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The Complete Guide to Avoiding Migraines During the Holiday Season

Posted by Mark Khorsandi, D.O. on Dec 12, 2018 7:00:00 AM

holiday migraine

With the holiday season approaching at what feels like the speed of light, many people living with migraine will be happy at the idea of shopping for presents, enjoying time with loved ones, traveling to visit family, taking time off work, receiving nice gifts and enjoying festivities where tasty food and seasonal alcoholic beverages are served in generous amounts.

Unfortunately, festive events are also filled with triggers that could make a migraine patient feel like the Grinch of the popular Dr. Seuss tale. Here’s how to survive the holidays by avoiding migraine triggers wherever possible.


Strategy #1: Avoid Shopping Nightmares

Shopping can be stressful at the best of times, but heavy winter coats, overly-warm stores, long checkout lines and busy crowds over the holidays can be an absolute nightmare for a migraineur. You can avoid all this by:

  • Shopping early. Try to get all your gift shopping done before the end of November, so you can stay away from stores completely in December. Doing it in stages over the months leading up to the holidays can reduce the stress of shopping tremendously.
  • Consider online or catalog shopping. These days, it’s safe and efficient and you usually get the items delivered to your doorstep, which beats venturing out hands-down.
  • Plan your route. If you absolutely have to go out to a store or two, plan your trip down to the last detail so you can avoid aimlessly wandering around, backtracking and exhaustion. Research ahead of time which stores have the items you want (some store websites even tell you what stock they have and which aisle to find it in), and have a backup plan like a gift voucher in mind in case you don’t find what you’re looking for.
  • Choose your time of day. It’s easy to determine when a store’s busy times are—you can usually find that on Google, and if not, call ahead and ask. Do your gift hunting during the quieter periods, such as early in the morning or in the last hour of business.
  • Enlist help. Spouses, family members and friends can all be asked for assistance in doing the holiday shopping, especially if they are doing their own anyway. Just ask each person to add one item to their list and you might be able to avoid going out there completely.

Try not to panic if plans change at the last minute. Keeping a relaxed and open mind will help ward off tension migraine triggers.

Strategy #2: Get a Grip on Your Stress

The holiday season can be stressful for many reasons, and stress is one thing migraine patients simply can’t afford. Gifts, parties and get-togethers, cooking and baking, family visits, or perhaps even the absence of these, can make the season stressful. Issues such as affordability, high expectations, and dysfunctional family relationships can all help to exacerbate the stresses, leaving you drained and incapable of functioning at your best.

Protect your personal time during the silly season by making sure you set aside a period each day for reconnecting with yourself. It’s one way to escape the madding crowds and ensure you save your sanity—and your migraines—for another day.

Whether you’re dealing with chaos or the lack of it, remember you can’t control everything so quit trying. The one thing you can influence is how you react to the stimuli, however, so do what it takes to reduce the stress. Deep breathing techniques, meditation and massage therapy are just some ways you can get a grip on your stress during this period and prevent migraines triggered by stress from ruining your holidays.

Green Vegetables — Stock Photo

Strategy #3: Eat Carefully

Food is one of the primary triggers of a migraine, and it’s very easy when you’re outside your comfort zone and off your regular schedule to break the good habits you spent all year cultivating. Manage your risk for migraine by:

Avoiding foods such as chocolate, aged cheeses, citrus fruits, spicy dishes and sodas containing aspartame can help you prevent the triggering of a migraine. That’s not all there is to the eating aspect, however; it’s as much about what you DO eat as what you DON’T, such as:

  • Eat lots of green vegetables. According to Keri Gans, MS, RD, CDN, dietitian and spokesperson for America's Better Sandwich, foods such as kale and broccoli that are rich in magnesium are known to help avert migraines. By adding more of these into your holiday diet in the form of salads, smoothies, juices, sandwiches and desserts, you can help to prevent migraines.
  • Choose plain, wholegrain bread, sourdough, rye, pumpernickel and bagels also contain magnesium, and the fiber content is good for migraines. Skip the rich fillings like cheese and processed meats, and stuff your sandwiches with shredded lettuce, smoked salmon, sliced mushrooms and some dried cranberries for extra flavor. Your snack will be as filling and tasty as the oily pizza everyone else is eating, and a lot more nutritious and pain-safe.
  • Fill your plate with veggies. In addition to the greens, cooked orange and yellow vegetables like carrots, sweet potato and most kinds of squash are full of nutrients that benefit both body and mind, According to the Physicians Committee For Responsible Medicine, cooked vegetables that are orange in color (such as carrots and sweet potato) have been proven to be safe for migraine sufferers. These food items are filled with nutrients that benefit both body and mind, and eating these as a complex carbohydrate combined with lean protein such as fish or chicken makes for a great meal.
  • Go low-fat with dairy. It’s high in calcium that releases serotonin, which minimizes migraine symptoms as well as being better able to prevent them from happening in the first place.

If you’re keeping a migraine diary to track your symptoms and triggers, you’ll know by now which foods you can—and can’t—eat. Eat regularly and well, plan ahead, and if necessary, take your own food with you to a family visit, so you don’t have to worry about setting off an episode.  Start supplementing your diet with vitamins C and B12 well in advance of the holidays, to avoid colds and flu that might precipitate a migraine.


Strategy #4: Shield Your Eyes

It might be winter, but you can still experience glare from the sun (or the snow, if you live in a cooler region). Protect your eyes during indoor and outdoor activities as well as while traveling, by donning a pair of protective, tinted glasses from Axon Optics or TheraSpecs.

