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Holiday Headaches – Tips To Avoid Migraine Triggers During This Stressful Season

Authored by Dr. Clarence Li, MD. December 9, 2020

The holidays can be a time of joy, giving, and spending time with family. However, with the extra stresses of 2020 due to COVID-19, this time of year may also be a time of changes in eating and drinking, loss of sleep, and extreme weather—all of which can add up to a debilitating migraine. Migraine triggers are also additive—while one trigger alone may not cause a migraine, several triggers on top of each other might just do it. Below are tips to avoid the most common triggers that might give you a migraine over the holiday season.

How Do I Deal with Stress to Prevent Migraines During the Holiday Season?

The biggest trigger for migraines, at any point of the year, is stress. In fact, up to 70% of people with migraines report that stress either causes their migraines or makes their migraines worse. Stress is also the one trigger that interacts with other triggers. High stress can cause lack of sleep, and lack of sleep can worsen stress. Stressed people may make food and drink choices they would not ordinarily make.

The holidays, along with all their joy, also bring a lot of stress. At work, there are deadlines to meet before taking time off for Christmas. At home, there are gifts to buy, decorations to be put up, and a holiday feast to prepare. On the roads, there is record traffic and a hoard of travelers also under stress to find the right gift or make it to the right house in time. It stands to reason that a time of year that is filled with stress may also be filled with migraines.

Therefore, managing stress can be an important part of avoiding during the holiday season. The first step is to keep track of what is causing stress in your life. Is it the deadline at work? Is it an interaction with one specific coworker? Is it a political argument with a certain family member? Is it the rush to get the perfect gifts for family and friends? Once you identify the sources of your stress, you can try to manage them. Some stressors, such as the arguments or problematic coworkers, can be avoided altogether. Others can be paired with relaxation techniques such as a hard workout, deep breathing exercises, or relaxation techniques like meditation. Eliminating all stress may not be possible, but limiting it may just be enough to keep from triggering a migraine.

How Do I Manage Food and Drink Consumption During the Holiday Season to Avoid Migraines?

Many different foods and drinks can trigger your migraines. The list includes but is not limited to:

  • Alcohol (especially beer and red wine)
  • Caffeine (may also relieve migraines in some)
  • Aged cheeses
  • Chocolate
  • Cured meats, smoked fish
  • Food preservatives containing nitrates and nitrites
  • Artificial sweeteners (common in soft drinks, candy, baked goods, and canned foods)
  • Monosodium glutamate (flavor enhancer commonly seen in canned vegetables, soups, and processed meats, and Asian food)

As you can see from the above list, intake of many of these foods and drinks increases during the holidays. Whether it is a glass of alcohol with the holiday meal, cheese and crackers appetizer, a chocolate snack, or some of our favorite holiday dishes, so many of our food choices are migraine triggers in waiting.

The best way to manage these food and beverage triggers is to identify and avoid them. We eat and drink so many different things in a day that it can be difficult to determine which of them triggered a migraine. Keeping a headache diary can be helpful. One way to do this is to write down what you ate and drank in the hours before a migraine. Finding items of consumption that are common before migraine attacks can help identify those foods or drinks as triggers. From there, you can eliminate or cut down on those items as much as possible.

How Do I Deal with Lack of Sleep During the Holiday Season to Avoid Migraines?

Sleep is important for refreshing all parts of the body, including the brain. People who keep irregular sleep schedules are more likely to have migraines, and sleep deprivation itself can trigger a migraine. The holidays give us all sorts of reasons to lose sleep. We have more gifts to find, more conversations to have with friends and family, and more meals to prepare. To make time for these other tasks, sleep is usually the first thing we reduce. Stress can also keep us up at night as we worry about all the things we have to do the next day.

Focusing on sleep hygiene and keeping a good sleep schedule can keep this stressor at bay. When possible, try to go to bed at the same time every night. Eliminate screen time, including television, computers, and yes, even smart phones, for at least 30 minutes before bedtime. Breathing exercises can help with falling asleep. Eating foods high in carbohydrates or drinking beverages high in caffeine can disrupt your sleep schedule. Alcohol, while useful to some people in falling asleep, may cause you to wake up several times during the night. Exercise should occur at least several hours before bedtime.

How Do I Deal with the Weather During the Holiday Season to Avoid Migraines?

While some people dream of a white Christmas, others dread the migraines that come with the changes in extreme weather. Many regions see more storm systems, cooler weather, rain, and snow with the coming of the holidays. Atmospheric pressure, the pressure our atmosphere exerts on us, can change with the weather. When a storm system rolls into town, atmospheric pressure can change. A mismatch between the pressure in the atmosphere and the pressure in our sinuses can trigger a migraine.

Atmospheric pressure is all around us, making this trigger hard to avoid. Staying inside during storms when possible is a good start. You can try moving errands to days of the week when the weather is at its best.

Taking care of your other migraine triggers—minimizing stress, eating and drinking well, and getting quality sleep—may be enough to keep the weather from triggering another migraine. These four migraine riggers, some avoidable and others less so, may make what should be a time of cheer a time of migraines. By using the tips above, you can keep your holidays as headache-free as possible.

About The Author

Dr. Clarence Li, MD

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