Let’s get the bad news out of the way first. Doctors aren’t entirely sure what causes migraines, at least not in a way that allows for their prevention.
They suspect that regular migraines are related to an imbalance in certain brain chemicals coupled with basic genetics. Unfortunately, there’s a lot about your propensity for migraines that can’t be changed.
There seems to be a family history component to migraines, so if someone else in your family suffers, you are more likely to as well. Age plays a role: migraines tend to start in your teens and peak in your 30s, typically becoming less intense later in life.
And women are almost three times more likely to get migraines on a regular basis than men, though interestingly, young boys are more likely than young girls to experience them. Even changes in the weather, especially overall air pressure, can trigger a monster headache.
But before you lock yourself in a dark room for your entire young life, doctors can pinpoint certain factors that raise your risk of experiencing a migraine at any given time. Following are seven migraine triggers you can control. Migraines are agonizing and can derail your whole day, so making these small changes could greatly improve your quality of life.
1. Emotional stress
When you are stressed and overwhelmed, your brain releases chemicals associated with your fight or flight response. This is a critical system that helps humans stay safe.
However, when it comes to modern life, our main sources of stress are not usually life-or-death situations. An overwhelming workload, the challenges of parenting children, and financial strain can all cause anxiety and tension, but none are relieved by either fight or flight.
To reduce the stress in your life, work on developing a mindset of acceptance in regard to what is happening in the moment. Resisting things that are uncomfortable only increases stress. Evaluate your daily routine and give yourself permission to delegate certain tasks and say no to others. Make sure that time for self-care is built into your daily schedule.
2. Certain foods
Foods that are highly processed are full of artificial ingredients and a lot of sodium. These things are known to trigger migraines when eaten in excess.
Aged cheeses, preserved meats like salami and bacon, artificial sweeteners such as aspartame, and the flavor enhancer MSG are all risky for people with migraines.
Unfortunately, some people can be triggered by otherwise healthy foods like apples, bananas, beans, citrus fruits, dairy, onions, and tomatoes. If you are troubled by frequent migraines and haven’t determined your specific triggers, it may help to experiment with cutting these items out of your diet for a time.
3. Skipping meals
Fluctuations in blood sugar may also cause migraines in some people. The form of sugar used by the body for all of its processes is called glucose.
The brain is the largest consumer of glucose in the body, and when levels drop, it is the first organ affected. Our instinct in these moments is to eat something sugary for a quick boost, but too much glucose can also be problematic.
Therefore, if you are prone to migraines, try not to ever skip a meal. Make sure your meals feature a combination of protein, carbohydrate, and fat so as to ensure a steady delivery of glucose over a longer period, rather than steep surges and dips throughout the day.
4. Alcohol and caffeine
Both alcohol and caffeine can sometimes trigger migraines. This varies from person to person, so it’s something to pay close attention to when working to identify your triggers. It may be that there are reasonable limits that permit you to safely enjoy these things without pain.
In fact, caffeine may even help to alleviate a migraine. It is present in many over-the-counter migraine medications for this reason. However, studies show that regular consumers of caffeine may not be helped as much as people who don’t usually ingest it.
And, withdrawal from caffeine can also trigger a headache. If you experience regular migraines, it may be best to keep your daily caffeine consumption low so that you avoid withdrawal and can be helped by it when you are suffering.
5. Sensory overload
Bright lights, loud sounds, and strong smells are thought to trigger migraines in some people. Migraine sufferers that are sensitive to overwhelming situations usually report feeling confused, anxious, and unable to make decisions just prior to the onset of a headache.
While it’s difficult avoid all sources of excess sound, light, and smells, you can choose not to go to that laser light show or wear ear plugs at that live concert.
Other overloading situations are harder to avoid, like the traffic on the way to work and that co-worker who wears too much scent. But it is worth it to put some effort into minimizing the effects in your life.
Perhaps your boss would be open to shifting your schedule such that you miss the rush hour. That co-worker might very well understand, if approached gently, that her perfume (or his cologne) smells lovely but sadly triggers your headaches.
6. Changes in sleep
Everyone has a different level of optimal sleep, but the average for adults is 8 hours. Getting too much or too little shut-eye has been linked to migraines, as has jet lag.
Chances are, your body naturally wants to sleep and wake at the right time for your needs, so it’s important to listen to those signals. Keeping your sleep schedule as consistent as possible is also helpful in avoiding migraines.
We know that life is super busy, and it’s not always possible to keep sleeping patterns consistent. Unfortunately, it’s not helpful to catch up on missed sleep on the weekends because too much sleep is as triggering as not enough.
If you’ve been able to determine your optimal amount of sleep and know that you’ll be off your schedule for any reason, a better strategy is to build in a nap so that you still get enough slumber over each 24 hour period.
7. Physical strain
An intense workout can trigger migraines, but so can lack of exercise. Exercise triggers endorphins in the brain which make us feel happy and actually reduce our experience of pain. It’s important to find a happy medium that allows you to be active but doesn’t make you miserable afterward.
Key steps to keep your workout migraine-safe include proper hydration and nutrition. Eat and drink about an hour and a half before exercise, and continue to hydrate throughout your workout.
If you find that your mouth is dry or you’re not sweating, that’s a sign of dehydration. Also make sure that you warm up before getting to the intense portion of your workout. Jumping right into it seems to increase the risk of a migraine as well.
If you are experiencing regular migraines, it’s important to see your doctor. It’s also helpful to keep a migraine journal where you note down how often the headaches are happening and what you were doing in the hours before onset.
Sadly, the fact that you get them may be beyond your control due to factors like family history, gender, and age. But if making certain lifestyle changes can reduce the frequency and intensity of your migraines, why wouldn’t you do it? No amount of coffee, alcohol, or fast food is worth the suffering you experience with a migraine.