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Top 8 Triggers For Migraines: Why and How to Prevent

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Last updated on June 6, 2021

What are triggers for migraines?

Let’s start with the basics. A migraine is a severe headache (or throbbing) that often also comes with nausea, vomiting, and sensitivity to light.

The throbbing headache symptoms occur due to spasms in the brain’s blood vessels.

A migraine trigger is therefore something which causes these spasms to occur. By looking at scientific information and our personal lives, we can see clear patterns which we’ll term as migraine triggers.  

(Even then, unfortunately, no one knows exactly why these triggers cause these spasms in some people and not others). 

In this blog post we will talk about 8 different migraine triggers.  We’ll also provide actionable steps on how you can prevent them from happening!

1 – Stress

stress category

Stress is the most common trigger for migraines.

When you’re in a stressful situation, stress hormones get released into the body. These cause blood vessels to spasm (sometimes even without anyone ever knowing).

This is because these stress hormones can disrupt balance in the brain’s neurotransmitters. This disruption causes vasodilatation – or an increase in blood flow through capillaries.

This usually doesn’t happen unless someone is experiencing a high level of anxiety. But once this does happen the blood vessels spasm because of too much blood!

How To Prevent Migraines Caused By Stress

First notice how often you experience them while under periods of intense pressure. Then try taking deep breaths before things become too chaotic.

One of the best ways to prevent stress from triggering a migraine is by breathing deeply. You can also perform other relaxation techniques like meditation.

The goal should be to stop your mind from racing, so focus on one thing at a time. Try not to let yourself get overwhelmed by all that you have going on.

If you find that stress has been triggered, don’t panic. Once again, slow down and relax with deep breaths.

For more info on stress related causes of migraines, check out this Mayo Clinic article here.

2 – Looming Threat Of Migraines Causes A Migraine Attack!

If you’ve had a migraine in the past then you know how terrible it is!

One of the worst things about migraines isn’t the ACTUAL migraine. Instead, the threat of having another unprovoked migraine can loom over your shoulder.

Often the WORST part about migraines is you don’t know when another one will strike you down!

This ‘threat’ can make you worry about migraines and even cause migraines to happen!

For example, let’s say one day you get a small headache like everyone does from time to time.

But because of your past history with migraines, you now start to worry! These are what are known as headache triggers.

Headache triggers are where you start thinking:  

Is this the start of a migraine? Should you go home right now and stop what you’re doing? Or push through and find time to rest later?

Now this little headache is causing you stress, which then causes a real migraine!

Or let’s say you are having a stressful day. Then you worry about getting a migraine which causes more stress and BOOM!

You get a migraine.

How To Not Worry About Getting A Migraine

  • Breathe deep and calm your body down.
  • Drink some water, eat something healthy or exercise if you can to help with stress levels.
  • Talk to someone about what’s stressing you – find a friend, family member or coworker that will listen!
  • Meditate for just five minutes each day. Try apps like Headspace which has been shown to lower the risk of migraines.
  • Get adequate sleep every night so it doesn’t catch up on you all at once when you’re stressed out. Plan in advance for enough sleep time so that there are no excuses!  Don’t wait until the last minute before bedtime because then the quality of sleep is really poor. 

More on sleep down below 🙂

3 – Disruption or Lack of Sleep

sleep deprivation

Lacking sleep or getting your sleep cycles disrupted can also trigger migraines.

People with migraine attacks also report not getting enough sleep. There is a huge correlation between migraine attacks and sleep deprivation.

For example, your circadian rhythm gets disrupted when you travel across time zones. This can trigger headaches because your natural body clock gets all mixed up!

Stress and sleep are the most common factors between all people with migraine headaches, so definitely try to fix these triggers!

Tips To Get Enough Sleep

Try to take a hot bath or read before bed so that your mind will more likely relax enough for you to fall asleep quickly.

Avoid any screens at least one hour before going to bed. Screens can stimulate your brain into staying awake longer than it should be!

