For migraine sufferers, vacation headaches are all too common—here’s what might be at play.
For most people, browsing through vacation photos is a fun trip down memory lane, remembering all of the cool places you’ve visited. For me, it feels more like recalling all the times I’ve had an incredibly inconvenient, massive headache: neck pain at the Sistine Chapel; dizziness on Disneyland’s Matterhorn Bobsleds; sound sensitivity at Westminster Abbey.
Yep, I suffer from the bad timing (and all-around bummer) of vacation headaches—and I’m definitely not alone. Headaches can, unfortunately, happen at any time, and getting laid up with a migraine on your precious PTO isn’t as uncommon as you might think.
So what’s the deal with head pain that hits just when you’re hoping to relax? Here are some of the precipitating factors for vacation headaches, according to experts—and what you can do to keep them from ruining your time off.
You have a let-down headache
Picture this: You’ve just settled into a beach chair with an umbrella-topped drink when—ugh—in the midst of this tranquil scene, you feel a migraine coming on. That, friends, is what’s known as a “let-down headache.”
“A let-down headache is a headache which occurs when there has been a drop in stress levels,” Deena Kuruvilla, MD, neurologist, headache specialist, and director of the Westport Headache Institute, tells Health. “Many patients with chronic or episodic migraine tell me that their headache frequency has been really well controlled on preventive migraine treatments, but then boom, they go on vacation and experience an attack!”
According to research from the journal Neurology, headaches, for some people, don’t get triggered from stress, but when stress is released, though it’s not exactly clear why. “While we do not know the exact cause of let-down migraine, one possibility that has been proposed is a fluctuation in our stress hormone levels,” says Dr. Kuruvilla. “These stress hormones increase during times of stress and then decline when we are relaxed.”
Fortunately, to keep your relaxation from backfiring into a headache, you do have options. The National Migraine Foundation advises stabilizing stress levels by getting enough sleep, managing time commitments, and spending quality time with a partner or friend. Especially prior to leaving for vacation, these and other stress management activities can help avoid the spike-and-drop pattern that might trigger a migraine.
Lots of smaller stressors added up
The truth is, not every aspect of vacation is stress-free bliss. From last-minute packing woes to the difficult in-laws you may be visiting, there are any number of reasons why you might need a vacation from your vacation. All of these can add up to headaches—literally and figuratively.
Again, self-care strategies for de-stressing are your best bet for prevention. Try downloading a guided meditation to listen to in the car, practicing deep breathing exercises in the airport terminal, and giving yourself quiet, unscheduled breaks throughout your trip.
You’re off your typical sleep schedule
When you’re away from your own bed, sleep doesn’t always come easily. “Migraine and sleep run hand in hand,” says Dr. Kuruvilla. “Traveling across time zones can throw off a person’s circadian rhythm, which contributes to sleep disruption and migraine attacks.”
For better shuteye on vacation, practice healthy sleep hygiene by discontinuing the use of devices before turning in, keeping a cool, dark bedroom, and sticking to your usual bedtime routine as much as possible. While you’re at it, tuck some melatonin in along with your toiletries. “Melatonin is a hormone which helps regulate the circadian rhythm. Research studies have shown it can be helpful for the prevention of migraine,” says Dr. Kuruvilla.
It’s hard to overstate the importance of staying hydrated to prevent head pain. “Even 1-2% body water loss can increase your chances of developing headaches,” dietitian Maryann Walsh, MFN, RD, CDE, tells Health. “So it’s critical to get adequate water.”
But while air travel alone can be dehydrating, the low humidity in a plane cabin isn’t the only factor that can lead to vacation dehydration. Simply switching environments can bump us out of our usual healthy habits. “Being out of your normal routine can lead to not hydrating as you normally would, especially if you are on a road trip or flight and you’d rather not have to stop or get up to use the restroom every hour,” says Walsh.
Then there’s that ubiquitous vacation frenemy: alcohol. “Because alcohol acts as a diuretic, it can further cause us to be dehydrated,” says Walsh. “If we aren’t drinking enough water before, in between, and after a day or night of cocktails, this can lead not only to a dreaded hangover, but also headaches.”
Want to get ahead of head pain from dehydration? Always stash a bottle of H2O in your travel bag, and keep the water flowing alongside any alcoholic drinks you consume.
Your diet changed up
Could that dinner you enjoyed at a five-star restaurant send you loading up on Ibuprofen the next day? It’s possible. For some people, foods high in substances like tyramine, nitrates, sulfites, and artificial ingredients can be a trigger for head pain, according to the Cleveland Clinic. Common culprits include aged cheeses, cured and processed meats, pickled foods, and alcohol—all of which you’ll frequently encounter in restaurant dining.
Meanwhile, travel can disrupt other individual diet choices you might normally make to live pain-free. “Some of us may have dietary headache triggers that we usually avoid in our daily lives, but may not be able to avoid if there are sneaky ingredients we are consuming out at restaurants,” says Walsh.
And don’t forget the impact of caffeine. Fluctuations in caffeine intake are known for tripping the headache wire. If vacation mode has you chilling out sans coffee—when you’d normally drink several cups a day—a headache can result. Rather than drastically deviate from your norm, try keeping your caffeine intake consistent.
You’re at a higher altitude
As you make your way up winding roads for a mountain getaway, you’re likely looking forward to fresh air and cooler temps—but altitude change can be a hidden cause of headaches.
According to the American Migraine Foundation, altitude-related headaches occur most often over 8,500 feet. Still, you don’t have to be scaling Everest for altitude to mess with your head; even smaller elevation changes may lead to discomfort. “Studies have confirmed that all migraine associated symptoms, headache frequency and headache severity tend to worsen with increasing altitude,” confirms Kuruvilla. “One of the proposed mechanisms is a loss of oxygenation to the brain as a result of being at an increased altitude.”
If altitude-related headaches put a damper on your mountain retreats, do your best to stay hydrated and take frequent breaks as you travel upward. Or ask your doctor if a prescription medication could be right for you. And, if all else fails, consider swapping the cabin in the Rockies for a trip to the beach.