Eight Common Migraine Triggers

For those with migraines, figuring out what causes the headache is an important part of prevention. While the exact causes of migraines are complicated and vary from person to person, there are some common factors that can bring about a headache. For some, headaches are not just caused by one factor but a combination of them.

Here’s a closer look at eight common migraine triggers.


Extended, high levels of stress lead to migraines for up to 70 percent of people who experience them. Anxiety, tension, or anything that triggers a “flight or fight” response can cause a migraine to occur. Sometimes, migraines will strike when stress levels are decreasing after experiencing continuous, high stress levels known as a “let down” migraine. That’s why some people experience a headache on the weekend after a stressful work week.

Sensory Stimuli

Smells, lights, and even sounds can lead to a migraine for some people. Perfumes, cigarette smoke, cleaning products, diesel exhaust, and food odors are common trigger scents. Bright lights and glare are the most common visual triggers; some patients wear sunglasses or specialized FL-41 lenses to decrease light. Loud noises are also a common trigger.


Changes in barometric pressure can trigger a headache or a migraine. Significant temperature changes, levels of humidity, and hot temperatures can also cause migraines.

Lack of Sleep

Believe it or not, too little or too much sleep can trigger a migraine. Some people experience a headache if they stay up late and then sleep in later than normal. Jet lag is also a very common trigger since traveling between time zones will affect your normal sleep routine.


Of women who experience migraines, 50 percent have them during menstruation. Triggered by the fluctuation of hormones, specifically estrogen, a migraine often occurs about 2 days before menses, when estrogen drops. And migraines often decrease in pregnancy, when estrogen is high. Women nearing menopause may also experience hormonal migraines as the estrogen levels fluctuate. And menstrual headaches often worsen with some types of oral contraceptives.


Some medicines, especially oral contraceptives and vasodilators (used to treat hypertension and chest pain), can lead to a migraine. Overuse of some over-the-counter (OTC) pain killers or prescription opioids may also cause migraines. When taken too frequently (more than ~9 times a month), medications meant to break a migraine can actually cause them to get worse and some people can experience “rebound headaches.”


Many people who get migraines say a specific type of food is the trigger. That may be linked to the tyramine which is frequently found in aged, marinated, smoked or pickled foods. Chocolate, caffeine, and alcohol are also common triggers. Foods that contain additives like aspartame or monosodium glutamate (MSG) can lead to a headache for some people. MSG is a preservative found in processed, packaged foods like chips, salad dressings, condiments, and shelf-stable products. Aspartame is an artificial sweetener commonly found in diet colas and other “light” varieties.

Hunger or Dehydration

Skipping meals or not drinking enough water can cause a migraine headache. About a third of people who experience a migraine say they get one when they don’t drink enough fluids.

Remember that triggers vary from person to person and not everyone who has migraines can identify the cause of their headache. Even so, uncovering what may lead to a migraine is vital to stopping the painful pattern. It is important to track your headaches, symptoms, and triggers to better discuss treatment with your physician.


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