Migraines Overview

Migraine Triggers

Migraine triggers come in a variety of forms. Anchovies are a common trigger for many.
Migraine triggers come in a variety of forms. Anchovies are a common trigger for many.
©iStockphoto/Angela S.

Triggers are the things that set migraines off. Triggers can crop up just about anywhere. They can be environmental, like the weather or that really bad cologne your boss wears. They can be behavioral, such as getting up too early or too late. They can even be food related, as in the case of alcohol, caffeine or strong cheese.

Here are some of the more common triggers:

  • Food: There is little scientific evidence that food can physically trigger a migraine, but try telling that to a desperate migraine sufferer who can't eat cheese anymore. It's most likely that food-related migraines are linked to food allergies. Some foods high on the trigger list include nuts, hard cheeses, and gluten, which is found in wheat, barley and beers. Soy, MSG (or monosodium glutamate, a preservative and flavor enhancer), chocolate, dairy products, alcohol and caffeine are also high on the list of triggers. If you are used to drinking coffee or tea every day, not drinking it can also be a trigger. Many foods with strong smells and tastes are also suspect: Onions, sauerkraut, chili peppers and anchovies are some.
  • Behavior: The one certain thing about migraine is that it loves change. Varying your routine just a little can trigger a migraine. Behavioral triggers include things like sleeping too much or not getting enough sleep, not eating on time or at the same times, being hungry, being stressed, having sex, and either not getting enough exercise or exercising too hard.

Now for the things you can't control quite so easily:

  • Hormones: Migraines are often caused by hormone changes, which is why three times as many women as men have migraines. Many women first experience migraine pain when they start puberty. After that, they may have migraines every time they get their period. Lots of women get fewer -- and may even stop getting -- migraines when they get pregnant and after menopause. It is very unusual for women over 60 to get migraines. Some hormone replacement medicines (like estrogen) can be triggers.
  • Environmental factors: Many factors in the world around you can trigger a migraine. Bright and flashing lights (like from a TV), loud noises (from concerts), strong smells, and changing weather patterns -- usually rain -- can all be triggers.

Sound hopeless? It's not. If you have migraines, keeping a diary of what you eat, what time you get up, and any major changes that happen in your routine might help you pinpoint your triggers so that you can learn to avoid them or know when to take medication.