While the exact cause of migraines remains unknown, the neurovascular theory of migraine is currently most accurate. Regardless of exact mechanism, there are many different triggers that can bring them on. Certain types of foods, beverages, and food additives can trigger migraines. In addition to these triggers, things like excess light, visual stimuli, and noise can also trigger migraines. Let’s take a look at some of the common different triggers that can bring on a migraine.
Foods and Beverages That Can Trigger Migraines
Certain types of foods and lack of eating can cause migraines. As many as 60% of people report that food can trigger migraines. When people report having a migraine to their primary care physician or headache specialist, they often report alcohol, caffeine, and chocolate as being a common trigger for their migraine. Sometimes, foods that we associate as being healthy can also bring on migraines. For example, aged cheeses, fermented foods, and certain types of cured meats can bring on a migraine. Fermented foods, while being great for promoting gut health, contain an amino acid called tyramine, which can trigger migraines. Tyramine is also a common trigger found in aged cheeses.
Beverages containing certain additives such as artificial sweeteners can also cause migraines. For example, diet soda contains both caffeine and aspartame. In certain cases of people who have clinical depression, aspartame can worsen migraine symptoms. Alcohol is also a common migraine trigger. In particular, red wine and white wine may trigger migraines in individuals. Red wine triggers migraines in about 19.5% of people with migraine while white wine may trigger migraines in about 10.5% of people with migraine.
While many people drink coffee, tea, and energy drinks, these beverages are known to bring on migraines and headaches. An additional migraine trigger for these beverages is caffeine withdrawal. Also, over-the-counter medications for headaches and migraines could potentially contain caffeine, which may in some cases make a migraine worse. In general, caffeine can be a double edged sword. Caffeine does have some mild pain relieving properties, and it also causes mild constriction (narrowing) of dilated arteries. Both of these factors can be helpful for some patients with migraine. However, when caffeine is not in the system, headaches can be triggered as a result (caffeine withdrawal headache). A common example of this is in patients that wake in the morning with a headache that improves when they drink their morning coffee. This occurs because as they are sleeping, the caffeine is eliminated from the body. So when they wake, they are in caffeine withdrawal. Thus, why the headache gets better once they get their morning coffee flowing.
Other types of food additives can also trigger migraines. For example, MSG is a very common food additive that may cause migraines. Some studies have found that MSG may bring on a migraine or headache in the face area. On food labels, it is often hidden as other names including glutamate, natural flavor, and partially hydrogenated vegetable protein. There is an MSG symptom complex reported by some patients which can include facial pressure, burning, headache, nausea, bronchospasm/wheezing, palpitations, and paresthesias (tingling/numbness).
Nitrates and nitrites are also common migraine triggers. These are vasodilating agents found in many foods, especially preserved and processed meats such as lunch meats, sausage, smoked foods, pork, bacon, salami, pastrami, hot dogs, corned beef, ham, and bratwurst. So if you have a child that is getting a lot of headaches and migraines, and eats lunchmeat for lunch, you may want to look into nitrate and nitrite-free lunch meat options.
Dehydration and Migraines
People who suffer from migraine report that dehydration is a common trigger. Even the slightest notion of dehydration can fast track the onset of a migraine, causing dizziness, confusion, and the other classic symptoms of a migraine. In some cases, people who drink water after the onset of migraine might notice a decrease in the severity of their symptoms.
Lack of Sleep and Migraines
People who do not sleep enough often tend to experience migraines with more frequency and severity. When a person doesn’t sleep enough, the body tends to produce more of a certain type of protein that can cause migraines and pain. Also, during a regular sleep cycle, the body tends to have more REM sleep cycles, which can regulate certain processes in the body. One of the most common things migraine sufferers experience during sleep deprivation is that rest or sleep will often mitigate the severity of their migraine. Getting good sleep plays a big role in not only influencing migraine and headache, but a wide variety of other normal body functions. During the deep restorative stages of sleep, your body is replenishing it’s many neurotransmitters in the brain. Neurotransmitters influence mood, concentration, energy, attention, memory, and a variety of neurologic functions. So, if you are not getting those deep stages of sleep, you become deficient in neurotransmitters, and the result is often worsening headaches, migraines, anxiety, depression, fatigue, poor memory, concentration, and focus. For example, the most common cause of anxiety and depression is serotonin deficiency in the brain. For this reason, many antidepressants work by replacing serotonin levels. Thus, good sleep may be able to bypass the need for replacement by these medications for some patients, in addition to improving headache frequency. The optimal amount of sleep is generally considered to be 8 hours of uninterrupted sleep, which is often easier said than done for many people with today’s hectic schedules.
