Although it’s supposed to be the “most wonderful time of the year,” the holidays can bring a lot of baggage upon us, particularly when it comes to stress and working our way through a long list of to-dos. And while it’s safe to say many of us have probably been experiencing headaches this year, the holiday season alone can bring about head pain. Discover why your head may hurt during the holidays, and how to get relief.
You’re stressed. It’s been an overwhelming year that’s done a number on our nation’s mental health. Being stressed can cause tension headaches and migraines. “When someone is stressed, they tend to elevate their shoulders, furrow their brow, and clench their teeth,” says Jennifer McVige, MD, MA, an expert in Headache, Neuroimaging, Pediatric Neurology, Post Concussion/Head Injury at Dent Neurological Institute in Western New York. “This can cause muscle spasms in these areas which can lead to tension as well as migraine headaches. This is especially concerning if someone has a history of temporomandibular joint dysfunction (TMJ). The muscle spasm can be much worse for them.”
To alleviate this pain and prevent the muscles from tightening, pretend that you are holding a grape in your teeth, Dr. McVige suggests. Closing your lips but keeping your teeth apart as if there is something between them can cause the jaw to temporarily relax. Do this for a count of 20 and then relax. Try to repeat 2-3 times in a row and then do this series 2-3 times a day. You’ll learn to think about not clenching or grinding your teeth.
Reduce upper back and shoulder pain by rolling the shoulders back so that the neck and chin are in alignment with the spine. Be mindful of forward posturing, especially if you’re sitting on the computer for long periods of time, Dr. McVige advises.
Turning the head to one side with the opposite arm outstretched and flexing that hand can help stretch the neck. Count to 10 while taking deep breaths in and out. Taking breaks and walking around can help reduce the tension that can lead to pain. Set notifications to move with your Fitbit.
You’re dehydrated. You might not be drinking enough water in the cooler months because you don’t feel hot and thirsty, or a heater blasting nearby zaps moisture or, you simply forget to drink water while working on end-of-year deadlines and tasks. Adults should be drinking eight, 8-ounce glasses of water a day, says Dr. McVige.
If a person feels very dehydrated in their home, they can always use a humidifier to help add moisture, she suggests. “Also, make sure that when you’re sleeping the heat isn’t cranked up since this can lead to dehydration. Drinking water throughout the day will help keep you hydrated while you sleep.”
You’re eating headache-triggering foods. Some of the most popular foods you’ll find at holiday gatherings could lead to head pain, like aged cheeses, smoked meats, artificial sweeteners, and chocolate. “Certain foods can trigger headaches including MSG, BPA (found in canned products), nitrates, red dyes, frozen foods that contain MSG, processed cheeses, and diet foods,” says Dr. McVige.
The triggers are very much individual. Plus, not everyone is triggered by the same foods. And while these foods won’t cause headaches in everyone, people with migraines might be more likely to notice the after-effects. “Keeping a headache diary and a food diary can help you understand the things that cause increased headaches,” Dr. McVige says. “The biggest triggers I see in my practice are MSG, bouillon cubes, salad dressings, fake cheeses, and spice packets with MSG. Nitrates found in luncheon meats, hot dogs, smoked meats, and cured meats can also trigger headaches.” Eating a clean diet with foods that aren’t processed and are organic can really improve headache outcomes, she says.
Keep in mind that skipping meals can trigger headaches for some people, especially if they’re skipping breakfast. Eat regular, balanced meals throughout the day to keep headaches at bay.
You’re drinking more alcohol. Celebrations and imbibing go hand in hand during the holidays, no judgment here! But if you’re having a few more cocktails during the week or find yourself with an empty bottle of wine after a Christmas movie sesh, you might be experiencing more headaches or migraines, according to research.
Certain alcohols are suspected to be more likely to provoke migraines, like sweet red wines, other sweet beverages, and certain beers. “Moderate consumption is key if someone is going to imbibe,” says Dr. McVige. “One rule of thumb is to make sure that you have an 8-ounce glass of water before you drink any kind of alcohol and a glass of water for each alcoholic drink to help stave off dehydration.”
If someone feels dehydrated after drinking alcohol, taking drinks with electrolyte-containing properties can be very helpful with the water, Dr. McVige says. A recent study found that participants who took zinc and nicotinic acid (a form of B3) reduced hangover severity the next day. “Taking an NSAID before going to bed can also be helpful in preventing headaches.”
You’re not sleeping. If you’re reading this with tired eyes from staying up late wrapping gifts and you’ve got a pounding headache, you know that sleep disturbances can contribute to head pain. Poor sleep can occur for many reasons and a stressful day where you didn’t take time to wind down before bed is probably at the top of the list. “Many times, people have difficulty sleeping because they are anxious,” says Dr. McVige. “It’s important to calm down the body and thoughts before sleep. If you’re sleeping while feeling anxious, your muscles are spasmed and tensed.”
Try using the Relax feature on your Fitbit or start a Mindfulness session from the app. Sniffing scented oils might also help you relax and fall asleep faster at bedtime, but people who suffer from migraines often have a very hard time with flowery essential oils such as lavender, says Dr. McVige. Sniffing mint or citrus scents tends to be better for this demographic.
You’re chugging caffeine. Whether you’re drinking more caffeine because you’re a sucker for specialty holiday drinks or you slept in and then drank a large cup of coffee after that celebration the night before, this drug could be part of the reason you’re experiencing head pain during the holidays. Caffeine in itself isn’t the direct culprit behind why your head hurts—in fact, it helps narrow and restrict blood flow in the blood vessels which can help with head pain—but the circumstances around that cuppa joe might cause head pain.
Usually, dehydration is part of the problem. “A good rule of thumb is to drink an 8-ounce glass of water before any caffeinated beverage to counter the dehydrating effects,” says Dr. McVige. “Caffeinated beverages can also induce headaches if they are made with artificial sweeteners or are sweet in general.”
If you decided to catch up on zzz’s over the weekend and slept in, having a caffeinated beverage a few hours later than you’re used to could also cause a headache from the caffeine withdrawal.
This information is for educational purposes only and is not intended as a substitute for medical diagnosis or treatment. You should not use this information to diagnose or treat a health problem or condition. Always check with your doctor before changing your diet, altering your sleep habits, taking supplements, or starting a new fitness routine.