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Why do I get more migraines in the winter?

March 4, 2022 • read

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Why do I get more migraines in the winter?

You expect certain things from winter — snow, shorter days, and cold temperatures. But if you have migraines, you might also anticipate an uptick in their frequency during the winter months. A certain number of migraine sufferers experience seasonal fluctuations in their migraine attacks, and they can get much worse when the temperature drops. Here’s what you should know if winter weather brings you more than just dry skin.

What is a migraine?

A migraine — also known as a migraine attack — is more than a headache. The intensity alone distinguishes it from a headache, but migraines come with additional symptoms that go beyond a throbbing head.

Migraine is actually a neurological disease – in fact, it’s the most prevalent one, affecting just over 8% of Canadians. Not everyone who has migraines seeks treatment, however, so statistics likely underestimate the true incidence of the disease. Women are more likely to experience migraine attacks, and those in their 30s and 40s are most likely to be affected. But while the condition is common, its exact causes aren’t fully understood. 

Doctors think that migraine sufferers may have more excitable brains. Essentially, their brain responds differently to stimuli than other people’s brains do, triggering a migraine. They don’t yet know the underlying mechanisms that cause the condition, however. There’s some debate around whether there’s a vascular component — whether or not changes in your blood vessels contribute to the phenomenon — but more research is needed.

Migraine symptoms

While symptoms vary from person to person, classic symptoms of a migraine attack include:

  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Sensitivity to light and sound — some also experience other sensory sensitivities, such as smell
  • Unilateral headache — headache with pain on one side of the head, although it can be on both sides 
  • Throbbing or pulsating head pain

Who is at higher risk for migraines?

Heritability plays an important role in people with migraines, so if you have a close family member with the condition, it increases your chances of developing it as well. Gender is another risk factor for developing migraines — women are more than three times as likely to have the condition as men.

What is a seasonal migraine?

Seasonal migraines are migraine attacks that tend to peak during certain times of the year. Some individuals identify hot temperatures and humidity as their triggers, while others find their migraines peak during the colder, drier months. Seasonal migraines that occur in the winter months are often called winter headaches, or winter migraines.

Not every migraine sufferer experiences more frequent migraines in winter. And until recently, research was inconclusive about a rise in migraines during the colder months. A recent study, however, seems to show that for a certain proportion of migraine sufferers, winter increases the number of migraines they experience. 

The study asked participants to self-report their sensitivity to cold. All participants kept migraine journals, logging their symptoms throughout the year. After cross-referencing symptoms with weather data, researchers found that cold-sensitive participants experienced more winter headaches than the non-sensitive group. But while their episodes were more frequent, study participants rated most of them as being on the milder side.

What causes more migraines during winter?

Why winter causes more migraines in certain individuals isn’t fully clear, but there are a few possibilities. Researchers think it might have to do with blood flow. It’s well documented that headaches are associated with hemodynamic changes — i.e. the dynamics of blood flow — which are themselves affected by the cold.

The reduction in sunlight that winter brings might play a factor too. Changes in the number of daylight hours can spur a shift in your circadian rhythms — the body’s inner clock. This can provoke a change in sleep patterns, leading to oversleeping, undersleeping, and interrupted sleep. Since poor sleep or a lack of sleep can trigger a migraine episode, you might find that changes in sunlight coincide with an increase in headaches as well.

But your body’s internal clock isn’t the only thing affected by fewer hours of sunlight in the winter. A decrease in sunlight can cause your levels of serotonin to drop. You may have heard that this can cause seasonal affective disorder (SAD), a form of depression. What is lesser-known, however, is that a drop in serotonin can also trigger migraines. 

Are migraines triggered by weather changes?

While cold weather can be a migraine trigger, frigid temperatures alone aren’t necessarily the cause of winter migraines. Cold air has a different mass than warm air does — it’s denser. This is why warm air rises and why your basement is always cooler than the rest of the house. This is known as barometric pressure and it’s essentially a measure of the weight of the air.

