Why Migraineurs Have a Love/Hate Relationship With Fall

The dramatic changes of autumn lead to more headaches, anxiety, and depression.

Posted Nov 11, 2020

 David Bartus/Pexels
Source: David Bartus/Pexels

Seasonal changes really can provoke migraine attacks, and the shift from summer to fall is one of the most dramatic. Lee Peterlin, associate professor of neurology and director of headache research at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, points out, "When you have changes in weather, it’s not just temperature. It’s changes in atmospheric pressure, in wind, in clouds, in dust, and precipitation” (Huizen). 

While many migraineurs feature several “weather changes” as triggers to migraine, certain triggers are often worse in the fall:

Contributing Factors for Fall Triggering Migraine Attacks

  • Dramatic weather and barometric changes
  • Shorter days and longer nights
  • Allergies
  • Seasonal affective disorder
  • Disruption in sleep patterns

Weather Patterns

The atmospheric pressure is an enormous contributing factor. We see more low-pressure systems in the fall, and when these systems combine with falls in barometric pressure, we get a perfect trigger for many migraineurs.    

Do you get a migraine after an airplane ride? That’s probably due to the same reason you get one when you experience a dramatic weather change—a shift in atmospheric pressure: "Regarding changes in barometric pressure, theories about the link with headaches involve the constriction of blood vessels, insufficient oxygen, or the overexcitement of areas of the brain that produce pain" (Huizen). 

Shorter Days and Longer Nights

I know I panic as the days get shorter, the sun sets earlier, and darkness lasts longer the deeper into the fall we get. Like so many, I need the light, and as the days draw in, the concept of time seems to change along with them. I get lethargic, lose incentive and motivation, and am more generally depressed. Do these factors/symptoms directly trigger migraine? I don’t know, but I know they have an impact.

My lack of motivation and lethargy make exercising even more difficult (not to mention that walking the dogs and hiking are less likely after a workday, due to the impending darkness). I have more difficulty maintaining my normal sleep patterns; it’s a lot more difficult to “rise and shine” when it’s pitch-black outside.

Seasonal Affective Disorder

Ironically, while lethargic, I’m also extraordinarily anxious; lack of sunlight or even daylight makes me so. The depression, anxiety, and need for light might well result from a condition often experienced by chronic migraineurs: SAD (seasonal affective disorder): “SAD doesn't just affect your mood. It also affects your energy levels. Along with making you depressed, the seasonal disorder can also cause you to feel sluggish and agitated come fall” (Mayo Clinic).

While the International Headache Society does not specifically recognize the term “seasonal migraine,” so many of us experience more migraines in autumn, due to the exposure of these triggers. We now know that the migraine brain becomes highly sensitive and hyperactive

How Do You Know If You Suffer From SADS?

  • Are you feeling depressed more often, even chronically?
  • Have you experienced a loss of concentration and a lack of interest in activities and social engagement?
  • Are you having more trouble falling or staying asleep? Are you oversleeping?
  • Are you having extra food cravings or a loss of appetite?
  • Do you experience even temporal suicidal thoughts?

 How You Can Try to Help Yourself Get Through This Time

  • Pay close attention to the changes you are experiencing this season.
  • Maintain your sleep patterns. It's a lot more difficult to get up in the dark, but regular sleep is so critical to good migraine care. 
  • Keep your house well lit. While interior, artificial light is no replacement for outdoor light, emotionally you might find more lights helpful.
  • Consider additional lightboxes and light therapy.
  • Try to walk outside each day, if possible, even for a short time.
  • Work to stay motivated.  
  • Eat a well-balanced diet. It’s so easy during times when you suffer more to seek comfort food; the benefits won’t last and will ultimately make you feel worse (weight gain, too many carbs. and sugar, etc.)
  • Try to avoid excess alcohol, again more difficult when you are in pain, depressed, and anxious. Again, though, you know, the results from too much alcohol make you more depressed, lead to weight gain, and are, for some, actual triggers for migraine.
  • Stick to your treatment plan. Don’t forget to take your medications on time and to ward off potential attacks as early as possible. Don’t cancel medical appointments. Keep your migraine diary and keep track of changes you note.
  • Practice relaxation techniques such as yoga, tai chi, and meditation.

As we move from fall to winter in upstate New York, those of us suffering from migraine are beginning to experience the striking changes in weather patterns, certainly the shorter days and longer nights, and the prospect of a long winter ahead. Across the country, we are witnessing significant spikes in COVID cases and are facing the prospect of spending our beloved holidays without being physically close to family and friends.

Additionally, we have been forced indoors more during the pandemic, and now the weather forces us inside even more. This will be a difficult time for all of us suffering migraine or any chronic illness.

Reach out (in the safe ways you can) to others, take care of yourself as best you can, and seek support where you can.

"O wild West Wind, thou breath of Autumn's being,
Thou, from whose unseen presence the leaves dead
Are driven, like ghosts from an enchanter fleeing,
Yellow, and black, and pale, and hectic red…"

—Percy B. Shelley

References

Glaser, Angie. “Do you have a Migraine season? Real people from the community explore the weather-related Migraines triggers from season to season.” Migraine Again. September 2020. https://www.migraineagain.com/people-with-migraine-really-are-affected-by-the-weather/  Accessed 9 November 2020.

Huizen, Jennifer. "What you should know about barometric pressure and headaches." Medical News Today. May 2020.https://www.medicalnewstoday.com/articles/320038#causes. Accessed 8 November 2020.

Mayo Clinic. https://www.mayoclinic.org/ Accessed 8 November 2020.