How Sunlight May Help or Harm Your Headaches

Balance Your Sun Exposure to Maximize Your Headache Health

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How The Sun Affects Your Headache Health. William Andrews/Getty Images

A sunny day usually brings warmth and cheer. But it can also bring on headaches if precautions are not taken. 

Sunlight May Worsen Your Headache Health

Sunlight itself is a migraine trigger. In a small study in European Neurology, patients with a history of migraines from a medical clinic  in Turkey developed migraines after being exposed to sunlight. On average, the patients developed a migraine 5 to 10 min after sunlight exposure in the summer and after 60 minutes of sunlight in the winter.

 

Water Deprivation May Worsen Your Headache Health

If your body is deprived of water you can develop a migraine or dehydration headache, which resembles a tension headache. So while you may lavish in the warmth of the sun on a summer Saturday, it's critical to drink ample amounts of water -  at least 6 to 8 glasses daily, and more if you are exerting yourself and/or sweating.

Heat Exposure May Worsen Your Headache Health

Being exposed to the heat of the sun can be dangerous. There are two types of heat-related illnesses:

  • heat exhaustion
  • heatstroke

Heatstroke is a medical emergency that involves hyperthermia and neurological abnormalities, like seizures or problems with coordination.

Both heatstroke and heat exhaustion are associated with headache, even though a headache specifically related to heat exposure is not classified or coded on its own by the International Headache Society. Also, heat exposure may be a specific trigger for new daily persistent headache - meaning your episodic or once in awhile headaches could transform into a chronic, nearly daily one.

 

So if you plan on being out in the sun, please hydrate and find some shade. Of course, if you or someone near you has any signs of a heatstroke, please get emergent medical attention by calling 911.

How Vitamin D May Help Your Headache Health

Ultraviolet light from the sun is an important source of vitamin D.

While there are a number of reasons why people may be vitamin D deficient, being exposed to low levels of sunlight is one. People with vitamin D deficiency are prone to a condition called osteomalacia, which causes your bones to soften leading to diffuse bony pain.

So what is the link to headaches? Well, vitamin D deficiency may be linked to headaches – both migraines and tension-type headaches, especially chronic tension-type headaches. In fact, authors of one study in Annals of Indian Academy of Neurology propose that the chronic tension-type headaches people with vitamin D deficiency sometimes experience may be caused specifically by osteomalacia of the skull.

Remember, a link or an association does not mean that one causes the other. Larger, randomized controlled studies looking at the relationship between vitamin D deficiency and headaches would be helpful.

Finally, while the sun is an excellent source of vitamin D, please speak to your doctor about the best and safest source of vitamin D for you if you are deficient.

Getting too much sunlight can be dangerous, especially since it increases your risk of skin cancer. An oral supplement or dietary supplementation may be recommended for you.

The Bottom Line

While many of us look forward to the warmth and relaxation of long summer days, please be mindful of the heat and potential for its harm. Wear sunscreen, keep cool, and drink plenty of water. It's a good idea too to speak with your doctor about how to further protect yourself from the heat, especially if you are prone to headaches.

Sources:

Di Lorenzo C, Ambrosini A, Coppola G, & Pierelli F. Heat stress disorders and headache: a case of new daily persistent headache secondary to heat stroke. J Neurol Neurosurg Psychiatry. 2008 May;79(5):610-1.

Glazer JL. Management of Heatstroke and Heat Exhaustion. Am Fam Physician. 2005 Jun 1;71(11):2133-40.

Prakash S, & Shah ND. "Chronic tension-type headache with vitamin D deficiency: casual or causal association?" Headache 2009 Sept;49(8):1214-22.

Prakash S, Kumar M, Belani P, Susvirkar A, & Ahuja S. Interrelationships between chronic tension-type headache, musculoskeletal pain, and vitamin D deficiency: Is osteomalacia responsible for both headache and musculoskeletal pain? Ann Indian Acad Neurol. 2013 Oct-Dec; 16(4): 650–58.

Tekatas A, & Mungeon B. Migraine headache triggered specifically by sunlight: report of 16 cases. Eur Neurol. 2013;70(5-6):263-6.

Wober C, & Wober-Bingol C. Triggers of migraine and tension-type headache. Handb Clin Neurol. 2010;97:161-72.

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