The cold, the flu bug, even depression and yes, migraines can all pop up in waves this time of year. But while doctors and scientists actually have research and data to understand the seasonal changes that trigger the first three, they don’t necessarily understand exactly what happens biologically within the brain when migraines are triggered this time of year. Sure enough, the winter months and the holidays are a very common time when those painful migraines seem to be triggered for much of the 13 percent of estimated Americans suffering from them.
“It’s thought that triggers may alter the brain environment and homeostasis, making a patient more susceptible to a migraine attack,” explains Sarah Vollbracht, MD, clinical director of Montefiore Headache Center and assistant professor of neurology at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine in the Bronx, N.Y.
A common thread amongst migraine sufferers seems to be having complex systems that are highly sensitive to changes, which of course there are plenty of right now. Between the holidays throwing our routine and schedules into a frenzy, the extreme weather changes, the travel, and more, there is no shortage of wrenches that are thrown into the system this time of year.
“Weather factors may even interact with each other and operate synergistically to trigger a headache,” says Brian Grosberg, MD, director of Hartford HealthCare Ayer Neuroscience Institute Headache Center in Connecticut. This means that a plethora of factors within a noticeable weather change contribute to triggering a migraine; low-hanging, dark and heavy clouds with heavy rains, and cold winds, for example, paint a much more vivid picture of the variables at play that are ready to wreak havoc on your incoming migraine. Decades of patient diary studies have revealed that inclement cold weather patterns coincide with higher migraine frequency, although only a few common weather-related migraine triggers would be associated with the winter months, according to the Mayo Clinic. Those “top triggers” are windy and stormy weather as well as barometric pressure changes and extreme heat or cold. The other weather-related triggers are bright sunlight, sun glare, high humidity, and dry air. “For some people, weather changes may cause imbalances in brain chemicals, including serotonin, which can prompt a migraine,” says Jerry W. Swanson, M.D.
As mentioned, the six weeks or so of holiday frenzy stir up migraine triggers for many people and weather is just one piece of the puzzle. “Often a single trigger by itself may not be sufficient to lead to a migraine attack, but a combination of triggers, such as poor sleep on a day when the barometric pressure drops, for example, may lower the threshold and lead to a migraine,” explains Vollbracht. Understanding your own triggers and how they affect you personally is one way to minimize their impact, so here are a number of common migraine triggers to pay attention to (and avoid when possible) as we wrap up another holiday (and migraine) season:
Fluctuating Sleep Schedules
Many studies have pointed to poor sleep quality and insomnia contributing to migraines. And hectic, fluctuating schedules during the day and at work can easily lead to fluctuating sleep schedules as well.
Waking just after REM sleep has also been found to lead directly to migraines, as that phase of the sleep process actually precedes the restorative sleep phases that are necessary to produce a sufficient amount of serotonin and dopamine.
Holding yourself to consistent bedtimes and wake times is one of the top commandments of consistent quality sleep, which of course feels impossible to maintain through the holiday rush. You can, however, help yourself out by implementing changes like setting a “coffee cut off time” for each day (keeping in mind that caffeine often takes at least seven hours to work its way out of your system), having an electronics cut off time each night, and doing your best to stick to a consistent exercise schedule as best as possible.
New Eating Patterns
According to Dr. Grosberg, eating patterns can play a big role in triggering migraines. And let’s think of the myriad ways people change their eating patterns through the holidays and even after New Year’s Day. From massive holiday meals with families to throwing in the towel on your diet through the rush of it all, only to then promise yourself you’ll be back on the wagon starting January 1, there’s no shortage of changes to your diet that can trigger migraines.
And with Christmas behind us now and the start of a New Year here, it will still be important to give attention to your new diet goals moving forward. Many people often cut too much out of their daily diet once they set their sights on a new healthy menu. And even that change, while made with the best intentions, can throw the body a good curveball.
“The migraine brain is vulnerable to change such as sleep and stress, and is, therefore, best kept stable,” says Peter Goadsby, M.D., Ph.D., who specializes in the treatment of headache disorders at UC San Francisco Medical Center.
Migraines can be triggered from both sides of stress. Frustratingly enough, even the initial stages of relaxation on the weekend after a stressful season of travel and work will start to trigger migraines. You might think this is the exact time when your body will start to recover and slowly steer clear of migraines, but it’s actually possible for it to be the exact opposite. Once your body gets accustomed to constant stress, according to the American Migraine Foundation, a “let down migraine” can follow. Crazy, right?
Stress also can serve as a precursor to migraines with other physical symptoms, such as muscle tension, chest pain, an upset stomach, , irregular heart rates, sadness or depression, and even a lack of sex drive. Those symptoms are commonly found to appear as a result of stress before the actual onset of migraines.