct;109(10):983-94. Review of harmful gastrointestinal effects of carrageenan in animal experiments. Tobacman JK.


Suzie_B said…
Hope you stay well. I recently discovered the heavy whipping cream I was buying changed it's formula from just cream to cream, carrageenan, and dextrose. It is becoming difficult to find cream that is not ultra-pasteurized without additives. I have no access to raw dairy. You know, the great state of Oregon thinks it will kill you. But it's the food processors who are the ones out to kill us with their concoctions!

I read your blog often. Thanks for your hard work.
Lori Miller said…
Thanks for the kind words, Suzie. Apparently, carrageenan is in some dairy products, toothpaste, cosmetics, and personal lubricant products. Good thing you kept an eye on the labels.
tess said…
wow -- it's nastier stuff than i realized.... thanks for the information!
Lori Miller said…
I'd never paid any attention to carrageenan until yesterday. Not sure why it doesn't get more attention.
Anonymous said…
I got a bad headache one day and a migraine the next from eating mock crab. It has carrageenan in it as a thickening agent. And thanks for the heads-up--it's in my toothpaste too.
Lori Miller said…
I knew some toothpaste had carrageenan, but didn't know about the imitation crab. I stopped eating imitation crab years ago because of the wheat in it.
Robin Cole said…
I developed migraines as a teenager, and carrageenan is a definite trigger (along with MSG). If I eat a small amount of it I will vomit and lay in bed for most of the day. Now that I'm in my mid-20s I'm doing better with triggers and self-care when I do end up with a migraine, but they were a source of depression and anxiety growing up. I wish you the best on your journey to health!
Lori Miller said…
Thank you. I'm glad you're doing better.
yes! I have had several migraines this summer with stomach bloating, pain and throwing up. I didn't know what it was! First I thought I had stress and/or a type of stress/anxiety hangover. I started researching...thinking I must be doing something to cause this....I get migraines infrequently but they are often timed with my menstrual cycle, but this was much more often. All research was pointing towards Carrageenan. Seems that the pre-made iced mocha coffee I was treating myself to this summer (EVERY AFTERNOON!)has it listed in it's ingredients AND the . AND my morning yogurt of choice! I have stopped the iced mocha coffee (sad face) and the yogurt of choice has been replaced. I am now reading labels more than ever. I am soo happy to have found your blog! I am not alone! :) All the best health to both of us.
Lori Miller said…
Thanks for the kind words.

I started drinking sugar-free cocoa about a year ago when I changed offices...big mistake. The mix contained carrageenan, and the headaches and stomach aches stopped when I quit drinking it.
Unknown said…
I also experienced a bad migraine from eating rotisserie chicken from the market. After eating at I felt tired and sleepy. When I woke up I got up and dug out the packaging to read the label and saw the ingredient carrageenan and looked it up and found my culprit that cause my migraine and sleepyness. Why do they allow this poison in our food supply?
Unknown said…
I also experienced a bad migraine from eating rotisserie chicken from the market. After eating I felt tired and sleepy. When I woke up I got up and dug out the packaging from the trash and read the label and saw the ingredient carrageenan. I looked it up and found my culprit that cause my migraine and sleepyness. Why do they allow this poison in our food supply?
Lori Miller said…
I haven't seen carrageenan in rotisserie chicken.
Unknown said…
I found out that Carrageenan causes migraines for me when I realized every time I had almond milk or ice cream I got one almost immediatley (within 20 minutes). Now everytime I get a migraine, I check to see if what I ate had it. 95% of the time, it is the case.
Unknown said…
I have known for years that eating any food product with carageenan will cause a headache that will last from 2 to 18 hours. If severe, purging with a tablespoon of vitamin C in 1.5 pints of water will stop it within an hour, by the time the bowels are emptied. Many Butterball turkey products contain carageenan. I am not sure about Butterball Fresh whole turkey.

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