Light, Smell, and Sound Sensitivity Can Also Trigger Migraines
Migraine is a disorder of neurological overactivity and oversensitivity. The neurological wiring in patients with migraine is set at a much lower threshold for triggering a migraine, as compared to someone without migraine. Sometimes, elements in our environment can also be attributed to the onset of migraines. Direct sunlight can be a primary trigger for migraines. Driving by a white picket fence alternating with bright light in between, fluorescent office lighting (which almost universally drives people with migraine insane), flashing strobe lights, or looking at the sun reflecting off a shiny surface are commonly reported visual triggers. While the outdoors and exercise are great for health, wearing a cap or sunglasses and finding a shady area may help alleviate the onset of migraine. Sometimes, direct sunlight can make an existing migraine worse, especially if the migraine was triggered by sleep deprivation, dehydration, or skipping a meal.
Prolonged loud sound can also trigger migraines in some individuals. For example, loud concert music and high decibel noises can trigger a migraine. In addition, some noises can become more bothersome or disturbing for someone experiencing a migraine, such as chewing noises, clocks ticking, and doors opening and closing.
Smells can also be associated with the onset of migraines. About 50% of people report heightened sensitivity to smells when they have a migraine attack. The most common scent trigger for a migraine comes from perfumes, which may be associated with aerosols and additives in the perfume itself. The smell of tobacco and certain types of foods are also common triggers and agitators of migraines that are associated with scent. Although oversensitivity to smell (osmophobia) is not listed in the ICHD3 criteria for migraine diagnosis, it is very specific for migraine and often an easy clue for the diagnosis.
Changes In the Weather and Migraines
Seasonal and weather changes may also have an impact on the onset of migraines. Here are some of the types of changes in weather that may agitate migraine sufferers:
- Changes in barometric pressure
- Extreme changes in temperature where it becomes suddenly hot or suddenly cold, such as during season changes
- Storms, especially where there is thunder and lightning
- Dry and dusty weather
Another common trigger for migraines that is largely environmental is smoke. People who suffer from migraines report smoke as being a frequent migraine trigger and will avoid camping, barbecues, and other outdoor activities where there is smoke.
Why do changes in the weather cause migraines? People who already suffer from migraines and headaches tend to have a greater sensitivity to environmental changes. It is also common that people who have migraines triggered by environmental sensitivity do not discuss these triggers with their doctor.
Migraine occurs in 20% of women (1 in 5), and 6% of men (1 in 16). There is a reason for that difference, and it relates to hormonal differences. Before puberty, migraines actually occur more commonly in boys. However, once menarche (menstrual cycles) begins for girls, they take over in migraine frequency from that point on. Menstrual migraine is typically triggered by the drop in estrogen prior to a menstrual cycle. Menstrual migraine and its treatments are discussed in much greater detail here. Perimenopause (entering menopause, menopause, and exiting menopause) is also a common time of life where migraines can become much more frequent and severe for women, due to hormonal fluctuations. Interestingly, during pregnancy migraines improve for many women, and it is not uncommon that they report having no migraines at all during pregnancy (because the drop in estrogen is not occurring every month). Migraines often return shortly after pregnancy ends, and can initially seem more severe. Some women may not notice much improvement during pregnancy, while some can get worse.
Stress is one of the most common migraine triggers, which is unfortunately typically hard to avoid. For some patients, it is the opposite. They may get stress let-down migraines. For example, they get a migraine every time they are dealing with less stress, such as when they go on vacation, or every weekend when they don't have to get up and go to work. These are particularly cruel types of migraine triggers! There can be other variables involved in migraine triggers in these scenarios too though. For example, if they sleep in longer than normal on the weekend, that can be a trigger for some patients since migraine is often influenced by sleep patterns. The weekend migraine could also relate to caffeine withdrawal if they sleep in and don't get their normal weekday caffeine as early on the weekend compared to the weekdays.
Allergies and Migraines
Migraines and sinus headaches from allergies both have very common symptoms. Generally speaking, a migraine from an allergy will be more intense than a sinus headache and display the classic migraine symptoms such as nausea, throbbing pain, sensitivity to light, and a lengthy headache (up to 3 days and frequently recurring).
People with allergies are ten times more likely to develop migraines than people without allergies. The most common reason for migraines from an allergy is due to histamine release, your body’s overreaction to external and internal triggers that are driving your allergies.
Allergy shots and triptans are common ways to treat allergy-related migraines once they have started. Medications like beta-blockers may prevent allergy-related migraines before they happen.
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