The thing about winter is that as the cold air rolls in, the barometric pressure changes. And it’s not just the temperature that affects the air mass. Moisture content plays a part too. Moist air is less dense than dry air, and when the two meet, the mixing of the cold, dry air and the warmer, moist air can cause precipitation and another change in barometric pressure. 

As flurries and snow fronts come and go, they can cause shifts in air pressure. While these weather shifts might not spur temperature fluctuations, even minor shifts in barometric pressure can set off a migraine. 

Migraines and self-care

Heading south before the extreme cold weather rolls in isn’t the only way to help prevent a winter migraine. So if you’re not a snowbird, don’t despair. There are many things you can do to minimize the frequency as well as the intensity of your cold-weather migraines without resorting to getting on an airplane.

For starters, bump self-care up to the top of your list. Lack of sleep is a major migraine trigger, so a sleep schedule with seven to nine hours of good quality, uninterrupted sleep every night is beneficial. Proper nutrition and eating regularly is also one of the building blocks of self-care. According to the Canada Food Guide, half of your plate should be filled with veggies and fruits, so try to up your intake until you get there. 

But the lynchpin of migraine self-care is stress management. If you’re not dealing with your stress, you’re at higher risk of a migraine episode. Consider mediation, yoga, exercise, breathing exercises, and even taking time off work as a way to lessen your stress.

Ways to prevent cold weather migraines

Once you’ve got self-care under wraps, consider what environmental factors you have within your control.

Winter air is dry to begin with. Mix it with dry indoor heating, and you’ve got a recipe for dehydration. Because you don’t tend to sweat in colder weather, you may not notice how much water you’re actually losing on a daily basis. 

Since dehydration can be tied to migraines in certain individuals, it’s a good idea to up your water quotient in the winter. You can tell if you’re drinking enough water by monitoring the colour of your urine. If it’s not pale yellow or clear, you’re not drinking enough. 

If you do tend to feel down in the dumps as the days get shorter, aim to get outside regularly for sunshine and exercise. Exercise can help to boost serotonin levels, which may also help to stave off both SAD and winter migraine episodes. A quick note though — if you feel that you need more support than exercise alone, speak to your healthcare team. You may benefit from additional treatments such as light therapy or prescription medication. 

If you know a big storm is coming, try to stay inside as much as possible beforehand to minimize your exposure. You can’t do anything about barometric pressure outside, but adding a humidifier to your home can help to lower the indoor air pressure slightly.

And if you do feel a migraine coming on, take your medication immediately. This will help to minimize the severity and the length of the attack. 

Preventing migraines

Prevention is a key component for dealing with migraines. To help with this, many migraine sufferers find that it’s beneficial to keep a log of their attacks to pinpoint specific triggers. For most, lack of sleep and stress top the list. But some individuals swear that certain foods and even smells can trigger an episode. 

When it comes to unavoidable triggers, however, prevention isn’t always possible. In these cases, research shows that gradual exposure to unavoidable triggers can promote desensitization. This may be a more realistic and useful approach than avoidance alone.

Regardless of whether you choose prevention or desensitization, if you think that weather plays a role in your attacks, recording your symptoms and cross-referencing them with the weather report can give you more insight into their exact causes. It may also help you to prevent another migraine in the future. 

Treating migraines

The pain of a migraine attack can be debilitating, but treatment is possible. There are a number of effective over-the-counter (OTC) and prescription medications. Do-it-at-home treatments can include heat or cold therapy (essentially a cold washcloth or warm compress to the forehead). In some cases, a well-timed cup of coffee may help, as caffeine withdrawal can trigger migraines.

While some migraines do get better with OTC medications and at-home treatment, that’s not always the case. Left untreated, some migraine attacks can last up to 72 hours and can be debilitating.  If you experience cold weather migraines, it can even start to make you dread the entire winter season. If you feel that your migraines are interfering with your quality of life, it may be time to seek medical attention.

A migraine specialist can offer solutions including lifestyle modifications and medication. They’ll discuss your medical history and individual profile to customize the best treatment plan for you. If you feel like your migraines aren’t under control, speak with a migraine specialist today — help is just a click away.

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