Top ten migraine triggers and what to do about them

" Women are three times more likely than men to have migraine, and up to 75 percent of women experience their attacks during menstruation. "

 1. Stress

We’ve all heard it before. Stress harms physical health and bodily equilibrium. Seventy percent of all people with migraine reveal a correlation between stress level and attack frequency. It doesn’t help the situation that fearing when the next migraine will strike can actually trigger the migraine itself. Even here, the old adage is true. The only thing to fear is fear itself!

What to do about it

Stop this vicious cycle by scheduling time for relaxation every day. Make a list of anything causing you tension and anxiety, and then work towards eliminating those stressors. Ways to do this include biofeedback, meditation, exercise, consistent sleep, and simple acts of self-care. Take the time to light a candle, take a bath, get a massage, or listen to calming music. While you may not solve the big problems this way, these activities soothe your parasympathetic nervous system, which is responsible for calming down your body at rest. Activating this system reduces physiological reactions to stress like a raised heart rate, shallow breathing, and GI issues.

2. Poor sleep

Why is a good night’s rest so important? Sleep repairs your body and encourages the healing and renewal of your heart and blood vessels. According to the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute, sleep deficiency is associated with an increased risk of heart disease, kidney disease, high blood pressure, diabetes, stroke, and––you guessed it––migraine. Nearly half of all migraine attacks occur between 4:00 am and 9:00 am, so it’s no wonder that migraine sufferers often develop sleep disorders.

What to do about it

Keep a consistent schedule that allows for eight hours in bed. Banish all screens––this includes television screens and smart phones––from the bedroom. Stop daily naps to ensure that you are tired at the appropriate time. Eat your last meal at least four hours before bedtime. If insomnia is still a problem after you’ve made these changes, try a sleep hypnosis video, a visualization technique, or a nighttime meditation.

3. Hormones (Menstrual migraine)

Do you always get a migraine around that time of the month? Women are three times more likely than men to have migraine, and up to 75 percent of women experience their attacks during menstruation. This is due to fluctuating levels of estrogen and progesterone during a woman’s cycle. 

What to do about it

Changes in lifestyle and diet can affect sex hormones, but more directly, women can take certain birth controls to stabilize their hormone levels. If you are interested in birth control, it’s important to meet with both a headache specialist and a gynecologist to formulate a treatment plan.

4. Caffeine and alcohol

Caffeine is a tricky one. Many sufferers find their symptoms are intensified after consuming caffeine. Others say the exact opposite: a cup of coffee stops their migraine in its tracks. In fact, many popular OTC medications for migraine headache contain caffeine.

As for alcohol, across the board it has shown to be a trigger, particularly the sulfates in red wine. Avoid alcohol if you suffer from migraines.

What to do about it

Keep track of your caffeine and alcohol intake and log your migraines. Do headaches closely follow days when you’ve overindulged? With alcohol it’s especially important to know your limits. If you begin to experience a migraine after drinking, take your acute medication immediately. 

5. Changes in the Weather

Some migraine sufferers are triggered by storms, changes in heat index, and barometric pressure. You should also watch out for instances of severe humidity and heat waves, both of which may cause dehydration and leave you more susceptible to an attack.

What to do about it 

There is no controlling the weather. If you are triggered by extreme heat, it would be wise to stay inside on certain days and tweak your schedule to avoid exposure. Use common sense!

6. Diet

Studies have shown strong correlations between diet and migraine attacks. There are a wide variety of foods that can trigger these attacks, the most common being those containing histamines and MSG. Additional culprits are chocolate, cheese and other dairy products, artificial sweeteners like aspartame and sucralose, caffeine, cured meats, and food with a strong odor. 

What to do about it

Keep a food log to identify what you ingested before the attack. Once you’ve determined your dietary triggers, you can eliminate those ingredients from your diet. Don’t worry, there may come a time when a particular food is no longer a trigger and you can add it back in!

7. Dehydration

According to the American Migraine Foundation, one-third of people with migraine say dehydration is a trigger. When your body lacks hydration, you become susceptible to dizziness, confusion, and serious illness.

What to do about it 

Carry an extra-large bottle of water with you everywhere, and re-hydrate often! The daily recommendation for water intake is about two liters. Limit diuretics to reduce loss of water. Remember, often an attack can be curtailed simply by drinking a glass of H2O.

8. Light

Photophobia, also known as light sensitivity or intolerance to light, is one of the most common criteria used to diagnose a true migraine. For many sufferers, natural light is unbearable in the midst of an attack. Bright lights, fluorescent lights, and flickering bulbs are also problematic, making both outdoor enjoyment and office work nearly impossible.

What to do about it

Bring a pair of sunglasses around with you at all times, and always wear them when outside. To cope with artificial light, make sure to sit near the window and avoid sources of glare. One of the only bands of light palliative for migraine sufferers is green light. You might purchase a bulb which emits green light or purchase sunglasses that block all bands but green. 

9. Smell

Osmophobia, or aversion to particular odors, is a common symptom of migraine. Certain odors activate nasal nerve receptors and may trigger an attack or worsen one already in progress.

What to do

Avoid the sources of strong odors, such as perfumes, pungent foods, chemicals, and gasoline. 

10. Medication overuse  

Medications can sometimes have paradoxical effects. This is the case with some migraine medications. If you take acute medication for your headaches more than 10 days a month, the medicine itself could cause an attack. This phenomenon is called Medication Overuse Headache (MOH).

What to do

If you get struck with an MOH, you must first discontinue the medication. Work safely with a doctor to taper down, especially if you are on an opioid or butalbital. Check out the American Migraine Foundation’s doctor database if you are looking for a doctor.

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