If you suffer from migraines, then you know it’s hard to tell when they’re going to strike. Migraines, which are a recurring type of throbbing headache that cause moderate to severe pain and last for hours or even days, are a tricky beast of a headache to pinpoint. Even researchers haven’t been able to give a definitive cause behind them.
For some people, genetics are a factor, while others might experience them due to changes in brain chemicals, such as a decrease in levels of serotonin. However, no one’s really been able to provide clear triggers behind why and what will trigger a migraine. While everyone’s migraine triggers are personal, there are some common migraine triggers that sufferers might encounter.
Reassess when you’re eating
“A common problem and usually the first thing I would address with migraine patients was how consistently they are eating throughout the day,” Melissa Macher, RD, LD, and owner of Grateful Meal Nutrition, tells SheKnows. “When we go more than four or five hours without eating a meal or snack, we run the risk of dipping our glucose levels. When our glucose dips, it’s common for many people to get a headache even if they don’t suffer from migraines. In those that suffer from migraines, that headache can spiral into a migraine.”
Macher suggests not skipping meals and putting snacks in place where meals are more than four and five hours apart.
What are you eating?
“Migraines can be caused by irregular meals and too much sugar,” Dr. Michele Renee, D.C., M.Ac., Director of Integrative Care at Northwestern Health Sciences University. “If migraines are common in your life, reassess your pantry and refrigerator and see what could be at the root of the problem.”
According to Dr. Renee, common food triggers for migraines that have been cited include chocolate, and aged cheese and treated meat due to containing tyramine, a substance known to trigger headaches and migraines. Sugary products are also to be avoided because of rapid changes in glucose levels.
However Macher is hesitant to identify certain food triggers as they differ based on the individual.
“Typically, food triggers for migraines vary widely from person-to-person. There are not any hard-and-fast food rules for migraine management,” she says. “I do recommend people suffering from migraines talk to a licensed, registered dietitian to help them find their individual triggers or help them rule out if there are any at all. Going blindly into a migraine elimination diet without supervision can lead to unnecessarily eliminating key foods that provide vital nutrients and create risk for deficiency.”
Which is why she suggests keeping a food diary while working alongside a registered dietician to help identify your triggers.
What are you drinking?
Both alcohol, specifically red wine, and caffeine, have been known to trigger migraines. For the former, the ingredient of ethanol, which expands blood vessels and raises your blood pressure, is known to be the culprit of your next migraine. As well as contents like sulfites, histamines, and flavonoid phenols and tannins have all been noted as potential triggers for migraines. As for the latter, there is ambiguous information as to why a cup of joe might cause your head to hurt. Some research says simply drinking a cup of coffee or caffeinated beverage will bring on the migraine, while the withdrawal of caffeine might also trigger it.
Both caffeine and alcohol are known to cause dehydration, which might be another reason for triggering migraines.
“Stop drinking a second or third cup of coffee, and instead reach for a glass of water to rehydrate yourself and prepare for the day,” advises Dr. Renee.
What’s your environment like?
According to the National Headache Foundation, photophobia, being sensitive to light, is one of the most common symptoms of migraine sufferers. Between 80% and 90% of people who regularly have migraines experience photophobia during migraine attacks and even can find low levels of light to be glaring or painful. They might even find bright and glaring light intense even between attacks.
“Artificial lights such as fluorescents are extremely bright and harsh on the eyes causing strain and possible headache pain,” says Dr. Renee. She suggests toning it down by using ambient light which produces a quieter, relaxing environment to help de-stress and relax the muscles.
In addition, air conditioning and air pressure are also known to trigger migraines, which can be a result from dehydration, poor air circulation and ventilation, muscle contraction, or circulation of allergens — which are all known to cause migraines. So you might want to skip the AC and open a window to get some fresh air instead.