Minimize your exposure to holiday lights like fairy lights, streetlights and shining store displays by doing your shopping during daylight, when the glare isn’t as obvious.

Avoid adding flickering lights to your Christmas tree at home, and if you visit family and they have flashing lights just ask if they can turn them off or change them to a steady setting while you’re there.   

Strategy #5: Escape Destructive Scents

From cooking aromas to the fresh smell of a pine Christmas tree, the holidays are filled with odors good and bad. It’s very difficult to avoid them during the holiday season, with everyone decked out in their best attire complete with fragrances. These are a common trigger of migraine especially for patients who suffer from aura, whether the odors are pleasant or not.

Ask ahead of time if guests can refrain from wearing perfume, cologne or aftershave, and if scented soaps and candles could be kept to a minimum during your visit. Be selective about the places you go and the appointments you keep. Take a surgical face mask with to wear if the scents are inescapable, and be sure to let your host know on arrival that you might have to leave if a migraine develops.

Sleeping — Stock Photo

Strategy #6: Get Enough Sleep

Catching up with family and friends often means staying up later than usual at night, sleeping over in strange locations like a hotel, B&B or someone else’s home. All of these can cause disruption of your sleep patterns, so set yourself some rules to follow during the holiday season.

  1. Establish a later bedtime than usual. Start this at least a week before you actually need to do it, so your body has time to get used to the new pattern. If you usually retire at 10 pm but expect you’ll be up until midnight during the festivities, condition yourself to accept going to bed later and arrange your life so you can sleep a bit later too. This will help to reduce any sleep deprivation you might otherwise experience that can be a trigger for a migraine attack.
  2. Calm your mind. If you’ve ever gone to bed straight from a party, you’ll know how hard it is to calm your mind and get into the mood for sleeping. Make it a habit to head out half an hour before your designated sleep time, so you have a chance to relax and switch off before getting into bed. Use meditation apps or recordings to “talk you down” before trying to sleep, or play a sleeping music playlist from YouTube or Spotify to send you off to dreamland.
  3. Don’t eat or drink less than an hour before bed. You should have no more than a teacup-full of fluid before bedtime, and nothing to eat for four hours before retiring. This avoids indigestion from food dislodged by the lying-down position, as well as trips to the bathroom during the night.

Other factors affecting your sleep include medications and alcohol, so it’s important to keep these in mind even when you’re following the tips provided for those topics.

Strategy #7: Keep Alcohol to a Minimum

There’s nothing nicer than a glass of bubbly to welcome the festive season, but you could pay a high price. Alcohol of any description is a migraine trigger, but you’re especially vulnerable if you drink something you’re unaccustomed to, like champagne or sparkling wine, eggnog, mulled wine or holiday cocktails. These drinks are not only unusual but are typically enjoyed as part of a combination of drinks during an event. Mixing drinks is never a good idea, and for migraine sufferers it can precipitate a very inconvenient headache.

A headache that arrives immediately you drink alcohol is known as a cocktail headache, but a headache that only arrives later is a hangover headache. These headache types occur on both sides of the brain simultaneously, with a throbbing, pulsing sensation. “Trigger” headaches usually occur within two or three hours of drinking, which earmarks them as cocktail headaches.

Scientists used to believe alcohol causes migraines because it dilates the blood vessels, but modern medicine is more focused on the idea that chemicals in the alcohol such as sulfites, tannins and tyramines help to form the headaches. A third theory is that it triggers an inflammatory response, which leads to migraine.

Strategy #8: Stay Hydrated

The holidays have many hidden culprits that can cause you to become dehydrated. Warm rooms, fireplaces, alcohol, teas and coffees, long hours spent shopping and cooking—all of these can serve to reduce the amount of moisture you need to stay hydrated. Your brain then temporarily contracts, shrinks from fluid loss and pulls away from the skull causing a headache.

Keep a bottle of water with you at all times and train yourself to sip regularly from it every few minutes. Flavor the water by adding a slice of lemon or lime to the drink, if you don’t enjoy the au naturel taste, or swap your water out for any of these drinks proven to be just as hydrating:

  1. Milk – regular or lactose-free
  2. Oral rehydration solution
  3. Fruit juice – freshly pressed or squeezed
  4. Sports drinks like Vitamin Water.

Refill your water bottle before you leave to travel to any destination. Even if you’re not dehydrated, finding yourself on a busy highway with backed up traffic and no water can be quite disastrous for a migraine sufferer.

Strategy #9: Do Your Exercises

Get in shape for the festive season by building up to a healthy exercise program by the time the holidays roll around. Regular, healthy exercise releases endorphins, which are our bodies’ natural painkillers. These reduce the frequency and intensity of migraine headaches, while the exercise itself lowers your stress levels and helps to ensure you sleep at night. Remember exercise can trigger a migraine, too, so it’s important to take precautions such as:

  • Making sure you hydrate well before, during and after your exercise sessions. If your mouth gets dry and you don’t perspire you could be dehydrated already. Don’t wait until you’re thirsty to rectify the situation.
  • Eat protein-rich foods about an hour and a half before you start exercising. This ensures you have enough energy to balance lowering your blood sugar through physical activity.
  • Warm up well by walking at a slow pace for five minutes and gradually speeding up before you do any more intensive exercise.

If you’re a migraine sufferer, regularity and consistency are your friends this holiday season. Migraine management depends on keeping a close rein on what you’re doing, when and how you’re doing it. Being proactive will help you avoid triggering an attack and ensure you have the best holiday season ever.

migraine diary


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Topics: Causes, Prevention

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