Spring brings warmer weather, blooming flowers, and—for those who suffer from migraines and seasonal allergies—a world of hurt.
The season’s turbulent weather and rainy days lower barometric pressure in the air, which alters the pressure in your sinuses, making blood vessels dilate and triggering a migraine. More than half of all migraine patients suffer from weather-related migraines, according to research from the New England Center for Headache. Similar to the way some people can predict a storm by the aches in their joints, migraine sufferers can detect drops in barometric pressure by brain pain.
But weather is not the only reason there's an uptick in migraines in springtime, says Vincent Martin, M.D., professor of clinical medicine and vice president of the National Headache Foundation. Allergies are also to blame. A 2013 study by Martin concluded that those with allergies and hay fever were 33 percent more likely to have more frequent migraines than those without the conditions. When pollen fills the air, allergy sufferers get inflamed sinus passages, which can set off a migraine. And the same nervous system sensitivity that makes some people more susceptible to migraines can also cause greater sensitivity to allergies—and vice versa.
While you can't control the weather, you can alleviate the misery of spring migraines without resorting to medications if you try these everyday strategies.
Stay on a sleep schedule. Stick to a daily bedtime and rise time, even on weekends. Getting less than six hours of sleep can set off migraines, Martin says. A Missouri State University study found that sleep deprivation caused changes in pain-suppressing proteins that regulate sensory response thought to play a key role in migraines. But too much sleep isn't great either since the nervous system reacts to changes in sleep patterns with inflammation, which can trigger a headache. Aim for seven to eight hours of pillow time each night.
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Cut out simple carbs. Refined carbohydrates such as bread, pasta, and sugar, and simple starches like potatoes cause your blood sugar skyrocket, Martin says, and this spike irritates the sympathetic nervous system, prompting inflammation in the blood vessels that can lead to a migraine.
Meditate. A small 2008 study found that volunteers who meditated for 20 minutes a day for one month reduced their headache frequency. People who om'ed also improved pain tolerance by 36 percent. If you’ve never tried meditation before, ease into the practice by setting a timer on your phone for two or three minutes. Begin by sitting in a comfortable position in a dark room with your eyes closed. Focus on deep breathing and try not to let your mind wander. If you have trouble releasing your thoughts, try repeating a mantra, such as “breathe” or “quiet.” Aim to meditate every day, and slowly bump up your time to five minutes, then 10, eventually reaching 20 to 30 minutes a day.
Snack on sour cherries. The fruit contains quercetin, which slows down the production of prostaglandin, a chemical messenger in your body that makes you more sensitive to pain. Studies have shown that 20 tart cherries or eight ounces of unsweetened tart cherry juice may fight headache better than aspirin. [Tweet this tip!]
Banish bright lights. A National Headache Foundation-sponsored survey reported that 80 percent of migraine sufferers experienced abnormal sensitivity to light. Bright lights—even sunshine—are known to trigger migraine attacks or worsen an existing headache by causing irritation in the nervous system when blood vessels in the head rapidly dilate and become inflamed. Always carry around a pair of polarized sunglasses in your purse to shield your eyes.
Hold the cheese and smoked fish. Aged cheeses, smoked fish, and alcohol naturally contain tyramine, which is formed from the breakdown of protein as foods mature. The substance inflames the nervous system, which can bring on a migraine. While scientists are still trying to pinpoint exactly how tyramine triggers migraines, one explanation is that it causes brain cells to release the chemical norepinephrine, responsible for the fight-or-flight response, which increases the heart rate and triggers the release of glucose, an aggravating combo for the nervous system.
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Consider magnesium supplements. Migraine sufferers displayed low levels of magnesium during migraine attacks, according to a study, suggesting that a deficiency might be the culprit. (The recommended daily allowance of magnesium for adults is around 310mg per day for women.) The same study showed that a high dose of magnesium—more than 600 mg—significantly reduced migraine incidence, but the supplement must be taken daily for several months to be effective. Talk to your doctor first before you pop any pills.
Track your time of the month. Women are three times more prone to migraines than men, according to the Migraine Research Foundation. This may be because of fluctuating hormones; a drop in estrogen lowers our body's pain threshold, which causes nerve inflammation and—boom!—it’s migraine time. That's why you’re most likely to get an attack during menstruation. The upside: Hormone-induced migraines are be easier to anticipate and prevent than migraines cause by other triggers. To find out exactly when during ovulation your headaches tend to hit, keep a headache journal that outlines when the pain comes and how long it lasts.
Make friends with feverfew. One study showed that a daily dose of feverfew taken for four months produced a 24-percent dip in the number and severity of migraine attacks. Talk to your doc to see if a typical dose of 250mg is right for you. [Tweet this tip!]
Strike a pose. In a small study published in Headache Journal, migraine patients who participated in three months of yoga five days a week for 60 minutes had fewer migraine attacks compared to a control group who did not do yoga. Through active yoga postures and breath work, the parasympathetic system (which becomes inflamed during a migraine attack) may induce a more balanced physiological and psychological state, staving off migraines. Yoga has also been known to decrease levels of stress and increase serotonin levels, both of which can prevent migraines.
Freeze out headaches. Try icing your temples with a cold compress, ice pack, or cold cap. Studies have shown that lowering the temperature of the blood passing through an inflamed area can help to constrict blood vessels and significantly ease pain. One study of 28 patients had migraine sufferers wear cold gel caps for 25 minutes during two separate migraine attacks. The patients reported significantly less pain compared to volunteers who didn’t wear the caps.
Get rid of gluten. Eating gluten may trigger migraines in people who are sensitive to the protein, according to a study published in Neurology, since the protein may cause inflammation.