Another possible cause, and one you have absolutely no control over, is genetics. If one of your parents has a history of migraine, there’s a 50% chance that you’ll have the condition, too. Add both parents to the mix, and your odds increase to 75%, according to the Cleveland Clinic.
Unfortunately, migraine triggers are different for everyone, so it’s hard to say if one thing will or will not set off symptoms for each person with the condition. That’s because things like genetic factors, age, biological sex, hormonal changes, reactions to physical and emotional stress, and sleep patterns differ from person to person, Medhat Mikhael, M.D., pain management specialist and medical director of the non-operative program at the Spine Health Center at MemorialCare Orange Coast Medical Center, tells SELF.
Even if you have some idea of what to avoid, personal migraine triggers can be confusing. For instance, if you ate some fancy cheese and suspected it triggered a migraine, and then you ate the same cheese a month later and nothing happened, you were probably left scratching your head.
Often, one specific migraine trigger doesn’t spur an attack each time you’re exposed to it. So, a better working theory about migraine attacks might consider a combination of triggers instead of one cause alone. And there are some common culprits that seem to tip the scales towards triggering a migraine for a lot of people.
Non-food-related migraine triggers
We’ll dive into food-related triggers next, but let’s start with ones that aren’t on your dinner plate.
You might want to think twice before skipping breakfast, or any other meal for that matter. That’s because foregoing meals or skimping on calories causes your blood sugar to drop, which can trigger a headache or a full-blown migraine episode, according to the National Headache Foundation.
Stress and anxiety
Stress is something we all experience to some degree. But if you’re also susceptible to migraine, any increase in life stress, worry, or anxiety can trigger a migraine. In fact, stress is a trigger for migraine attacks in nearly 70% of people who experience migraines.4 Some studies even suggest that people with generalized anxiety disorder and panic disorder, in particular, have an increased incidence of migraine, according to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America, though the exact link isn’t known.
One way to trigger a horrendous headache—including migraine—is to let yourself get dehydrated. While a lack of fluids may be the main culprit for some headaches, it seems that dehydration can aggravate a number of underlying medical conditions such as primary headache disorders, which includes our good friend migraine.5
Ever thought your head was a weather psychic? You might be right. Drastic changes in heat, humidity, wind, and barometric pressure may be a migraine trigger for some people, according to the American Headache Society. While the research linking these two is sparse, it’s worth noting if you experience symptoms with the changing weather.
According to the American Migraine Foundation, exercise can both trigger and treat migraines. On one hand, regular exercise can reduce the frequency of migraines. That’s because exercise releases the natural painkillers in our brain called endorphins. It can also reduce stress and help us sleep better at night—two other migraine triggers. On the other hand, exercise has been known to trigger migraine in certain people. It’s not totally known why that’s the case, but it may have something to do with exercise increasing blood pressure, which affects the nerves in the brain.
Ah, the smell of the outdoors. Blooming buds and tree pollen abound. For some people that may only lead to never-ending bouts of sneezing, wheezing, and congestion. But for others, these outdoor allergic offenders may also increase migraine frequency, too.7
Light, sound, and smell
Think about this the next time you’re considering a spritz of very potent perfume: Sensory stimuli, including bright light, loud sound, or strong smells can trigger migraine. Clifford Segil, M.D., a neurologist at Providence Saint John’s Health Center in Santa Monica, California, tells SELF that among sensory triggers, visual stimulation appears to be the most common. Some people describe migraine being provoked by bright or flashing lights, while others report being triggered by certain visual patterns.
Medications can be a lifesaver for many chronic health conditions, including migraine attacks. But if you deal with regular migraine episodes and take acute pain medication more than 15 days a month, you may experience medication overuse headache (MOH), according to the American Migraine Foundation. This can happen if you start taking more medication—particularly pain medications like narcotics, triptans, and others—in response to an increase in attacks. Why this happens isn’t totally understood, but it is thought to have something to do with how these medications lower your threshold for pain while simultaneously reinforcing pain pathways in the brain.
Bruxism (teeth grinding and clenching) can trigger headaches and even migraine episodes, according to the Mayo Clinic, since clenching your teeth at night can put a lot of stress on the temporomandibular joint and the supporting head and neck muscles. While wearing a nightguard or a custom orthotic appliance might not be the sexiest look, it could help you avoid your next migraine attack.
We’re all guilty of staring at a screen too long sometimes. But if you’re susceptible to migraine, you may want to think twice before binge-watching your favorite Netflix series. According to Sage Journals,8 spending over two hours daily gazing at a screen is associated with migraine in young adults.
Too much or too little sleep
Sleep is another big trigger for migraine, but like many things on this list, it’s not a simple explanation. Not sleeping enough can trigger a migraine, but so can sleeping too much, according to The Migraine Trust. The idea is that basically your circadian rhythm—what tells you when it’s time to sleep and wake up—gets all out of whack and triggers a migraine as a result.
According to Dr. Mikhael, fluctuations in female hormone levels, particularly estrogen, play an important role in the pathophysiology of migraine. Around the menstrual period, estrogen levels rapidly drop causing major changes in the chemical neurotransmitter serotonin, which can trigger a migraine attack.