Photo of a woman with a migraine
Practising a little bit of stress reduction each day can help prevent migraines resulting from a "let-down effect"

Migraine attacks can increase following stress “let-down”

31 March, 2014

Natural Health News — If you’ve ever developed a cold or some other health niggle the moment you stopped rushing around and took a break, you’ll appreciate the findings of a new study into migraines.

Stress has long been believed to be a common headache trigger. But in this small study, published online in the journal Neurology, researchers from the Montefiore Headache Center and Albert Einstein College of Medicine at Yeshiva University, found that relaxation following heightened stress was an even more significant trigger for migraine attacks.

Over a period of 3 months the used an electronic daily diary to monitor the general levels of well being of 17 participants. Each day participants recorded information about migraine attacks, two types of stress ratings and common migraine triggers, such as hours of sleep, certain foods, drinks and alcohol consumed, and menstrual cycle. They also recorded their mood each day, including feeling happy, sad, relaxed, nervous, lively and bored.

A five-fold increase in migraine attacks

“This study demonstrates a striking association between reduction in perceived stress and the occurrence of migraine headaches,” said study lead author Richard Lipton, MD, director, Montefiore Headache Center, professor and vice chair of neurology and the Edwin S. Lowe Chair in Neurology, Einstein.

Lipton noted that the onset of migraine was most likely in first  six hours where decline in stress was associated with a nearly five-fold increased risk of migraine onset.

The hormone cortisol, which rises during times of stress and reduces pain, may contribute to the triggering of this kind of “let-down headache” that comes on during periods of relaxation.

“This study highlights the importance of stress management and healthy lifestyle habits for people who live with migraine,” said co-author Dawn Buse, PhD, director, Behavioral Medicine, Montefiore Headache Center, associate professor, Clinical Neurology, Einstein.

“It is important for people to be aware of rising stress levels and attempt to relax during periods of stress rather than allowing a major build up to occur. This could include exercising or attending a yoga class or may be as simple as taking a walk or focusing on one’s breath for a few minutes.”

The “let-down effect”

While stress itself has been associated with a range of health problems from high blood pressure to low-back pain, another phenomenon, known as the “let-down effect,” can also trigger illness

Many of us have noticed that he immediate aftermath of stressful times – such as a heavy deadline at work or a major family crisis – when you finally have time to pause and unwind, is the time when illness unexpectedly strikes.

It is at that moment when your ability to fight off illnesses may be at its weakest.

This effect – which has a biological origin – has been, according to author Marc Schoen,PhD, in his book When Relaxation is Hazardous to Your Health associated with conditions such as upper respiratory infections, the flu, migraine headaches, dermatitis, arthritis pain, and depression.

Schoen recommends these helpful techniques that keep your immune system ticking along and  immune system a little, preventing it from slowing down too much after a period of stress include

  • Take short bursts of exercise – 5 minutes may be enough. Doing things like using the stairs instead of a lift, or walking the longer way home after a tough day, can trigger a positive immune-system response.
  • Try some mental problem solving, like crossword puzzles, under time constraints. Several studies show that doing math computations at a rapid pace actually increases immune-system activity.
  • Regularly practice relaxation techniques such as deep breathing, which can give your mind and body a rest stop from the day’s anxieties. Paying attention to your breathing is actually a simple, calming form of meditation. Consciously make yourself breathe slower, inhaling deeply and exhaling naturally. Become aware of the gentle rising and falling of your abdomen. This deep breathing, which can be done anywhere including at your desk or on public transport,  can lower your heart rate, slow your brain waves, and even reduce your blood pressure.