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  • Do Weekend Headaches Wreck Your Time Off?

    woman in bed in dark room holding her temples

    How often do you look forward to your weekend only to end up spending it in a dark room with a throbbing migraine headache? It seems completely opposite to what you’d expect. Aren’t you supposed to get more headaches when you’re stressed out during the work week? Are you just imagining that you get more headaches on the weekend because it interferes with something you want to do vs something you have to do? Maybe. But probably not.

    Yes, Weekend Headaches Really are a Thing

    The bad news is: Weekend headaches are a real thing. The good news is: There’s something you can do about it.

    I get more emails and calls from migraineurs on Sundays and Mondays than any other days of the week. Why? Because they had a migraine headache over the weekend and have residual pain or tension and want me to help make it go away. In my office, it’s not uncommon for me to work on nothing but headaches and their residual effects in the neck and shoulders on Mondays.

    So let’s dig into why this happens.

    What Causes Weekend Headaches?

    In a nutshell, it happens because we live differently on the weekends than we do during the week. A few of the major contributors are:

    • Altered sleep schedule, aka sleeping in – This one sucks because if this is one of your weekend triggers it means you need to maintain a more consistent sleep schedule… even on the weekends
    • Consuming less caffeine – Presumably, you’re more rested (see above) and don’t need the extra energy to get moving. Many of us also use caffeine to give us the good, swift kick in the pants we need to go do something we’re less than thrilled to have to do, like go to work. Because caffeine has a vasoconstricting effect on the blood vessels in the brain, a sharp decrease causes a sudden vasodilation that’s often experienced as a “pounding” sensation.
    • Consuming more alcohol – Mimosa for brunch anyone? This one’s multifactoral. First, too much alcohol can cause headaches in the form of a hangover. Most of us are, unfortunately, became all too acquainted with this reason in college. Second, it can also lower our quality of sleep. You may fall asleep easier, but the quality will not be as good. Third, it can be dehydrating, and that’s another trigger for headaches of all kinds. Last, alcohol has a vasodilation effect on the blood vessels of the brain, which can cause a pounding headache.
    • Eating different types of food – Weekends are when we tend to eat all the fun, spicy, greasy, and/or sugary foods that we do our best to avoid during the week. Sadly, a lot of those foods are triggers.
    • Partaking in several of the above – Any one of these can be a headache trigger and we tend to do more than one on the weekend. That means a greater chance of a headache.
    • Too much sun – For most of us, weekends are our big chance to get outside and enjoy some sunshine. Sadly, too much sun is a migraine trigger for many people.
    • The let-down effect – Our bodies are great at getting us through periods of stress (like the work week) by pumping our bodies full of hormones that help us fight off infections and keep us going like glucocoricoids (similar to steroids). All those hormones and chemicals sharply decrease when you start to relax this is also why a lot of people never get sick… until they go on vacation. In headache terms, it’s useful to look at it from the steroid angle. You probably know that there are many adverse effects of going off steroids too quickly, but you might not know that raging headaches are one of them. Read more about the let-down effect, including how to defuse it.

    What You Can Do About Them

    • Keep a consistent sleep wake cycle, even on the weekends – I know you don’t want to hear this but you may need to maintain a “school night” bedtime and set your alarm on the weekends too. Ultimately it’s up to you to decide which is worse – waking to an alarm on Saturday or having a migraine headache.
    • Get enough sleep – When we don’t get enough sleep, our bodies and minds begin to fatigue. That fatigue is a migraine trigger for many. In fact, according to The National Headache Foundation, it’s one of the most common migraine triggers.
    • Consume similar quantities of caffeine every day, even on the weekends – Caffeine affects both your nervous system (it’s a stimulant) and your cardiovascular system (it is a vasoconstrictor of blood vessels in the brain). When you suddenly reduce the amount of caffeine you consume, the brain gets a sudden increase in blood flow which causes headaches in many people.
    • Keep consistent stress levels – No one’s gonna tell you that this will be easy. But… If you can find a way to tone down some of your stress during the week, your chance of having a weekend headache will go down as well.
    • Exercise on the weekends – This will give you a bump in your immune system response, which will help keep you feeling good. It’s also a great way to finish up the fight, flight, or freeze stress response that often gets interrupted/stopped in professional or social environments.
    • Do mental puzzles – Things like cross words or sudoku, especially with a time limit, gives your brain and body a positive stress that keeps your hormone and chemical levels more stable.
    • Practice relaxation techniques – Relaxation techniques that require deep, slow breathing are great to do at the end of each day to help restore balance to your body and mind, as well as to help regulate the amount of stress hormones and chemicals every day. This will help the weekends be less of a shock to the system, which will reduce the let-down effect.
    • Wear quality Sunglasses – Bright light and UV can be headache triggers so make sure to mitigate your risk with quality sunglasses.

    A caveat: All of these may not be triggers for you, so do some experimenting. Start with one potential trigger and see if making the recommended changes reduces the frequency or severity of your headaches. If it does, it’s a keeper and you can add a change to another potential trigger. If not, simply move onto the next. By the end, you should have a list of what helped and what didn’t. With that, you might be able to start enjoying your weekends again.