Holiday Headaches and Hangovers

Alan Rapoport, MD • December 06, 2011
Holiday Headaches and Hangovers

Holidays are usually associated with good times, family reunions, and happy memories, but they can also bring loneliness, depression, anxiety, and over-commitment. This can result in headache in those with the biologic vulnerability, especially migraineurs. Headache sufferers may also have more headaches when they travel, especially on planes, when they travel to high altitudes and to damp, rainy areas.

Holiday Headaches

Headache specialists often receive up to three times more telephone calls during the holiday season (between Thanksgiving and New Year’s Day) than at other times of the year. We attribute this to the combined effects of stress factors and the greater exposure to headache triggers such as rich, carbohydrate-laden holiday foods, partying in poorly ventilated and smoke-filled rooms, lack of sleep and over-commitment.

Migraine patients are more affected than others by changes in daily events and body rhythms, and the holidays magnify this susceptibility. The following suggestions should be followed to lower your risk of developing holiday headaches:

  • Allow an unwinding period after your final day at work and before travel and celebration.
  • Pace yourself realistically; try not to overextend yourself. Make a schedule that allows you to accomplish a reasonable number of tasks per day. Do not set unattainable goals.
  • Be aware of signs of tension, such as clenched teeth, tense shoulders, and shallow breathing. When you note them, take some time to relax those muscles and take slow, deep, easy abdominal breaths.
  • Try to sleep the same number of hours every night; try going to bed at a set time and waking up at the same time. If you are going to be out late, consider sleeping in in the morning, unless you know that is bad for your headaches. Set specific meal times; do not skip meals or even delay them. Have snack food available for car and plane trips so you are not going without food. Exercise regularly most days of the week.
  • Remember to take medications as prescribed; do not change dose times. Do not use more than the recommended amounts of off-the-shelf or prescription pain medications.
  • Take time to unwind after traveling or holiday activities; ease into your regular routine.

Hangover Headache

The hangover headache is a familiar holiday phenomenon that is easier to avoid than to treat. Here are some tips on prevention that will help some to avoid headaches:

  • Drink very little alcohol and if you do drink, then do it slowly, over a period of a few hours and with food in your stomach.
  • The lighter-color alcohols such as gin, vodka, and white wine tend to have fewer congeners (impurities) and are less likely to cause hangover headache for some.
  • Use sugar-free mixes to dilute the alcohol and make sure you drink sufficient non-alcoholic liquids.
  • Drink one large 12 ounce glass of plain water for every hour during which you consume alcohol.
  • Before drinking, eat high-protein, more slowly absorbed foods, such as milk or mild cheese.
  • High-fructose food such as apples, honey, grapes, tomatoes, and their juices may help you break down (metabolize) the alcohol faster.
  • Stay in a well-ventilated room or go outdoors at intervals for fresh air; avoid inhaling cigarette smoke, which lowers the oxygen content of your blood and starves your brain of oxygen.
  • Eat bland snacks, avoiding salt and foods that trigger your headaches.
  • Go to bed at a reasonable hour and do not oversleep the next day.
  • At bedtime, take one or two tablets of acetylsalicylic acid (ASA) or off-the-shelf nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) and drink as much water as possible. Put cold compresses over your forehead, eyes, temples, and/or the nape of your neck.
  • Do not drink alcohol the next morning no matter how bad you feel. The hair of the dog is a myth. The holidays can be a wonderful time of the year, but if you are prone to headaches, maintaining your usual sleep, eating and exercise cycles can help to guarantee a happy holiday.

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