Headache-Proof Your Summer

Summer is officially here, and sun-filled days give the promise of fun, but not if a headache creeps in and puts a damper on your plans. Did you know summer brings along a lot of risk for headaches? Family nurse practitioner Katie Rowan-Koenen at ViaroCare shared with Heidi Kutz from the ViaroThrive team her experience and insight into the summer headache triggers and leaves you with some tips on how to prevent them, and what to do if you end up with one. 

Heidi: Katie, you have been with us as a health care provider at Riverside Corporate Wellness, now ViaroCare, for more than a decade, and you have taken care of many patients through the hot and humid Midwest summers. What are some of the issues and health risks that come along with the combination of heat and humidity? 

Katie: Heat and humidity aside, the weather is beautiful, especially after our long winters. We just want to be outside! But along with the warmth and sunshine come longer periods of time outdoors. The days are longer as well, allowing us to ease up on our normally rigid schedules.  

Heidi: How does this change in daylight and schedules affect us? It seems like it should be nothing but positive. 

Katie: Yes, that is what you would think. But we are fly-by-the-seat-of-our-pants people in the summer. We love it, and we look forward to it. But, because of this change in our lifestyle, our routines for fitness, nutrition, and sleep, get out of whack. This can be one of the primary causes of headaches in the summertime. 

Heidi: That does make a lot of sense! “Out of whack” tells me that there must be some known particulars, or things we know cause summer headaches. Are there certain triggers that are associated with summer headaches?  

Katie: There are lots of triggers that seem obvious, but many patients do not seem to make the connection easily. Multiple triggers can be in effect at the same time, making learning to manage headaches more difficult. Even harder are the fun summer lifestyle changes I mentioned, the “fly by the seat of your pants” behaviors. Great and spontaneous as they may be, they cause headaches. 

Heidi: You mention that there are triggers that may affect us more because they occur at the same time. Can you tell us more about what the triggers are, and what do you mean by this? 

Dehydrated boy sitting

Katie: Dehydration is a leading cause or trigger of headaches. We just do not drink enough water, even in the winter. In the summertime, we often combine our outdoor fun with alcohol, or caffeine-containing drinks that can cause dehydration—both are often loaded with extra sugar and carbohydrates. Not to mention the picnic treats that are high in sugar. Then there are those that get so busy enjoying the outdoors or sporting events that they skip meals to not miss a moment of the action. Any one of these are headache triggers alone, and can be causes of dehydration and significant spikes and dips in blood sugar, but how often do these occur in combination—together, at the same time? A lot. In the summer, most of the time.  

Heidi: You also mention sleep. Can you explain how that is a headache trigger, and are there any other less obvious causes of summer headaches, or other causes we tend to ignore? 

Katie: Long summer days with early sunrises and late sunsets increase our exposure to daylight. Our bodies have rhythms that we depend on as queues for adequate sleep. In the summer, it may be fun to stay up late, but the increased exposure to sunlight can mess people up who are sensitive to this change in routine. Also, while we do not ignore the summer bloom because it is so spectacular after winter, it is also an allergic headache trigger that really plagues some people. Lots of time I hear patients say, “but I don’t have allergies.” Well, this year, maybe you do! 

Less obvious, particularly this year, is the air quality. Particles in the smoke from the Canadian wildfires is really bothering some people and triggering some nasty headaches and other health problems. But even without the smoke, ozone levels rise annually at ground level in the summertime, and many are sensitive to these changes in the atmosphere. 

Heidi: This is such useful information! There must be ways for us to stay ahead of the summer headaches. Can you give us any ideas or suggestions? 

Katie: The first and most obvious is to stay hydrated. Water is the best. Don’t overdo those liquids like caffeine-containing iced coffees or energy drinks, or alcohol. These beverages cause dehydration. Alcohol is also an added sugar, and we usually add more sugar with soda or mixers. With summer’s extended hours, it is easy to eat late in the evening, or even skip meals. Summer sports also disrupt the routine with eating at irregular hours. The best advice is to be mindful of these changes and think about what you are putting in your body. Try adding some extra protein to keep your blood sugar level and avoid lengthy periods of time where you only eat sugar, salt, and high carbohydrate foods. The up and down in your blood sugar can cause headaches. If I could stress one very important way to avoid a headache, don’t skip meals.  

Heidi: Are there any tips you can share about what to do if you get a summer headache? 

Katie: Number one, get hydrated. I recommend water. Depending on your activity level, a drink with a good dose of electrolytes like Gatorade or Powerade can be beneficial. Reserve these power drinks for times when you have done a cardio workout, have been sweating a lot, or are a runner and have gone a long distance. Find a dark, quiet room and lay down. Remove yourself from screens, heat, and noise. Gently inhaling the fragrance from a small dab of essential oil on a cotton ball, like peppermint, spearmint, or lavender, has shown to be helpful.  

I say the best tip is to be proactive. Be prepared. Wear a hat and sunglasses to deflect sunlight. I know it is easier said than done, but plan for and get adequate and consistent sleep. If you are going on the river, or to a baseball tournament all day, take along some trail mix with nuts, and add to your cooler cheese and beef sticks to stabilize your blood sugar with the additional protein. 

Heidi: Katie, thank you so much for sharing your insights into summer headaches. We appreciate your time. Do you have any final words of advice? 

Katie: Thank you for asking. I really just want my patients to enjoy their summer. When you take the time to take care of yourself, you truly can enjoy the laid-back vibes and longer days of summer. 


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