No one knows for sure what causes migraine headaches or precisely what happens in the body once one is triggered. What we do know is that one out of every ten Americans has had at least one migraine headache and that the physiological triggers (the most common being food, stress, and hormonal changes) and symptoms vary from person to person. If you suffer from these debilitating headaches, the most important thing is to identify your specific triggers so you can try to avoid them.
Migraines: What Exactly Are They?
One out of every ten Americans has had at least one migraine. Some experience an aura
that presages the coming pain — typically some unusual visual experience, such as blind spots, distortion, jagged lines running through the visual field, sparkling or flashing lights, or enhanced color or depth perception. Before a migraine, some report a pins-and-needles sensation in their arms or legs, speech difficulties, excessive thirst, sleepiness, food cravings, or unexplained mood changes, particularly feelings of depression and irritability.
More often, however, there is no warning before the pain sets in. Migraine headaches usually start on one side but often spread and encompass the other hemisphere too. During an episode, most migraine sufferers become extremely sensitive to light and sound, and some may vomit or feel nauseated. Migraines can come just once or twice a year, several times each month or much more frequently.
Common Migraine Triggers
Migraines are triggered by certain factors, many of which have been identified and studied — but what triggers one person’s headache may not affect you in the least. The most common triggers are:
- Specific foods. Many everyday foods — such as chocolate, cheese, and red wine — are big, big triggers. See the 9 Most Common Food Triggers.
- Stress. When we are stressed, our bodies react physically: Muscles tense and hormones become elevated — two physiological changes that can lead to migraines. Learn to control stress — and discover other lifestyle changes you can make.
- Hormonal changes. Because estrogen and progesterone are such potent migraine triggers, women are nearly three times more likely than men to experience migraines. In fact, there is a subset of migraine headaches known as the menstrual migraine, which can occur one or two days before the start of a woman’s period and during the first day or two of her period.Women with hormone triggers can take comfort in knowing that many cases of menstrual migraines disappear entirely after menopause.
- Intense sensory stimuli. Bright light, loud noises, and strong smells — such as cleaning chemicals, cigarette smoke, raw onions, scented candles, and perfume — can trigger migraines.
- Physical exertion or abrupt lifestyle changes. Jumping into an extreme exercise program can cause migraines, as can changing sleep patterns, alternating work shifts, or any other sudden deviation from your normal routine that disrupts or alters your body’s physiology.
- Environmental factors. Some people get migraines when there are changes in the atmosphere: sudden thunderstorms, abrupt changes in altitude or barometric pressure, windstorms, seasonal changes, even increased pollen levels. Others are sensitive to the switch to daylight savings time or travel across time zones.
- Medications. Be especially wary of antihistamines, decongestants, blood pressure medications, oral contraceptives, hormone replacement therapy, and prescription pain medications. Interestingly, migraines can also be triggered if you stop taking prescription or over-the-counter pain medications (such as aspirin, acetaminophen, or ibuprofen) that your body has become accustomed to. This phenomenon is called rebound.
Some neurologists believe that people have different tolerance limits for triggers, and once that limit is exceeded, a migraine is in the near future. If you have extreme sensitivity, then a single mild trigger may be enough to cause a headache, but if you have a greater tolerance, it may take two or three triggers occurring in close succession to push you past that limit. (So you may be just fine if you have to use strong-smelling cleaning products. But if you clean and then a thunderstorm hits, that combination of triggers may be enough to send you over the top.) That’s why it is critical to try to eliminate as many potential “controllable” triggers from your life as possible. Learn the common trigger foods and be sure to include these Four Powerful Nutrients in your diet, and also talk to your doctor about supplements.