Migraine causes and triggers

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What are migraine causes and triggers?

The exact causes of migraine are not well known. However, it is believed that changes in the chemicals and nerves in the brain can play a role in the development of the condition.1

During migraine attacks, these imbalances can feel like a “brain cramp,” which can be scary to endure. Attacks can be triggered by many different things including:1-3

  • Age – Migraine often develops in late adolescence and typically affects those aged 25–55 years old
  • Genetics – Family history of migraine may increase your risk
  • Gender – Women are up to three times more likely than men to experience migraine

What are common migraine triggers?

A migraine trigger can be anything from a change in the weather to a reaction to food.4 Migraine triggers are different for everyone but some of the more common ones are outlined below.


Physical stress and strain can bring on migraine symptoms in some people. This includes stiffness or tension in the neck and/or shoulders, straining or putting too much pressure on yourself, or demanding exercise, particularly if you’re not used to it.4

Strong emotions such as excitement, anxiety, shock, or tension as well as any stress or depression you may feel as a result of these emotions, can also act as migraine triggers.5


Your sleep habits can impact your migraine. Changes in sleep patterns and interrupted sleep can make migraine more frequent. Getting a good night’s rest is very important as too much or too little sleep could act as a migraine trigger.4 You can reduce the impact of sleep by better planning travel, working during regular working hours, and avoiding sleeping in during the weekend.

Foods and diet

Frustratingly, foods that trigger migraine are often the things many of us love most, including chocolate, cheese and other dairy products, citrus fruits and seafood.5,6 Beverages such as caffeine and alcohol are also known migraine triggers.5 You may want to avoid additives, like the sweetener aspartame and the preservative monosodium glutamate (MSG), as these can be migraine triggers too.6

It can be tempting not to eat or drink when you have a headache, but be mindful that dehydration and low blood sugar from a lack of food can both cause or trigger migraine.5 So just take care of yourself and try to remember to eat and drink.

Sensory stimuli

Anything that has an effect on your senses – touch, smell, taste, sight, hearing – is a sensory stimulus. Sensory stimuli of many different varieties can act as migraine triggers. These include:5

  • Bright lights
  • Loud sounds
  • Strong smells
  • Flickering lights
  • Environmental factors

In addition to sensory stimuli, there are also things in the environment that can trigger migraine:5

  • Change in weather/climate
  • Stuffy or smoky atmospheres
  • Medications
  • Some medications can act as a migraine trigger; these can include:7
    • Some sleeping tablets
    • Some contraceptive pills
    • Hormone replacement therapy (HRT)

Hormone levels

The hormones estrogen and progesterone are significant migraine triggers for women. Some women are more sensitive to the fluctuations of these hormones within the menstrual cycle, which in turn may have an impact on migraine.8 As with all medications, it is always a good idea to have a discussion with your doctor about the best ways to manage your migraine, particularly when taking any kind of hormone therapy or contraceptive pill.

How to identify your migraine triggers

Migraine triggers are specific to each person, and it’s not always easy to identify them. Confusingly, the same trigger may not always lead to a migraine and attacks can be caused by a combination of triggers.5

It may be difficult at first to find out which triggers are causing your migraine attacks, especially if there’s more than one trigger involved.5 When you combine busy work and social lives with other contributing factors, such as monthly menstrual periods or changing environments. It can be tough to pinpoint what’s happening but with the right tools, you can track your migraine triggers.

How to track your migraine triggers

You may already have a good idea of what is causing your migraine, but it is always useful to keep a log. As migraine triggers are specific to each individual;10 tracking your migraine in a diary is often recommended to help you identify your common migraine triggers and monitor the total impact of migraine in your daily life.

You can use different apps or migraine diaries to track things such as the environment around you, your physical and emotional wellbeing and your diet. By recording these, you may be able to spot your migraine triggers,9 which you can talk about with your doctor, friends and family.

Some things you can track include:9

  • The date and time of day you experienced an attack
  • The type of migraine attack you experienced
  • The food and drink consumed that day
  • Your sleep patterns
  • Any medications you had taken that day
  • The weather including pressure changes and nearby thunderstorms

Bring what you’ve recorded in an app or migraine diary to appointments with your doctor. Together you can review what you recorded to help identify migraine triggers and make a plan for the best care possible to prevent migraine attacks.

How to handle your migraine triggers

If you identify and avoid your migraine triggers, you may be able to reduce the number of migraine attacks, or at least predict when there is a risk of having a migraine attack. However, it is important to keep in mind that triggers do not always cause migraines and that you are unlikely to be able to get rid of migraine attacks completely.

A simple and important element for dealing with migraines is a healthy lifestyle: regular exercise, sleep, regular meals and maintaining fluid balance help you deal with migraines and at the same time are good for your health in general.


  1. NHS Choices. Migraine. http://www.nhs.uk/conditions/migraine/Pages/Introduction.aspx [Last accessed: June 2021]
  2. The Migraine Trust. Facts and Figures https://www.migrainetrust.org/about-migraine/migraine-what-is-it/facts-figures/ [Last accessed: June 2021]
  3. Lipton et al. Migraine: Epidemiology, Impact, and Risk Factors for Progression. Headache 2005; 45: S3-S13
  4. The Migraine Trust. Common Triggers https://www.migrainetrust.org/about-migraine/trigger-factors/common-triggers/ [Last accessed: June 2021]
  5. Migraine Action. Triggers. http://www.migraine.org.uk/information/triggers [Last Accessed: June 2021]
  6. Migraine. Migraine triggers: food and drinks. https://migraine.com/migraine-triggers/food-and-drinks/ [Last accessed: June 2021]
  7. NHS Choices. Migraine Causes. http://www.nhs.uk/Conditions/Migraine/Pages/Causes.aspx [Last accessed: June 2021]
  8. The Migraine Trust. Migraine and the contraceptive pill. https://www.migrainetrust.org/living-with-migraine/coping-managing/contraceptive-pill/ [Last accessed: June 2021]
  9. The Migraine Trust. Chronic Migraine. https://www.migrainetrust.org/about-migraine/types-of-migraine/chronic-migraine/ [Last accessed: June 2021]
  10. The Migraine Association of Ireland. http://www.migraine.ie/migraine-triggers/ [Last accessed: June 2021]
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