Migraine triggers: what causes them?

Migraine triggers

Most people have experienced a headache in their life. Usually, taking a couple of painkillers is enough to solve the problem.

A migraine attack is different. It is more than just a headache. The pain can be so bad that it stops you from doing normal activities. In fact, trying to carry on can make your symptoms feel worse.

In this article, you will learn about the symptoms of migraines, and how you can prevent them by avoiding some common migraine triggers.

Migraine symptoms

Most sufferers of migraines feel pain on one side of the head, but it can also be felt all over. You may also have nausea, vomiting, and be very sensitive to light, sounds or smells.

Warning symptoms can occur several hours or days before a migraine attack actually begins, including:

  • Feeling especially tired
  • Conversely, feeling restless, or even full of energy
  • Craving certain foods
  • Feeling particularly thirsty

This warning period is called the prodromal phase.

About one in three migraine sufferers experience an ‘aura’ before a migraine, or as the migraine is appearing. The aura phase can last from a few minutes to an hour, during which you may experience changes in vision, like zig-zag lines starting on one side of your vision before moving across to affect the other side.

Other visual symptoms of migraine aura that have been reported include:

  • Flashing lights
  • Black spots
  • Tunnel vision
  • Temporary blindness

Some aura symptoms affect other parts of the body, and you may experience:

Once you feel the headache, the migraine attack can last between four hours and three days. It may take you a few days to fully recover after an attack. Most people recover completely between their attacks (episodic migraine), but some people feel symptoms more often than not, or experience frequent migraines (chronic migraine).

Migraines affect one in seven people worldwide. It is three times more common in women. If you are not directly affected by migraine, it is likely that you know someone who is. Despite migraines being so common, and often disabling, they can be overlooked and undertreated, and thought of as nothing more than a bad headache.

You can find more information in our blog on different types of headaches

Migraine prevention - how to avoid migraine triggers

A person writing in a notebook

Keep a headache diary

One of the most useful ways of learning about how your migraine behaves is by keeping a headache diary. It is a good idea to record the time and date you experience a headache, how long it lasts, other symptoms and what, if any, medications you took to treat it. By noting down things that you think might cause a migraine, you may be able to spot patterns. The information captured in a headache diary can help your doctor to diagnose and provide you with treatment for your migraines.

Identify and avoid migraine triggers

A trigger is an event or factor that results in a migraine. Triggers are not the same for everybody and each person has triggers that are relevant to them. Several triggers can act together over a few days to bring about a migraine. As a result, it can be hard to know how to identify migraine triggers. If you suspect certain triggers are affecting you, it is a good idea to cut them out for a few weeks, one at a time, to see if this helps.

Common migraine triggers

A woman with her head in her arms

There are many environmental factors that can trigger your migraines.

Sleep

The role of sleep in migraines is complex. Lack of sleep is often involved with a migraine. However, many people notice that sleeping in for longer than usual can also trigger a migraine. Try and keep to a fixed routine of going to bed and getting up in the morning at the same time each day, including at weekends.

Emotional stress

There is a close link between emotional stress and migraines. Some people find that their migraine is exacerbated at times of stress, while others find that their migraine gets worse as they start to relax following a stressful period. This might explain why some people experience headaches after meeting a deadline, or on the first days of their holiday. Other emotional triggers of migraines include:

  • Shock
  • Depression
  • Excitement
  • Anxiety
  • Tension

Food triggers

Certain foods such as chocolate, caffeine and citrus fruits have been associated with migraines. It is only a good idea to restrict foods if you suspect they might be a trigger, not just because you have heard or read that they are important. It may be helpful to keep a food list or diary to help you identify possible migraine triggers.

Many people crave sweet food before their migraine starts, leading them to think that this is a trigger, when it is actually a prodromal symptom.

Missed meals

Missing meals can also trigger a migraine. Eating regularly, and cutting out sugary snacks may help you prevent migraines. If you wake up with migraine, it may be worth considering having a snack before bedtime.

Dehydration

It is recommended that you drink at least eight glasses of water per day and do not consume fizzy, sugary drinks. Some drinks contain the sweetener aspartame, which might trigger migraine for some people although evidence is limited.

Alcohol

Two beers on a table

Migraines can be triggered by some types of alcohol. Red wine contains a chemical called tyramine which has been linked to migraines. Tyramine is also found in other foods, including some soft cheeses. The evidence that links tyramine and migraines is still not clear, so you should only cut out alcohol or tyramine-containing foods if you have found that it affects your migraine.

Caffeine

Excessive caffeine may trigger migraines, though some people find that suddenly stopping caffeine altogether contributes to the onset of a migraine. If you find that you experience migraines on days when you don’t drink caffeine, it may be best if you cut down on caffeine more gradually. Caffeine is not only found in coffee and tea, but also in products like fizzy drinks, chocolate, and some painkillers.

Hormonal changes in women

A large proportion of women who suffer from migraines report that it is associated with their monthly menstrual cycle. Some women only experience migraines around the time of their period. This is called a menstrual migraine. The menopause is often associated with a worsening of migraine. Some women find that taking a hormonal contraception can make their migraine worse.

Conclusion

Although migraines can be debilitating, there are steps you can take to prevent their symptoms.

There are many environmental triggers, and you can reduce the burden of migraines by finding out which may be affecting you and avoiding them. Keeping a diary of triggers might make this process easier.

A diary of triggers can also be beneficial if you see a doctor, as it can help them recommend more suitable treatment. You should see a doctor if you have frequent or severe migraines or you are still experiencing migraines despite avoiding triggers.



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