Are you looking forward to the holidays? Chances are, if you suffer from migraine you’ll have strong mixed feelings about the holiday season. Nice as it is to catch up with family and friends, give and receive gifts, and experience the general bonhomie that descends on the world, this time of year is a minefield of dangers for migraine sufferers.
Triggers are everywhere and, short of becoming a hermit, it is difficult to know how to avoid them. Here are four of the most common triggers, along with a few suggested strategies for coping:
Odors and Scents
Odors, whether they are pleasant or offensive, are a common migraine trigger. They are also, unfortunately, extra hard to avoid during the holiday season.
There are few answers as to why some smells trigger, or heighten, migraine attacks. If you know that scents are part of your migraine aura, the only solution is to avoid them as far as possible. In social situations, this is especially difficult. Communication is your best line of defense, so here are some things you could try:
- At family hosted events, try asking the host to request no one wears perfume, cologne, or aftershave.
- Unless the host knows you well and understands your migraine, be prepared to explain. Make it clear that you like perfume but unfortunately, it doesn’t like you. Tell them how scents, even perfumed lotions or candles, can trigger a migraine that could lay you low for hours if not days, with intense pain.
- Ask people who do understand to back you up, as those who don’t understand may think you’re being unreasonable. Be mentally prepared for this reaction and react kindly. People don’t mean to be unthinking or uncaring and, frustrating as it is, those who don’t get migraine have difficulty understanding how devastating it is.
- Be selective in the events you agree to attend. Large public gatherings, work functions, or events organized by casual acquaintances may make it impossible to avoid all scent triggers.
- Let those closest to you know that you may need to leave early if you sense an attack coming on. Include the host of private parties in your list, so everyone is informed and no one takes offense if you disappear without warning.
Flashing lights are another common aura symptom, and also difficult to avoid at Christmas. Fairy lights, streetlights, and twinkling store displays are around every corner.
- Minimize the impact of twinkling lights by shopping during the day when they don’t appear quite so bright.
- On sunny days, you can get away with wearing sunglasses to minimize the glare without drawing undue attention.
- Avoid flickering Christmas tree lights at home, and if you visit people who have flickering lights as decorations, be brave and ask if they could be switched to a steady setting.
Stress reduces your resistance to a multitude of conditions, including migraine. If the rush and bustle of the holiday season fills you with headache dread, forward planning could be your key.
- Make gift lists before venturing out to do shopping. Knowing what you want ahead of time, and where to get it, relieves the sense of time pressure.
- Start early, preferably before the last minute crowds do their holiday shopping.
- If you do have last minute gifts to buy, shop during the quietest times, such as early in the morning or last thing at the end of the day, if possible.
- Get enough sleep. Disrupted sleep patterns can make you more susceptible to stress and migraine attacks.
- Take time out from parties and social gatherings. There’s nothing wrong with excusing yourself for a short walk or a breath of fresh air, which will give you the opportunity to "reset" your stress levels.
Certain foods can be danger flash points for migraine sufferers. While chocolate and red wine or coffee are easy enough to avoid with a little self discipline, some holiday foods can contain hidden triggers. Nitrates, for instance, can be hidden inside that delicious holiday ham, and tyramine (another common migraine trigger) is found in a multitude of protein-containing foods such as:
- Aged cheese
- Soy or teriyaki sauce
- Broad beans
This naturally occurring compound can build up in the digestive system when many foods that contain it are eaten together. While it’s not certain exactly how it causes migraine, it is thought to stimulate the release of certain neurotransmitters, which can induce head pain.
There’s no way to make the holiday season completely risk-free for migraine sufferers. But there are certain coping strategies, and adopting one or all of them can hopefully make Christmas a little less of a headache for you.