Seasonal, or 'cluster' headaches are most common in autumn and spring. [Photo: Bigstock]

Weathering seasonal headaches

6 September, 2012

It’s hard to tell with the crazy weather we’ve been having lately, but September heralds the arrival of autumn.

Officially the change is around the autumnal equinox on September 21st. It’s the beginning of the season of ‘mists and mellow fruitfulness’ but for some it also heralds the arrival of one of the year’s headache seasons.

Seasonal changes are a common trigger for what is known as ‘cluster headache’, a type of migraine headache that comes and goes in bursts at certain times of year, but which is especially prominent in the spring or autumn.

Their seasonal nature means cluster headaches are sometimes mistaken for allergies or just stress.

The term ‘cluster headache’ refers to a type of headache that recurs over a period of time.Their symptoms include pain in the eye or upper face, tearing, runny nose with nasal congestion, and facial sweating.

People who have cluster headaches experience an episode one to three times per day during the same time each year (the cluster period), which may last from two weeks to three months. The headaches may disappear completely (go into ‘remission’) for months or years, only to recur.

A cluster headache sometimes awakens a person from sleep one to two hours after going to bed. These nocturnal attacks can be more severe than the daytime attacks and appear to be linked in part to the circadian rhythm (or biological clock) which triggers hormonal changes related to the changing length of days and nights.

A traditional view

Most traditional medicine disciplines recognise that weather and season changes can bring about many subtle changes in our bodies and in our day to day actions which can lead to headaches.

In Chinese medicine seasonal headaches and migraines are related to the cardiovascular and circulatory system. As the weather changes we use out bodies is completely different. Our sleep and exercise patterns may change, we heat, and cool our bedrooms differently. If it’s sunny we may squint our eyes in the sun or alter our posture to avoid the glare. We wear different clothes and may be more physically active, and thus more prone to muscle and joint strains.

All these things can aggravate underlying problems with the circulatory system or problems with the spine or joints. The result can be a painful headache that appears to come out of nowhere but in fact may have quite a complex origin.

Some headaches are linked to allergies and in these cases  the weather and other factors such as emotional upsets, travel, and noise are like the straw that breaks the camel’s back, particularly for those suffering from multiple allergies.

When the wind blows

Many headache sufferers report that their symptoms can worsen according to what’s happening in the atmosphere. In the last 30 years doctors have come to recognise that extremes in the weather can have a worsening effect on headaches, particularly migraine.

Canadian researchers studying the effects of the warm Chinook winds that blow across the Rocky Mountains, have made the greatest inroads into this field. For example, a study of the headache diaries of 75 people earlier this year confirmed that weather changes do have a profound affect on headache pain. Scientists now speculate that weather changes impact on the body’s chemical pain messenger” such as serotonin, prostaglandins and various other hormonal agents making headache pain more severe.

Strangely, this is an aspect of health which is often overlooked by doctors, except in Germany where some physicians make use of daily bulletin from the national weather service to advise patients on the management of common health problems.

Water works

Another indirect cause of headaches is dehydration. One reason for this is that without adequate water your body cannot flush toxins out efficiently. Headache may be a reaction to toxic build-up.

Many of us fail to change our drinking habits to suit the weather. when it’s sunny we may be sweating more and in greater need of replenishment. When it’s cold and grey we may be eating more ‘comfort foods’ or drinking more dehydrating caffeine drink to get us going in the darkening mornings.

Adequate water intake is important and the good news is that your daily fluid supply doesn’t all have to come from a bottle or a glass. Fruits and vegetables supply water in a form which is very easy for the body to use, while at the same time providing the body with a high percentage of vitamins and minerals. Four pieces of fruit and a four servings of vegetables each day can provide a litre of water.

 Easing the pain

Avoiding seasonal headaches can be a matter of common sense. Drinking plenty of water and wearing adequate eye protection when it’s sunny, avoiding chills when it’s not, are substantial steps.

Checking for lifestyle factors that feed into seasonal headaches is also important.  they are most common in people who smoke and drink alcohol excessively. During a cluster period, the sufferer is more sensitive to the action of alcohol and nicotine, and minimal amounts of alcohol can trigger the headaches. During headache-free periods, the person can consume alcohol without provoking a headache.

Exercise has been shown to be as effective a treatment for migraine as drugs, so don’t let the change of season slow you down too much. if you can take exercise or walk regularly in a natural environment, so much the better.

Headache pain can be treated naturally in many different ways (see our article here).

Herbal help

Among the most successful are through acupuncture, dietary changes, hypnosis and massage.

Several effective herbal remedies are also available.  Chief among these is the ancient herb feverfew which works by inhibiting the release of blood vessel dilating substances, by inhibiting the production of inflammatory substances and by re-establishing good blood vessel tone.

Studies have shown that, in those with intractable migraine, as many as 70% improved while taking the herb and as many as one in three had no further attacks. In all more than 50 scientific papers have been published in the last 15 years which confirm its ability to banish headache pain.

Diet and nutrition

Deficiencies in certain nutrients, either because of long term dietary habits or the normal changes of diet that come with changing seasons, can also be responsible for headaches. Women prone to migraine may be low in magnesium.

Supplementing with a B-complex, or more specifically B6 and B2 (riboflavin) has also been shown in studies to be helpful. Finally making sure that you are getting enough essentials fatty acids, for instance by taking evening primrose, borage or blackcurrant seed oil may also reduce the likelihood of headache.

Foods that contain nitrates might trigger cluster headaches. Nitrates are found in processed meats and smoked meats, and, sometimes, nitrates can also be found in specific medications like nitroglycerin.

Excessive caffeine intake is also linked to cluster headache onset. Caffeine constricts blood vessels and increases pressure in the head. If you are prone to seasonal headaches avoiding coffee, tea and colas as well as chocolate and other caffeinated foods is recommended to help diminish cluster headache symptoms.

Try any of these before turning to stronger medicines. Too many painkillers can, ironically, cause headaches to become more frequent and painful. This is because they have what is known as a “rebound” effect.

This effect is caused by your body’s reaction to the drug clearing from your system – much like the headache you get if you decide to give up caffeine or any other type of stimulant. To avoid this problem try to get to the bottom of what’s really causing your headache whether it be diet or lifestyle.