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10 migraine triggers to look out for

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Suffer from migraines and struggling to manage the pain? You might be able to get your symptoms under control by pinpointing your triggers.

Changes to your sleeping and eating routine

Any changes to your normal daily routine can result in a migraine, but usually the two biggest factors are sleep and diet.

It’s common to get a migraine from lack of sleep, but you might also trigger one by going to bed or waking up at a very different time. Even having a lie-in at the weekend can bring on symptoms.

The same goes if you eat at irregular times or skip meals entirely – low blood sugar can make a migraine attack more likely, or can make your symptoms more painful.

Hormonal changes

Lots of women find that they have migraines in the days leading up to their period, and while they are menstruating. This is thought to be caused by falling oestrogen.

Menopausal women might also begin to suffer from migraines as they go through the change or might find that their symptoms get worse. However, after menopause, many women feel their migraines improve.

Emotional stress

Stress and other strong emotional responses and states can trigger a migraine.

You might also find that coming out of a period of high stress is what causes your symptoms. This may be what’s going on if you often have migraines at the weekend or when you take a holiday from work.

Caffeine

If you’re a coffee or tea drinker and you get migraines, you might want to cut back on your morning cuppa or make the switch to decaf – having too much caffeine is known to be a trigger for migraine attacks.

When cutting back, make sure you do it gradually rather than going “cold turkey”. Removing caffeine from your diet very suddenly may actually trigger a migraine attack.

Remember, that caffeine is also found in lots of soft drinks and some over-the-counter painkillers and cold medication.

Specific foods

There are specific foods that trigger migraines for some people, including those containing tyramine:

  • Cured meat
  • Yeast extracts
  • Pickled herrings
  • Smoked fish e.g. smoked salmon
  • Cheddar, stilton and camembert cheese

As well as avoiding these foods, you should aim to store your food in the fridge or freezer as leaving items at room temperature can cause tyramine levels to rise.

Medication

There are certain types of prescription medication that might trigger a migraine attack, including sleeping tablets and treatment taken as part of hormone replacement therapy (HRT).

The combined contraceptive pill may trigger migraines if it incorporates a seven-day break, as during this time oestrogen levels will decrease. You might be able to get around this issue by taking an alternative “every day” pill continuously with no breaks.

Environmental changes

Sometimes changes in climate can trigger a migraine, so you might notice symptoms starting if you go somewhere at high altitude, somewhere very cold, or to a place with very high humidity.

A smoky or stuffy atmosphere can also trigger symptoms, as can strong smells.

Bright or flickering lights

You might find that your symptoms are set off by very bright light, or by looking at flickering or flashing lights or screens.

Dehydration

Staying hydrated is important for lots of reasons. If you don’t drink enough fluids you might be more prone to migraine attacks – each day, aim to drink eight glasses of fluids e.g. water, low-fat milk, sugar-free drinks.

Tension or damage in the head, neck and shoulders

Sitting or sleeping in an awkward position can cause tension in the neck and shoulders, which can set off a migraine. The same goes if you have an injury to your head or the surrounding area.

Looking at a computer all day can be a specific trigger for people with migraine. If you’re not sitting comfortably with your head at the right level your neck and shoulders can tense up.

How to work out your migraine triggers

If you don’t know what your triggers are, it’s helpful to keep a diary noting down every time you experience a migraine. Make sure to detail the circumstances surrounding your migraine, including:

  • How well you slept and how long you slept for
  • What you ate and drank
  • Activities you did that day
  • Whether you’re taking any medication

Keeping track of these things should help you narrow down your list of triggers, which in turn should help you avoid some of them.

With triggers that you aren’t able to avoid fully, you might be able to take steps to mitigate your symptoms. For example, women who have a migraine before menstruating might want to stock up on painkillers and make sure they stick to a good sleep routine in the run-up to their period.

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References

https://migrainetrust.org/live-with-migraine/self-management/common-triggers
https://www.nhs.uk/conditions/migraine/causes