The 8 Most Common Migraine Triggers and Causes
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The 8 Most Common Migraine Triggers and Causes

Key takeaways:

  • Severe migraines can be debilitating and affect your quality of life. Finding the triggers for your migraines can help prevent them.
  • It can be difficult to know the exact cause of your migraines. A headache diary can help to make it clear if there are patterns to your headaches.
  • Your healthcare provider can help you learn how to avoid common triggers. When that isn’t possible, you may need treatment.

Migraines can be intense and long-lasting. They can be so severe that they interfere with your quality of life and knock you down for the count. On top of the intensity, migraines can seem to strike without rhyme, reason, or warning. But when you take a closer look, you may see a pattern. There might be certain triggers that cause your migraines.

In fact, researchers have found several migraine triggers. Avoiding, or trying to limit, those triggers can be the key to enjoying more headache-free days.

Here are eight common migraine triggers that you may want to know:

1. Stress

Stress shows up in many different ways in the body. A migraine headache is one of the ways people experience stress. Stress is a trigger in almost 70% of people with migraines. So if you have a lot on your plate and are suffering from migraines, you aren’t alone.

There are a few theories on why stress can cause migraines. Emotional stress can lead to changes in the levels of serotonin (a substance that carries messages between nerves). These changes may turn on the switch for a migraine.

Stress is often associated with poor sleep and unhealthy food choices. These are also triggers that can leave you open to a migraine attack. Decreasing your stress levels may be the key to fewer headaches. Some ways you might reduce your stress include:

  • Deep breathing
  • Relaxation techniques
  • Yoga
  • Time outdoors

2. Lack of sleep

A common area of the brain controls both sleep and pain. And it turns out that a lack of sleep can trigger a migraine headache. Not getting enough sleep triggers up to 50% of people with migraines. It’s not entirely clear why this happens. But a lack of sleep may cause a change in chemical pathways in the brain, making you more sensitive to migraines.

If you have headaches from not getting enough sleep, it can be a vicious cycle. That’s because not only will a lack of sleep trigger migraines, but migraines also make it harder to get sleep.

Sleep disorders that reduce the tolerance for pain and place you at risk for a migraine include:

  • Restless leg syndrome
  • Insomnia
  • Narcolepsy
  • Sleep apnea

Talk with your healthcare provider if you’re concerned about the amount of sleep you get each day.

3. Shifts in hormones

Changes in hormone levels can also trigger migraines. This often happens around the menstrual cycle. A drop in estrogen occurs right before your monthly cycle begins. This can trigger a menstrual migraine. Menstrual migraines typically start a few days before or after your cycle.

In the same way, people nearing menopause may have migraines due to changes in hormone levels. Hormone replacement therapy may help prevent these headaches by keeping estrogen levels consistent.

Migraines also occur in people taking hormonal birth control. This typically happens during the placebo week of birth control, when you don’t take any hormones. This causes your estrogen levels to take a deep plunge. Your provider may recommend that you take your birth control continuously to decrease the risk of this type of migraine.

Let your healthcare provider know if you’re taking hormonal birth control and have a history of migraines. In some cases, it may not be safe for you to take birth control due to an increased risk of stroke. Ask your provider for guidance if you have migraines and are considering hormones.

4. Too much caffeine or alcohol, and too little water

Caffeine and alcohol can increase your risk for migraines. Having too much or suddenly cutting back on your intake can also trigger headache pain. Caffeine affects blood flow in the blood vessels of the brain. And the sudden changes can trigger migraine headaches. Alcohol also affects the blood vessels, causing them to widen. The increased blood flow and the activation of pain receptors may be the cause of more headaches.

Caffeine and alcohol can also increase the number of trips you make to the bathroom. This increases your risk of dehydration and can also cause more headaches.

But there’s no need to swear off caffeine or alcohol entirely. In fact, many over-the-counter migraine medications have caffeine. And you may be able to tolerate an occasional drink of alcohol.

The most important part is drinking plenty of water to stay hydrated. Dehydration not only triggers headaches, it can make you more sensitive to pain.

5. Weather changes

Changes in humidity and atmospheric pressure may be the reason for your migraines. If so, you aren’t alone. Over 50% of people with migraines have identified weather changes as a trigger. High humidity, bright sun, warm temperatures, and high winds may influence the frequency of headaches.

But the data is mixed on the link between weather and migraines. And it isn’t clear why the weather is a factor. But it may be that fluctuations in air pressure trigger blood flow changes.

6. Food choices

Certain foods may be a trigger in up to 60% of people with migraines. It’s not clear why this happens. It may be due to inflammation that a food sensitivity causes. Elimination diets may decrease how often you get migraines in the short term. This is where you avoid certain foods that may be triggers for you. This may be helpful in children with migraines.

Foods that make the short list of common migraine triggers are:

  • Aged cheese
  • Monosodium glutamate (MSG)
  • Processed meats
  • Artificial sweeteners
  • Nuts
  • Citrus fruits

7. Light, sound, and smell

Another trigger for migraines is heightened sensitivity to light, sound, and smell. And it can also lead to more severe headache pain. A low tolerance for either lights, sound, or smell is present more often than not during a migraine attack.

This may be due to connections between the areas in the brain that process your senses and headache pain.

Strong odors, loud noises, and bright lights can also cause headaches in the workplace. If you are only getting headaches on days you’re at work, this may be the reason.

8. Exertion

If you feel a headache coming on during or shortly after a workout, it could be an exertion migraine. This may be due to the release of certain chemicals during exercise that increase your awareness of pain. Some familiar physical activities that may trigger a migraine are:

  • Running
  • Weightlifting
  • Swimming
  • Sex
  • Coughing
  • Straining on a toilet

Some tips that may help to prevent a migraine from exercise include:

  • Warming up before exercise
  • Slowly ramping up intensity of exercise over time
  • Taking NSAIDs an hour before exercise (check with your healthcare provider first)

How can I determine the cause of my migraine?

The exact cause of your migraine headache may not always be clear. Usually there’s a combination of triggers that happen at the same time. This can make it hard to isolate what’s causing your migraines. For example, changes in the weather plus a few sleepless nights may both be a trigger for your migraine.

It can also be tough to know what’s causing your migraines because some triggers can lead to others. There could be a cycle where a trigger is causing your migraine, and the migraine is causing more of the trigger. This means stress might be the reason for your headache, and the headache might be the reason for more stress.

A headache journal is a useful tool to help find patterns and determine your triggers.

You can use a journal or an app to write down the details of your migraine.

Some helpful things to take note of include:

  • Sleep schedule
  • Foods you ate
  • Weather conditions
  • Stress level

It’s helpful to capture as much information as possible leading up to the migraine. You may not realize something is triggering you until you have had more than one migraine.

The bottom line

Migraine headaches can be a real pain. This is especially true when you are unsure of the cause. Determining your triggers can give you an edge when managing the pain. And a headache journal can be a helpful tool for you to do that. Talk with your provider to learn more about how you can avoid any triggers and cut back on your migraines.

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Written by Bernadette Anderson, MD, MPH | Reviewed by Karla Robinson, MD