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What Causes Migraine Headaches?

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What Causes Migraine Headaches?

Though the exact cause of migraines is unknown, certain dietary, emotional, or physical factors may have a role to play. Most commonly identified triggers include missed meals, certain foods or drinks like cheese, citrus fruits, soy, and alcohol, strenuous exercise (if you're not used to it!), stress. Keeping a diary can help you pinpoint triggers that may prompt an attack.

If you’ve suffered from the throbbing headaches brought on by a migraine you should know that you’re not alone. Migraines are fairly common, about one in five women and one in fifteen men suffer from this condition. Many of them also experience symptoms like vomiting, nausea, and increased sensitivity to sound or light.1 Some people with migraines experience flashing lights or distorted or blurry vision before a migraine begins. This is known as an aura. But you can also get a migraine without these warning symptoms and an aura may occur without leading to a headache too.

We don’t yet understand what causes migraines happen but your genetic makeup is thought to play a part. The pain experienced in migraines is linked to swollen blood vessels in the brain which press on nerves but experts think that this is not the direct cause of migraines. It is thought that the pain centers of the brain could be dysfunctional in people who experience migraines and that the neurotransmitter serotonin could play a part in this.2 Though we are not clear on what causes migraines many factors that can trigger them have been identified. Though each person will have specific individual triggers looking at some common factors may help you in identifying things that may be setting off your migraine:

Common Migraine Triggers

Dietary Factors

Around 10% of people with migraine experience food related triggers3 and identifying and avoiding these triggers can be helpful. But be careful to distinguish between a trigger and a symptom. For instance, some people will crave sweet foods like chocolate when a migraine starts which may lead them to think that eating it triggered the attack. But sometimes the craving for a certain food is a symptom signaling the beginning of an attack.4 Some common dietary factors that can lead to migraines are:

  • Skipping meals or eating irregularly can lead to an attack.
  • Additives found in some foods have been known to trigger migraine attacks. Commonly, the sweetener aspartame; monosodium glutamate (MSG) which is a flavor enhancer found in fast foods, and seasoning; and nitrates which are present in salami, bacon, hot dogs, and cured meats have been found to be responsible.
  • Citrus fruits, avocados, and bananas can sometimes be triggers.5
  • Tyramine, a substance that naturally occurs in foods like aged cheeses, fava beans, soy products, hard sausages, wine, and smoked fish have been implicated in migraines.6
  • Dehydration can trigger off an attack. But don’t try to quench your thirst with drinks like tea or coffee that contain caffeine as these too may start off a migraine.7 But while too much caffeine can be a trigger shutting off your supply suddenly can also contribute to an attack. If you find that this is the case try weaning yourself off caffeine gradually.8 Alcohol is also a common migraine trigger.9

Emotional Factors

Migraines can be strongly linked to emotional factors. Anxiety, excitement, shock, or any kind of tension can set off an attack. Stress too is commonly found to lead to migraines. But some people also find that migraines start when their stress levels fall. This could be a reason some people experience “weekend headaches” where they get migraines on the weekend when they’re more relaxed after a stressful week.10

Physical Factors

  • Poor posture and tension in your neck or shoulder muscles can cause migraines. So if you’re sitting at a desk or in front of a computer screen for long periods be sure to take short breaks regularly. Also make sure that you’re sitting comfortably so that tension doesn’t build up.11
  • Both too little sleep and too little of it can trigger migraines. Being tired can also be a factor.12
  • Strenuous exercise can be a factor in migraines especially if you’re not used to it. However, regular exercise which is built up gradually can help prevent migraines since exercise isn’t just good for your general health but also helps to stimulate your body’s natural painkillers.13
  • Some people have also found sexual activity to be a trigger.14

Environmental Factors

Climate changes like a drop in temperature or changes in humidity levels can trigger migraines. Loud noises, strong smells, smoky rooms or a stuffy atmosphere may also do this. Some people also find that flickering screens (like computer or TV screens) and bright lights can set off a migraine.15 But do keep in mind that an increased sensitivity to sound and light can also be an early symptom of migraines. 16

Hormonal Changes

Migraines have been linked to female hormones. Some women may experience migraines around the time they get their periods, usually between a couple of days before their period to three days after it. It is thought that this could be because of hormonal changes during this time. It has also been seen that women can experience an improvement in migraines after menopause, though some women may find that menopause triggers migraines in them or worsens them.17

Changes In Your Routine

Changing your routine can sometimes lead to migraines. For instance, some people find that when their routine is disturbed when they go on long journeys or on holiday it triggers migraines. This could also be one reason why some people seem to suffer from migraines on the weekends since daily routines regarding things like when you eat, how long you sleep etc typically change on the weekends.18

Medications And Drugs

Contraceptive pills that contain hormones and some kinds of sleeping pills can trigger migraines. Hormone replacement therapy (HRT), which is used to deal with symptoms of menopause has also been known to do this.19

Meanwhile using cocaine too can trigger an attack as can withdrawing from it and cannabis can make migraines more difficult to treat.20

Other Factors

  • Some people who grind their teeth at night find themselves waking up with a migraine but if teeth grinding is a trigger your dentist can fit you with mouth plates (known as occlusal splints) designed to help this condition.21
  • Head injuries can sometimes lead to headaches and migraine.22
  • Repeated coughing, jet lag, and low blood sugar have also been found to initiate migraines in some people. 23

How To Identify Your Triggers

Since different factors seem to act as triggers depending on the person it could help y identify your individual triggers so that you can deal with them. Keeping a headache diary can help you do this. In this diary jot down the dates and times that you get migraines. Also make a note of what you ate and dark in the past 24 hours, how much sleep you got, and where you were, as well as, what you were doing when your migraine started. It also helps to keep a record of how long the migraine lasted and what made it stop. Over time you should be able to notice patterns associated with your migraines and identify your triggers. You can then work on avoiding your triggers to reduce your migraines.24

What To Do When You Get A Migraine

Simple things like drinking water to prevent dehydration, particularly if you’ve vomited, resting in a quiet, dark room and placing a cool cloth on your head may help to reduce the severity of your headache. Painkillers and medications for nausea and vomiting can also be useful.25 You may also want to try natural remedies like relaxation techniques (for instance, breathing exercises and meditation) or herbs like feverfew and ginger to treat your migraine.

References   [ + ]

1. Migraine. National health Service.
2. Migraine. Harvard Health Publications.
3, 4, 8, 10, 12, 13, 16, 18, 20, 21, 22. Common triggers. The Migraine Trust.
5, 24, 25. Managing migraines at home. National Institutes of Health.
6. Migraine fact sheet. National Institutes of Health.
7, 9, 11, 15, 17, 19, 23. Migraine – Causes. National Health Service.
14. Kelman, L. “The triggers or precipitants of the acute migraine attack.” Cephalalgia 27, no. 5 (2007): 394-402.
CureJoy Editorial

The CureJoy Editorial team digs up credible information from multiple sources, both academic and experiential, to stitch a holistic health perspective on topics that pique our readers' interest.

CureJoy Editorial

The CureJoy Editorial team digs up credible information from multiple sources, both academic and experiential, to stitch a holistic health perspective on topics that pique our readers' interest.