Here are some other lifestyle changes you try too 🙂

  • Try to go to bed at the same time every night – even on weekends! I know this is tough but migraines really suck!
  • Take breaks from work throughout the day.  
  • If possible try not taking naps during the day. Naps disrupt nighttime sleep patterns (although if it works for you, then no problem!)

4 – Caffeine

Caffeine and migraines very naturally go together.

Caffeine is a stimulant. Any stimulant can have an effect on the trigeminal nerve, which triggers migraines.

The trigeminal nerve spans the head and handles sensations such as pain and pressure.

When you drink coffee, the blood vessels in your brain can dilate and this can lead to pain.

How? By irritating the ‘trigeminal’ nerves that sense pain on your scalp and forehead.

The stimulants cause vasodilation – enlargement of blood vessels near your head. The enlarged blood vessels widen until they press against nearby nerves. This causes discomfort and can trigger migraines!

Try limiting caffeine intake to no more than two cups of coffee or tea per day. 

Red wine and alcohol can also cause a migraine attack! If you are drinking red wine (or any type of alcohol for that matter) and get a migraine afterwards, then take note so you can avoid red wine / alcohol in the future!

 I do realize that avoiding all types of alcohol is tough, but perhaps if you are having a little headache then just knowing alcohol may not be the best idea if you want to avoid a migraine headache!

5 – Scented Smells

For years I worked as a yoga instructor at Nulife, a yoga studio in San Jose which did not allow students to use scented perfumes.

At first I didn’t understand why Nulife had this rule, but then one day I understood perfectly.

A new student came to my class one day. I had forgotten about the ‘no perfume rule’ and this student was wearing a lot of perfume!

I didn’t say anything to this student because I had forgotten about this policy. But another regular student of mine told me next week they had a migraine attack because of the smell!

Migraine lesson learned! Avoid strong smells because these can cause a headache or a migraine attack!

6 – Bright or Flashing Lights

We’ve all seen warnings on certain television programs that say:

‘Warning: flashing lights may cause seizures and epilepsy’.

But it’s not just seizures; flashing lights can also trigger migraines and minor headaches too!

Flashing or bright lights can trigger migraines because they are a  sudden change from normal lighting. The change in light causes the blood vessels in the eyes to dilate open wide very suddenly. This causes more blood to rush to the eyes.

I’ve heard of people who have been to casinos and became dizzy from the flashing lights that were everywhere!

Be sure to avoid these lights or wear eye protection if going out in the sun!

Again, watch out for screens before bed, too, because they often exhibit changing light patterns.

7 – LOUD NOISES

Loud noises are a major cause of migraines.

I know that when I go to a concert, my head is pounding in the morning.

The headaches are worse if you were up close and near speakers at the time of the noise exposure. But any loud sound can be an issue – not just music!

Fireworks, gunshots or even slamming doors can cause migraines for some people.

Loud noises impact your brain suddenly and intensely, just as bright light does.  

Basically,  the blood vessels can spasm and easily trigger a migraine.

A way to manage this one would be wearing ear plugs while working out on machines with high volume levels.  Or in the case of fireworks, watching them from afar if you are outside or turning down the volume if you are inside watching them.

8 – Sudden Weather Changes

Migraines can also be triggered by sudden changes in the weather.

For example, strong winds and extreme heat or cold are both migraine triggers in some people.

You might want to stay inside on a hot humid day if you know that your migraine triggers when it’s humid outside. Or bring an ice pack with you so you can cool down!

The same goes for the opposite situation: going out when it’s really cold could trigger a migraine as well.

Pay attention to what triggers your migraines before acting without thinking first! That way, there will be less of a chance of things getting worse.

Of course some changes in the weather are unpredictable. But do you best nonetheless!

Final Thoughts for People with Migraine Triggers

Life is full of stressors.

It’s impossible to avoid them all. But understanding what they are and how you react to them can help reduce their impact on your health.

Have you found these tips helpful? Let us know!

We’d love to hear about the methods you use to cope with different stresses in your day-to-day lives.

Finally, if you also get triggered into panic or anxiety attacks, be sure to read this article here about anxiety triggers.


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