Published 27th July 2022

What’s triggering your migraines?

Migraines are often accompanied by a severe headache, nausea, and sensitivity to light and sound. While we don’t know the exact cause of migraines, their onset can often be linked to a trigger.

What triggers a migraine will vary from person to person, but common factors include stress, hormone changes, and eating habits.

Anyone can get migraines. But they affect women more often than men — three to four times more often over the course of a lifetime.

Migraine triggers

What triggers a migraine won’t be the same for everyone, but research shows that some triggers are more common than others. Let’s explore nine of the most common ones together. 

1. Stress

According to research, stress is the most common trigger for migraines. Evidence from over 7,000 participants showed that almost 60% of people with migraines reported stress as a trigger.

Stress can come in many forms, including relationships, finances, work, and physical health. You won’t be able to eliminate all stressors in your life, but you can manage them. Some tips include:

  • eating a healthy diet

  • meditating or doing breathing exercises

  • getting plenty of sleep and exercise

  • engaging in relaxing activities

  • connecting with friends or family

  • going to therapy

Research suggests that cognitive behavioral therapy and acceptance and commitment therapy could benefit people with migraine. However, further clinical trials are needed.

2. Menstruation

Hormone changes that occur during menstruation can play a role in migraine attacks.

During the later part of the menstrual cycle, the amount of estrogen in the body decreases. This drop in estrogen lowers the level of serotonin, leading to migraines in some people.

If you take hormonal birth control, you may also be at an increased risk of migraines. In this case, experts think it’s linked to increased estrogen levels. 

If you frequently get migraines when you’re on your period, talk to your doctor. They may be able to help you find a treatment that works for you.

3. Poor diet or eating habits

The foods you eat play a role in many aspects of your health, and evidence suggests diet could influence migraines. 

In a recent review, researchers gathered results from 43 different studies. They concluded that some foods — including fried foods, processed meats, some dairy products, and excessive caffeine — may be linked to the onset of a migraine. However, the researchers noted a lack of high-quality evidence.

The review also suggested a link between migraines and inconsistent eating behaviors, such as skipping meals or overeating.

Some evidence links certain diets to improved migraine symptoms. 

Studies have shown beneficial impacts from the keto diet, Atkins diet, and low-fat diets, as well as diets rich in folate and omega-3 fatty acids. 

But, again, there is a clear lack of high-quality studies, so more research is needed.

At ZOE, we run the world’s largest study of nutrition, and from our research, we know that everyone responds differently to food.

With the ZOE at-home test, you can learn about your unique blood fat and blood sugar responses to foods, as well as the “good” and “bad” bugs that make up your gut microbiome. To get started, take our free quiz.

4. Alcohol

Researchers estimate that one-third of all people who get migraines are sensitive to alcohol. In fact, alcohol may be responsible for 34–52% of migraines. 

In a review of over 40 studies, alcohol was one of the most common diet-related migraine triggers. Multiple studies suggest a link between alcohol intake and migraine attacks in women, but the link was not as strong in men.

If you start to notice migraines after you drink, speak with your doctor about whether cutting down or stopping alcohol altogether may be best for you.

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5. Weather

Do you feel like you get a migraine every time the weather changes? Or maybe you get one while sitting in traffic? 

You’re not alone. Weather and air quality are common triggers for people with migraines.

While there isn’t a lot of evidence in this area, there is some interesting data. 

A recent study based in Boston, MA, found that people were more likely to have migraines on a warm day with high humidity, specifically between April and September. 

Multiple human and animal studies also suggest a link between a drop in atmospheric pressure and an increased chance of migraine attacks. Typically, low pressure in the atmosphere is followed by cooler weather, wind, and storms. 

You may benefit from avoiding the outdoors during particularly intense humidity and pressure changes. 

6. Lack of sleep

Not getting enough sleep can harm your body in many ways, including possibly triggering a migraine.

The exact reason isn’t clear, but scientists believe that sleep disorders and migraines share similar mechanisms in the brain. Also, current theories suggest that a lack of sleep interferes with how your body manages pain, which may partially explain the link to migraines. 

Estimates suggest that up to 50% of people with migraines or tension headaches have insomnia. When you couple stress with poor sleep, the link is even stronger. 

Tips to promote good sleep include:

  • keeping a consistent bedtime and wake-up time

  • avoiding caffeine and long naps in the afternoon

  • creating a cool, dark, and quiet environment

  • enjoying physical activity during the day — but try to avoid exercise right before bed

7. Light sensitivity

Light can play a role in both triggering and exacerbating migraine symptoms. Flickering lights and artificial lights can cause severe head pain in some people — a condition called photophobia

Wearing sunglasses outside, using bulbs that give off green light, and staying close to natural light in an office may help. 

Also, ask your eye doctor if tinted, blue-blocking, or red lenses might be appropriate.

8. Strong smells

Strong smells, like perfume or cigarette smoke, can trigger migraines in some people. For instance, in one study of 200 people with migraines, 70% had experienced a migraine triggered by a strong smell like perfume, gasoline, paint, or bleach. 

Scientists think smell sensitivity may be linked to the size of the olfactory bulb. This is the part of the brain responsible for smell. 

While you can’t change your sensitivity, you can help prevent migraines by trying to avoid intense odors.

9. Not eating or drinking enough

Fasting or skipping meals is a common migraine trigger. In a study of 200 people with migraines, fasting was the most common diet-related migraine trigger, affecting over 50% of people. 

According to a recent review, not drinking enough water may also increase the chances of a migraine.

To include more water throughout your day, try the following tricks:

  • starting your day with a glass of water 

  • drinking a glass of water before each meal

  • keeping a water bottle nearby

  • using a recyclable straw to make it easier to drink 

  • using herbs, fruits, and vegetables like cucumbers to add flavor to your water

What are your triggers?

Ultimately, there are many different factors that can trigger migraines. Because migraines are so complex, triggers will vary from person to person. 

If you frequently get migraines, try keeping a headache diary or using a headache diary app on your phone. This can help you and your doctor determine what your unique triggers are and what you can do to address them.

Summary

Migraines are a complex medical condition with causes, symptoms, and treatments that vary from person to person. 

A range of factors can trigger a migraine, such as stress, hormone changes, diet, sensitivities to lights and smells, and possibly even the weather. 

Some action-based strategies include drinking more water, improving sleep hygiene, doing stress-reduction techniques, or avoiding alcohol. 

Other preventative measure may require avoiding certain settings, such as strong smells, intense lights, loud noises, and stressful situations.

Try keeping a migraine diary to help you identify your triggers. 

By finding out your unique triggers, you can decide the right changes to prevent migraines in the future. 

At ZOE, we know that every body has its own unique needs. Nutrition is one of the best tools for improving your health, so finding the right foods for your body is important for achieving your best overall health.

With the ZOE at-home test, you can learn about your unique blood fat and blood sugar responses, as well as the “good” and “bad” bugs living in your gut. With this information, we will send you personalized nutrition advice to help you achieve your health goals. 

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