What Triggers a Migraine?

May 12, 2016

If you or someone you know suffers from migraines, you may have noticed that certain events or habits are more likely to trigger an attack. To help manage migraines, here is a list of several common triggers so that sufferers can actively avoid them.

Although doctors and scientists are still not able to pinpoint the exact neurological cause of a migraine, many migraine specialists do understand that there are a variety of stimuli that sufferers should stay away from to prevent future migraine attacks. These triggers include certain foods, food additives, and even the lack of food consumption; sounds, smells, and lights; medication use and abuse; stress, lack of sleep, and hormones.

What you eat

Certain foods, or more specifically the additives and chemicals found in food, are commonly identified as migraines inducers. These include the artificial sweetener aspartame, the flavor enhancer monosodium glutamate (MSG), nitrates (a type of preservative often found in preserved or processed meats), tyramine (often found in aged, pickled, smoked, cured, or fermented foods), and caffeine.

Restrictive eating such as dieting, fasting, skipping a meal (whether intentionally or not), as well as dehydration, may serve as migraine triggers. Low blood glucose levels and the lack of fluid consumption can lead to headaches in even non-migraine sufferers, too.


Some medications, such as those that contain hormones (oral contraceptives) or those that widen blood vessels can cause migraines. Over-the-counter or prescribed medications used to control pain are often linked to migraines too, especially if used incorrectly.

Sensory stimuli

Loud sounds, strong or strange smells, and bright or flickering lights can lead to migraine headaches. In fact, these stimuli can cause headaches under intense or prolonged exposure, even in people who do not suffer from migraines. Noisy events that induce migraines include concerts, loud sports performances, or nearby building construction. Although strange smells can induce migraines, common scents such as perfume and cigarette smoke are frequently the culprits. Sunshine, whether the exposure is steady or sporadic, can trigger migraines in some people as well.


Stress, whether psychological or physical, has been reported to cause migraines. Stress-induced migraines can attack during or after attempting to meet an important deadline, commuting in heavy traffic, or while working through other personal stress. Strenuous activities such as heavy exercise can lead to migraines as well. Although regular exercise is important for your overall health, participating in a workout that is suddenly difficult or causes you to over-exert yourself can possibly trigger a migraine.

Listening to your triggers

Triggers can occur hours before a migraine or immediately before, which is why it is challenging for specialists to identify the exact cause. Triggers can also be complex in that more than one event or several events over a period of time result in a migraine. The threshold, or point at which someone experiences a migraine after exposure, is also unique to each patient and each situation.

However, being able to reduce the severity, frequency, and duration of migraines is a welcome relief for any migraine sufferer. Avoiding triggers such as those mentioned above is the first step to controlling this condition until more can be discovered about its causes.

Speak with a neurology specialist if you are experiencing debilitating migraines or are unable to find relief with your current routine. Specialists can guide you in developing a plan that not only tracks your migraines to help determine possible triggers but will provide treatment that is right for you.

By Dr . Paisan Vachatimanont , Neurologist, Neuroscience Center, Bumrungrad Hospital

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