Tracing Triggers: Common Migraine Causes

A young woman is having a migraine headache and is resting her head on her hands.Nearly 30 million Americans suffer from migraine headaches, and a majority – three out of four – are women, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS). The symptoms typically include intense pain on one or both sides of your head, feeling nauseous or vomiting, disturbances in your vision and sensitivity to light.

While the exact cause of migraines isn’t known, having migraine headaches can run in families, and there are different kinds of migraines. Before a migraine begins, certain symptoms sometimes occur, such as a change in mood or appetite, or a change in your visual perception. The Mayo Clinic notes that women’s migraines might change during pregnancy or menopause.

Common Causes

Once a migraine starts, it can typically last between four and 72 hours. Researchers know there are various events and factors, known as triggers, which might cause migraines. They vary by person, and it’s usually a combination of them that could lead to a migraine. According to HHS, many women with migraine headaches might have some of the following triggers:

  • Bright lights, strong odors or loud noises
  • Weather changes
  • Anxiety and stress, or relaxation after stress
  • Hormone changes during your menstrual cycle
  • Getting too much sleep or not getting enough sleep
  • Skipping meals
  • Caffeine - drinking too much or cutting back
  • Alcohol, typically red wine
  • Aspartame such as Equal® or NutraSweet®
  • Foods with the flavor enhancer monosodium glutamate (MSG)
  • Foods with tyramine, such as soy products, aged cheeses, hard sausages, fava beans, Chianti wine and smoked fish
  • Foods with nitrates, including lunch meats and hot dogs

Tracking Your Triggers 

The Department of Health and Human Services suggests that you keep a headache diary to determine the triggers for your migraines. It should include:

  • The time of day, what you were doing and your location when the migraine began
  • What you drank or ate 24 hours before the headache
  • Every day you have your period so that you and your health care provider can find out if the migraines happen at the same time as your period

Call your doctor if you experience more intense and longer lasting headaches, if your typical medication isn’t relieving the pain or you have other problems with the medication, and if you have a fever or severe vomiting.

Got Questions?

Want to expand your knowledge of migraine headaches? Talk to your doctor about your migraine triggers and about treatments, which might include preventive medications, a darkened room, sleep and cold packs.