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Migraine triggers and how to avoid them

Dr Karen Martin
Reviewed by Dr Karen MartinReviewed on 19.10.2023 | 3 minutes read

Migraines can be debilitating to those who suffer from them, so it’s important to try and identify what factors could be triggering your migraine. The exact cause of migraines is unknown, but it is thought to be a result of atypical brain activity which affects nerve signals in the brain, chemicals, and blood vessels. The cause of this change in brain activity is unknown, but it could be genetic.

Common triggers

There are many possible triggers, and your doctor will likely ask you whether you have noticed certain things that bring on your migraines. Some of the common causes include changes in routine, stress, hormones, environmental changes, too much time looking at screens, food, dehydration, and exercise.

In the following paragraphs, we will go into more detail about some of the common triggers.

Life triggers

Changes in routine: These include changing sleep patterns, longer journeys, diet, and eating times. Many people complain of migraines occurring over the weekend. This could be due to sleeping for longer, drinking less caffeine, or changes in stress levels.

Stress: This is strongly linked with migraines and includes any emotional shock. The migraine can even be triggered by lower stress levels, which are particularly seen over the weekend (weekend headaches).

Hormones: Some women find their migraines begin during puberty and are linked with their menstrual cycle. Menopause is often the most challenging time for women with migraines.

Those who take contraceptives should also be cautious and speak to their doctor if they experience migraines while taking their medication.

Environment: High altitudes, weather changes, humidity, loud noises, flickering lights, or glare can be triggers for migraines.

Variable triggers

Screens: This is similar to light exposure, although it has been questioned whether the presence of blue light with excessive screen exposure could be a migraine trigger.

Food: Certain foods can be a trigger. Some people will crave sweet foods before an attack and subsequently will conclude that sweet foods are the cause when it is more likely that craving sweet foods is a symptom of the onset of a migraine. However, foods containing tyramine are often linked to migraines (red wine and aged cheeses).

Additives: Common additives that people suspect may trigger their migraines are monosodium glutamate (MSG), nitrates, and aspartame.

Dehydration: As a general guide, you should aim to drink 8 glasses of water a day. Less than this, and it could be a contributory cause.

Exercise: Like with sleep, too much or too little can be a trigger, especially sudden vigorous exercise. Regular exercise, which is built up gradually (adequate warm-up and stretching), can help prevent a migraine.

Keeping a migraine diary

If you are prone to migraines, it is wise to suspect everything could be a trigger until you have eliminated a specific factor by using a migraine trigger diary. In the diary, you could include details about the migraine attack and the day it occurred. Other things that may be useful for your doctor are:

  • Date and day of the week
  • Duration of the attack
  • The severity of the attack
  • Symptoms (nausea, stomach pain, light/sound sensitivity)
  • Any suspected triggers (routine change, foods, sounds and smells, medications)

It may be helpful to maintain this diary over several months to get a better idea of what your triggers could be. This diary would also be helpful for your doctor to better understand your migraines and if any treatment changes could be made.

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This article has been written by UK-based doctors and pharmacists, so some advice may not apply to US users and some suggested treatments may not be available. For more information, please see our T&Cs.
Dr Karen Martin
Reviewed by Dr Karen Martin
Reviewed on 19.10.2023
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