Friday, December 9, 2011

Reducing Holiday-Related Migraine Triggers

The theme for the December 2011 Headache & Migraine Disease Blog Carnival is: "Reducing Holiday-Related Migraine Triggers: Share your best advice, tips, and tricks for minimizing triggers while still fully enjoying the holiday season."

I've been wanting to write about holidays and migraines, so this gives me a great opportunity to share and to learn some tips from others. There's a great post that I think approaches this topic so well - Surviving the Holidays: Give yourself the G.I.F.T. of a stress-free holiday - Guilt must go. Importance rules. Family matters. Think ahead.

Since my main challenge is dealing with chronic migraines, I'd like to write about the holiday season... how there are a million different triggers that can present themselves... all in just a matter of weeks... and all wrapped in tinsel and twinkling lights.

First, let's take a look at 3 triggers that we have the ability to manage / control:  food, sleep, and stress.

The holidays often involve get-togethers and parties, many of which will have foods / drinks that might be migraine triggers. Sometimes, you simply don't know what ingredients were used to prepare the foods provided at the event. Though there is no universal list of migraine triggers, there are foods / drinks that have been found to be common food triggers.

Tips: Try to keep your eating schedule - eat small meals throughout the day, make sure not to go too long without eating (don't skip meals). Eat around the same time each day, and keep your food portions consistent. Going all day with little to eat and then splurging at an evening dinner can trigger a migraine. And, if you're going to a party or dinner, offer to bring a dish... at least then you know that you'll be able to eat at least one thing there.

Just as holiday events can affect your eating schedule, it can also lead to disruption in one's sleep routine / pattern. We may find ourselves staying up later, sleeping in later, napping, etc...

Tips: Try to keep your sleep pattern - go to bed and get up at the same time each day, and refrain from naps.

The holiday season increases stress for everyone, regardless of whether someone has a chronic illness or not. But, for those living with chronic pain, there is stress in: not knowing whether or not you'll be able to keep plans with others, missing out on special events, being around crowds of people, spending precious energy and money on gifts, etc. While stress may not be a migraine trigger, it certainly renders the individual more susceptible to his / her triggers... so, it's important to try to reduce stress levels.

Tips: Begin holiday planning and preparation a month or two in advance. That way, you can get a little done each week, and you'll still be "on schedule," if you end up having some bad days. Set aside time for yourself - take frequent breaks and retreat to a cool, dark, quiet room as you need to. It's also important to monitor how you're feeling, and take care of yourself.

Now, let's take a look at 3 triggers that we have a lower (or no) ability to control:  environment, travel, and weather.

There are some environmental factors that simply cannot be controlled (see WEATHER, below). But, the holidays introduce another set of environments that we often have very little control over. Stores have fluorescent lights, different smells, a lot of people, etc... Holiday parties / events have smells, noise, lights, foods, drinks, crowds... a lot that we can't really control. Often there is no way to escape these triggers or the migraines that they generate.

Tips: If you're going to a party or dinner at someone else's house, offer to bring a dish. If you know the person well enough, perhaps you can ask them if there's a cool, dark, quiet room that you could escape to, if you need to. You may also ask him / her to not burn candles that may be a trigger for you.

Traveling to other cities / states to visit with family and friends is common around the holidays, but it can lead to increase in migraines. Holiday travel can disrupt our eating and sleeping habits, and raise our stress-levels.

Tips: The holiday season comes with short tempers / fuses and long lines. Keep in mind that everything will take more time during the holiday season, so pace yourself. If you find yourself traveling during the holidays:
Car travel - stay hydrated, keep your regular sleep and eating schedules, take frequent rest stops to get out and stretch.
Air travel - stay hydrated, keep your regular sleep and eating schedules, and take your headache medicine as a preventive (if air travel is a problem for your migraines).

Changes in weather can also trigger some people's migraines - possible weather change triggers include: changes in temperature, changes in barometric pressure, storm systems, humidity.

Tips: Sometimes, by knowing when there are weather changes coming, you can take your abortive medication and prevent the migraine altogether. Also, by getting or keeping other triggers under control (such as sleep, food, etc...), the weather changes may impact your migraine levels less.

The holidays tend to be a perfect storm of triggers: food, sleep, stress, environment, travel, weather, and so on. Even though migraine triggers aren't the same for everyone, the holiday season tends to bring on a multitude of different triggers that can wreak havoc with many Migraineurs.

Tips: Try to control the triggers that you're able to. Determine what's most important for you and your family, and let the other things melt away. Be patient, pace yourself, and go with the flow.

Ultimately, remember that the holidays are not about the parties and the gifts. It's about celebrating the birth of our Lord, with our family and friends. We shouldn't feel guilty, if we can't muster up the energy to meet the expectations we have of the "ideal holiday scene." Living with a chronic illness places limits on what and how much we can do, and we must stop being so hard on ourselves for listening to and taking care of our bodies. Be patient, pace yourself, and go with the flow. 


  1. Thanks for this post Jamie. Being patient with myself and pacing my activities is especially difficult at this time of the year, so it's really helpful to have a reminder of just how important both of those things are.

  2. I want to say thanks this information was very helpful to keep me on track, and I notice one or two things I was doing on your list.


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