10 Common Migraine Triggers

Doing your best to avoid these may help you combat your headaches

Identifying Your Migraine Triggers

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There are a number of well-recognized triggers that can precipitate migraine episodes. While you might not have a problem with all of them, it is a good idea to be aware of the possibilities and try to pinpoint which may apply to you. Avoiding the factors that contribute to your migraines can reduce the number of attacks you have and reduce your need for medication.

Many of these 10 migraine triggers may already be familiar, as they are commonly reported by migraine patients.

Altered Sleep Habits

Getting too little sleep, an altered sleep schedule (as with jet lag), and rarely, getting too much sleep, can trigger a migraine episode. A change in sleep schedule affects brain activity, can increase susceptibility to pain, diminish memory and concentration, and may cause chemical alterations that trigger a migraine.

Solution

Commit to getting the sleep your body needs. For most people, this is seven to nine hours of uninterrupted sleep each night. Sticking to a regular sleep schedule, limiting caffeine and avoiding bright lights at night (your television, phone, computer, tablet) can help you fall asleep faster and get more rest.

Stress

Stress and anxiety can be a major trigger for migraines because they alter neurotransmitter activity, especially that of serotonin, which modulates pain.

Stress is different for everyone—things like work deadlines or getting together with in-laws can be stressful for some people, but not for others. A lot of this depends on your situation, but your stress level also depends on your own reaction to life's events, and how stress-prone you are.

Solution

If you find that stress or anxiety are interfering with your life and triggering migraines, there are steps you can take to reduce your stress. Talk to your doctor, consider counseling, meditate, exercise, improve your resiliency, or make changes in your life to reduce your stress. Usually, it takes a combination of these actions to make a lasting difference.

Overuse of Pain Medications

Excessive or long-term use of pain medication, even over-the-counter options like Tylenol (acetaminophen) and Motrin (ibuprofen), can cause rebound headaches or medication overuse headaches, including migraines.

When you regularly take pain medications, your body adjusts, often decreasing its own production of pain-modulating chemicals. Once you stop taking the medication, a withdrawal effect can trigger migraine symptoms.

Solution

Be sure to limit your use of pain medications to no more than two times weekly. If you feel the need to use more, talk with your doctor. You may benefit from a daily migraine preventive medication.

Hormone Fluctuations

Changing hormones levels, especially estrogen, can trigger migraines. The week prior to menstruation or other times of fluctuating estrogen levels, such as perimenopause, may result in more frequent or more severe migraines.

Solution

If you are sensitive to hormones, discuss your contraceptive options with your doctor. For some women, taking birth control pills the week before menstruating or using a continuous birth control pills all month may be beneficial.

For menstrual migraines, Frova (frovatriptan) is a prescription-strength migraine treatment that can be used five or six days prior to the beginning of your period.

Odors

Common scent triggers include flowers, perfume, cleaning products, paint fumes, and dust. Inhaling cigarette smoke, whether you smoke or are exposed to second-hand smoke, can also cause a migraine.

The reason for this is not well understood, but the nerves that control the sense of smell tend to be slightly smaller among people with migraines, which may make them hypersensitive.

Solution

If a particular scent may be triggering your migraines, it's best to avoid it or find a strategy that minimizes your exposure, such as leaving a window open.

Food/Diet

Food additives, such as MSG and nitrates are common migraine triggers. MSG is sometimes added to fast food, ramen noodles, and canned soups and vegetables. Nitrates are typically found in processed or cured meats, like cold cuts, hot dogs, and bacon.

Aspartame, a sugar substitute, may also trigger migraines in some individuals, as can tyramine, which is often found in pickled foods, aged cheeses, and foods containing yeast. Soy products, alcohol, and food coloring can trigger migraines as well.

Solution

Take note of what you ate the day before a migraine started. Keeping a food diary may help you identify your unique food triggers so that you can avoid them.

Bright Lights

Bright light, including sunlight or fluorescent light, can trigger a migraine. This may be due to eye strain or light-induced stimulation in the brain.

Solution

If you know that your migraines are triggered by bright light, it's sensible to wear sunglasses and a hat when out in the sun or in a room with a bright light. It’s also important to be mindful of glare, such as on your computer screen or mobile phone.

Skipping Meals

Fasting or missing a meal can bring on a migraine due to low blood sugar or dehydration. If you frequently skip meals or diet, malnutrition or iron deficiency anemia may be the culprit causing your migraines.

Solution

Even if you are trying to lose weight or are very busy, try to schedule regular meals and nutritious snacks to avoid food deprivation-induced migraines and low iron levels.

Depression

Research suggests a link, albeit a complex one, between migraines and depression. Sadness can precede a migraine during the prodromal phase, but depression can also lead to migraines.

Solution

Seeking treatment for your mood will not only help you feel better, but it may also help your migraines.

Please speak with your doctor if you or your loved ones are concerned about your mood or behavior.

Increased Caffeine Intake

Your daily cup of joe might have turned into three, which can worsen your migraine disorder. Likewise, missing your morning coffee can also precipitate a caffeine-withdrawal headache.

Caffeine reduces pain and it induces vasoconstriction (narrowing of the blood vessels). Too much caffeine can alter the pain receptor activity in the brain and cause excessive vasoconstriction, while caffeine withdrawal can also interfere with pain receptors and trigger vasodilation. All of these effects are associated with migraines.

Solution

Moderating your caffeine intake or eliminating caffeine altogether (in a gradual, stepwise fashion) will likely help your migraines in the long term.

A Word From Verywell

Recognizing and avoiding your triggers is a powerful way to take control over your migraine health. If you are having a hard time identifying your triggers, try keeping a detailed diary of your daily routine, including meals, drinks, sleep patterns, activities, and medications. Then, share it with your doctor. A fresh set of eyes can help identify triggers that you might not have realized are a problem.

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