Migraine Triggers

Suffering from so many migraine triggers, I joked that for me, life itself was a migraine trigger. That is, until I discovered and adopted all kinds of pain-busting lifestyle changes. 

Here is a list of some of the more common triggers. Each trigger will be explored further in its own future column, along with potential solutions:

  • Emotional stress – migraines can’t seem to make up their minds, which extreme of anything is a trigger. An attack can develop when you are either emotionally stressed to the max or having a perfectly serene day where it would seem that nothing can go wrong. Either way: Wham! Suddenly, there’s another attack. 
  • Hormones – the roller coaster of the menstrual cycle is a significant trigger for too many female migraine sufferers. And I’m not sure whether an alpha male’s higher testosterone levels fall under the category of “hormonal effect on” or “emotional” trigger for migraine headaches. 
  • Not eating – migraines favor moderation and regularity, so skipping meals and later overeating because you are ravenous can trigger a migraine attack. 
  • Weather – extremes of heat and cold, high or low pressure before a storm, humidity, areas with certain kinds of winds – sciroccos, mistral, Foehn, chinook – all are cousins of the same troublemaking family for migraine sufferers.
  • Sleep disturbances – either getting too little or too much sleep. Migraines do not react well to extremes.
  • Smells, be they perfume or odors and smoke.
  • Neck pain – can be self-inflicted – if you spend a lot of time tensing up around an attack, not practicing relaxation exercises in the neck and upper shoulder area will result in at least tension, if not outright pain. It could also be that you have a neglected neck injury. In such a case, while a prescription medication will dull the pain, a problem of a mechanical origin is best treated with a mechanical solution. 
  • Lights – especially flashing bright lights. One flash of a strobe light is enough to trigger an attack in a migraine sufferer. A person sensitive to bright lights quickly learns to avoid clubs and dance venues with light shows and mirrored disco balls. Hi-beams on cars. Sunlight reflected on water or on snow. Bright sunlight, while welcomed by most, is not every migraine sufferers’ best friend.
  • MSG monosodium glutamate – a flavor enhancer so potent it has been known to trigger a migraine attack in someone who is not a migraine sufferer!
  • Alcohol – red wine and beer are more of a trigger than white wine, dry wines are less of a trigger than sweet.
  • Dehydration – just like fluids are essential to a car’s motor, water is the human body’s essential lubricant.
  • Smoking – which of tobacco’s hundreds of components is the main culprit?
  • Prescription medication – MOH – Medication-Overuse Headache – the very substance prescribed to alleviate pain, if taken in a dose higher than what the doctor prescribed, acts as a migraine trigger.
  • Illegal drugs – it should surprise no one that a Quality Assurance Department is not a priority for an illegal drug manufacturer – who knows what is used to “cut” and “extend” the basic product. 
  • Noise – from music to jackhammers – all sounds are a painful addition to the pounding in the sufferer’s head. Usually, a migraine sufferer needs a soundless room to begin to recover.
  • Foods: some of the more popular triggers on the migraine hit parade are: chocolate, nuts, cheese, cured meats, refined sugar, and sugar substitutes. There are more – the migraine sufferers can keep a food diary of what they ate and drank prior to an attack, compare it to their migraine diary, and draw conclusions.
  • Food additives – these are probably what a standup comic meant when he stated, “I’ll never eat what I can’t pronounce or spell.” Food additives are usually listed on food labels. 
  • Exercise – either extreme – very rigorous, causing the blood to rush to the head or couch potato level, which causes a sufferer’s immune system to deteriorate.
  • Sexual intercourse, either engaging in or lack thereof.
  • Caffeine – it’s either a cure or a curse! While my mother found pain relief by taking a prescription medication containing caffeine, even after decades of being 100% migraine-free, I could still manage to develop a migraine were I to drink a couple of mugs of strong coffee daily for about 10 months. 

First, the bad news: this is only a partial list of triggers! 

And now for the good news: solutions outnumber triggers, so statistically, you stand a better-than-average chance of finding significant pain relief. Like batting practice in baseball – most of your swings don’t result in a home run. But practice often enough, and you’ll hit one out of the ballpark. 


  • Carla Piringer

    Related to noted medical professionals, afflicted with an inherited excruciating migraine condition, the author followed traditional medical and alternative therapies, now living migraine-free for over 35 years. She now shares her doctor-recommended method in her book to inspire sufferers to find significant pain relief.

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