Migraine headaches can be annoying at best and debilitating at worst. Migraines can cause nausea, vomiting, vision changes, and sensitivity to light or sound. While scientists still are not completely sure what causes them, research continues to evolve and scientists today have a better understanding of the many potential triggers for migraine headaches. There are some factors that you cannot control when it comes to migraine headache triggers, but there are many that you can. Knowing the potential risk factors for migraines can help you actively avoid triggers, particularly if you are at higher risk.
There are a number of biological and chemical causes for migraine headaches. While you may not be able to control the factors listed here, knowing your risk can help you make more informed lifestyle choices to help prevent migraines. The good news is that biological causes tend to be outweighed by lifestyle factors when it comes to migraine triggers, but it is still important to know what might put you at higher risk.
- Genes. We know that migraines have a genetic component. If a close relative has migraine headaches, you are more likely to experience them. In fact, 90% of migraine patients have a close family member who also suffer from migraines. Your parents are the best predictor of your own risk: if one or both parents has a history of migraines, your risk for them is higher. While you can't change your genetic makeup, you can take steps to reduce the risk of inducing a migraine if you know you have a family history of them.
- Age. While migraines can happen at any age, most patients report their first migraine in their teens. Migraines generally become less severe over time, with many patients improving after the age of thirty.
- Nerve signals. Migraines might also be rooted in your nerve signals and brain chemicals. There is a nerve in your head called the trigeminal nerve, which is a major pain pathway that releases neurotransmitters that travel to your brain and cause pain when your levels of serotonin drop. Scientists are still studying nerve signals and their role in migraine headaches.
- Hormones. Hormones may also play a role in migraines, particularly in women. Changes in the hormone estrogen might cause migraines in women, and birth control pills or hormone replacement therapy can also bring them on. Conversely, some women report that certain birth control pills improve their migraines, so the link is still unclear.
- Gender. Boys tend to experience more migraines during childhood than girls do, but research shows that after adolescence, women are three times more likely than men to experience migraines. The link between gender and migraines is still not fully understood.
There are many lifestyle factors that can cause a migraine headache. These are typically easy to manage if you know you're at risk for migraines. Research shows that lifestyle factors are bigger migraine triggers than biological ones, which means that you can easily take steps to adjust your lifestyle and reduce your risk of migraines. Some of the major lifestyle factors to keep in mind include:
- Stress. This is one of the most common migraine triggers. When you feel stressed, brain chemicals cause a "flight or fight" response, which may induce a migraine headache or make one even worse. If you are at risk for migraines or have experienced them in the past, it is important to manage your stress at home and at work to prevent them from occurring again. The more anxious you feel and the longer you feel that way, the higher your risk will be.
- Sense overload. Similarly, an overload of the senses can also bring on a migraine in many people. Bright lights or loud sounds are known to be migraine triggers. Smell can also trigger migraines; many patients report experiencing a migraine after coming into contact with strong perfumes, cologne, or strongly-scented chemicals like gasoline. If you spend significant time in a closed environment, consider informing those around you of your condition and ask them to avoid strong scents.
- Sleep. This is also a major factor in migraine headaches. Getting too much or too little sleep, or jet lag as a result of traveling across time zones can induce a migraine. If your normal sleep routine is disrupted, this can also trigger a migraine. This could be particularly difficult for shift workers or anyone who works irregular hours. Research shows that nearly half of migraines happen between the hours of four and nine in the morning. Going to bed at the same time each night and getting a full seven or eight hours of rest can help prevent a migraine.
- Diet. There are specific foods or drinks that might also trigger or worsen a migraine: salty, processed food, aged cheeses, and the artificial sweetener aspartame are all known to cause migraine headaches. Chocolate, cured meats, and anything with a strong smell are also common migraine triggers. Alcohol and caffeine can also cause migraines. Similarly, if you miss a meal, your blood surgar could drop. Low blood surgar is a known migraine trigger. Keep in mind that not all foods or drink will trigger a migraine right away, in some cases it can take up to twenty-four hours. If you think your diet may be triggering your headaches you should keep a journal of everything you eat or drink and when you experience a migraine. These are not the only foods that can trigger a migraine, but they are the most common.
- Medication. Paradoxically, migraine medication can trigger a migraine. If you take medication for migraines for more than ten days in a month, you could get what doctors call a rebound headache. You should work with your doctor to identify the best treatment regimen for your migraines that does not result in a rebound headache. If you're on opioids for migraines, you will need to be gradually weaned off of them safely.
- Weather. Changes in the weather or a change in the air pressure are very common triggers for a migraine. This is important to keep in mind if you suffer from migraines and are planning to travel. If you experience migraines you will always want to check the conditions at your destination to make sure they won’t potentially trigger a headache. High humidity can also trigger a migraine because it can dehydrate you, which is another potential migraine cause. Of course you can't control the weather, but you can take steps to adjust your schedule or your plans if you know that conditions are going to be conducive to a migraine.
As you can see, there are many migraine factors that are difficult or impossible to change or eliminate. But knowing that you have genetic, chemical, or biological risk factors for migraines, you can make simple lifestyle changes like avoiding bright lights, loud sounds, caffeine, and alcohol. If you’re struggling to identify the cause of your migraines, use this list as a guide. Consider keeping a journal in which you document your lifestyle habits and when you experience migraines. Using the guide above, you may start to identify a pattern and can work with your doctor to create an effective treatment plan.