On the causes of migraine headaches page we discussed that migraine triggers are what sets an episode into motion. Research now suggests that the trigger sets off a chain reaction in the autonomic nervous system, that leads to dilation and inflammation of the blood vessels, which then results in the pain and other accompanying symptoms.
By learning to identify your triggers you can reduce the frequency of migraines by avoiding some of things you know will bring one about. Some stimuli like the weather can't be controlled, however others like specific foods or environments can be avoided all together. When you lack awareness of your triggers you are completely at the mercy of your experience, however with awareness you'll feel less powerlessness and helplessness.
The one aspect of this theory that is not understood is why migraine triggers are not the same across the board for everyone. There are many different stimuli that set the process into motion and they can vary greatly from one individual to the next depending on your unique biochemistry.
A trigger can be practically anything under the sun, but there tend to be some shared experiences by many. Here are some of the most common.
Common Migraine Triggers
- fluctuations in hormones
- pickled or fermented foods
- red wine or beer
- aged cheese
- skipping a meal (drop in blood sugar)
- nitrates (found in hot dogs, lunch meat and bacon.
- msg (a flavor enhancer
- cigarette smoke
It's also important to keep in mind that any food at all can be a migraine trigger for you. Other common food triggers may be nuts, wheat, eggs or even dairy.
Another thing to be aware of with food is that sometimes it's the combination of foods that set things off or it can be the time of day you ate it or the manner in which it was eaten. For example, if I eat fruit on an empty stomach without protein or vegetables this is a major trigger for me. However, I can eat a small amount of fruit as long as it is eaten with meat protein and vegetables without setting one off. If I eat a meal of carbohydrates that doesn't contain any meat protein, that is also a trigger, however if the carbohydrate is balanced with meat protein and vegetables then no attack occurs.
Watch for unusual criteria like these. Another example may be this: it's possible that when you eat let's say apples and almonds together, it triggers an attack, however not when you eat them separately. The chemical composition of two foods may interact in such a way in your body that it sets off the event.
Other Common Migraine Triggers May Include
- not enough sleep or too much sleep
- changes in barometric pressure or weather conditions
- bright light
- medication (particularly those that affect blood vessels)
- intense physical exertion like sexual activity
- changes in seasons
- undiagnosed chemical sensitivities The smell of paint, car exhaust, cologne or perfume, cleaning supplies or candles. This can also include pine trees, cactus, flowers, pollen and mold.
- cold wind on the head and/or neck
For women, it is believed that one of the most common migraine triggers is right before her menstrual cycle, called a menstrual migraine. However, it can be any time in your cycle. Before I went through menopause, I got them not only when I was pre-menstrual, but sometimes I got them when I was ovulating, in the middle of my menstrual cycle and at the end of my cycle. It's not just estrogen that is the culprit, it can be any of the female hormones at any time. Hormones are changing consistently throughout the month and any of these changes can be a potential villain. A hormone imbalance may also be the culprit, and relief may be found by bringing hormones back into balance. It is also believed that malfunctioning adrenal glands may also play a large part in headaches, including migraines.
If you're going through perimenopause or getting close to menopause this can be a particularly high trigger time. The constant and unpredictable fluctuations in hormones can result in a great increase in frequency of attacks. That was true in my life. Once I started missing my menstrual cycle and closer to menopause, the frequency of my migraines increased drastically. I had a couple phases where I had as many as 3 or 4 a week for a month at a time. The good news is that it doesn't stay consistently. I also had phases when they decreased in frequency. I feel hopeful that once this roller coaster ride is over and I don't have all this estrogen pumping through my body that I won't experience attacks nearly as frequently, since hormones have always been a big trigger for me.
Additionally I have found things like the position I sleep in can be a trigger for a migraine. For example, I discovered one winter that I was curling up in a ball in the middle of the night with my head bent towards my chest to keep warm. This position of my neck was a trigger. If I bend in other weird positions in the night it can also set off an attack.
The position of my jaw and neck can be a very quick trigger even during the day. If I bend my head a particular way for too long or put my jaw in a particular position for too long they are triggers. Sometimes even talking too much can bring one on. Many dentists believe that migraines are the result of TMJ. I do have TMJ and I can definitely see a link from it to my incidents of Migraine, however I have many other stimuli that seem totally unrelated, so I can't accept that TMJ is the only cause.
Some people may have only one or two migraine triggers while other people, like myself, have a whole list of them. Keep in mind that your triggers may look very different from others. If you don't see yours on the list that doesn't minimize it's importance.
Identifying Your Migraine Triggers
To identify your migraine triggers you must become a thorough and persistent detective.
Keep a journal or a diary so you can watch for specific patterns to identify your migraine triggers. When an episode occurs, jot down what you had to eat, what the weather was like, where were you at, what was in the air, what was going on in your life. This doesn't have to be anything fancy, it can be as simple as a small notebook. Over time you should be able to see patterns that repeat themselves.
Once you label your triggers you can avoid the ones you can control and reduce the frequency of your attacks. If you know that certain foods set you off, then you must remove those foods from your diet. If you know that certain environments will put you into orbit, then you must avoid those situations. For those things that can't be controlled, just knowing what they are can still be helpful because it can allow you to plan and be prepared.
Although you can't control the pollens or terpines from the pine trees or other vegetation growing outside, you can plan to shut the windows on certain days or wear a mask. In the past, wearing a mask on a rainy day helped me avoid a migraine, unless it rains excessively heavy. There were times when I had to wear a mask when certain things were in bloom in the Spring that triggered me and this too allowed me to avoid an attack.
If you know that you get a migraine the day before your period, or when you ovulate, then you can plan ahead by not putting anything important on your calendar that week, or cooking some meals in advance and putting them in the freezer, so you won't be caught off guard when it arrives. Make sure the laundry, that special report or any other important chores and tasks are taken care of prior to this time.
Not only that, over time, you may also learn that some triggers are worse than others. One particular stimuli may produce many symptoms while another stimuli may render you less symptomatic. For example, perhaps a menstrual trigger will completely debilitate you, but a drop in barometric pressure may be a milder attack. Having this kind of information also helps you to prepare more effectively.
Additionally, I use a very specific mindfulness meditation technique that completely alleviates 80 to 90 percent of my migraines. If this is of interest to you, I share step-by-step instructions that can be learned quickly and easily in Mindfulness Over Migraines.
The more you know and understand about your migraine triggers the better off you are. It's the most empowering step you can take and can be combined with other natural remedies and techniques for relief to double your benefits. Armed with this knowledge you are enabled to take back some personal control and improve the quality of your life in spite of the unpredictable nature of this often intrusive and disruptive condition.