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8 Common Migraine Triggers and How to Avoid Them

Woman with migraine

If you get migraines, you’re not alone: 39 million people in the United States and 1 billion around the globe get migraines, according to the Migraine Research Foundation. Some people notice certain physical changes that warn of a migraine, like changes in vision (aura) or a feeling of pins and needles.

Paying attention to what was going on when you first notice these changes, or what was happening when a migraine starts, can help you identify your triggers. Although migraine triggers can be different for everyone, here are eight of the most common ones and ways to avoid them.

What triggers migraines?

1. Too much or too little sleep

Any change in your sleep pattern—whether you got much more or much less sleep than usual—could lead to a migraine. Jet lag can also trigger a migraine, according to the Mayo Clinic, because it messes up your regular sleep routine.

How to avoid this migraine trigger: Aim for a consistent amount of sleep each night, ideally seven to eight hours for most adults. Follow a regular sleep routine, even on the weekends.

2. Stress

Developing a migraine is yet another way that stress affects your body. According to a study reported by the American Migraine Foundation, 70 percent of people who get migraines said stress was a migraine trigger for them.

How to avoid this migraine trigger: Everyone feels stress at home or work now and then. Though it's not realistic to think you can avoid all stress, you can try your best to control your response to it. Regular physical activity, adequate sleep, meditation and relaxation techniques, like biofeedback, can all help you prevent a stress-induced headache.

3. Hormones

The vast majority of people who get migraines are women—28 million of the 39 million people who get migraines, according to the Migraine Research Foundation. Changing hormone levels, such as during a menstrual cycle, pregnancy, perimenopause and menopause, are major causes. Although some women notice an increase in migraines when using oral contraceptives or hormone replacement therapy, others say their migraines improve during those times.

How to avoid this migraine trigger: If you regularly get migraines around the time of your period, talk to your doctor or gynecologist, especially if your usual forms of migraine relief don't work. Your doctor may suggest trying oral contraceptives.

4. Food and drink

Think about the last time you had a glass of red wine or some aged cheese. Did it trigger a migraine for you? Everyone’s triggers are different, but certain foods and drinks are frequently a source of migraine pain. Some of the most common food and drink triggers include:

  • Red wine
  • Aged cheeses
  • Caffeinated beverages
  • Salty and processed foods
  • Foods with certain additives, like nitrates (including hot dogs and processed lunch meats)
  • Foods with the artificial sweetener aspartame and the preservative monosodium glutamate.

How to avoid this migraine trigger: When you have a migraine, make a note of what you ate beforehand. Over time, see if there’s a pattern of certain foods or drinks that trigger them for you. Then, you can avoid the worst offenders.

5. Weather changes

Barometric pressure changes can cause migraines for some people, and so can extreme humidity, altitude changes and high winds.

How to avoid this migraine trigger: Follow the weather reports so you can anticipate when you’ll be migraine-sensitive and plan accordingly. For example, if you get heat-triggered migraines, plan your time outside at the time of day when it's coolest. If you’re traveling to a higher altitude, drink plenty of water and try to give yourself time to acclimate to the change in altitude so it's not an abrupt change.

6. Dehydration

We’ve all heard how it’s important to drink enough water, but did you know that being dehydrated can actually trigger a migraine?

How to avoid this migraine trigger: Drink enough water so that your urine is a light yellow or clear color. Remember that you'll need more fluid if you're exercising. Carry a reusable water bottle with you so you can sip throughout the day.

7. Sensory overload

Sensory overload, like too much light or even certain smells and noises, can lead to a migraine. For some people, a single sensory-based trigger may be enough to trigger a migraine. Others may get a migraine when the senses are overwhelmed by too many things going on at once.

How to avoid this migraine trigger: Try your best to pinpoint what sensory stimuli cause your migraines and avoid that environment as much as possible.

8. Taking too much migraine medication

It’s a vicious cycle: You get a headache, so you take an over-the-counter or prescription medication for relief, but instead you get a migraine as soon as it wears off. If this happens to you 10 or more days a month, it’s called a medication overuse headache, according to the American Migraine Foundation.

How to avoid this migraine trigger: Talk to your doctor about how many times you can take your migraine medication each week or month.

How to identify your triggers

There are many potential triggers for migraines, so if you’re not sure what causes yours, try keeping a migraine diary to see if you can determine what to avoid. Be sure to take note of:

  • What you ate before the migraine started
  • Physical activity
  • The weather
  • Any changes in your sleep pattern
  • Changes in your daily routine
  • Unusual or additional stressors
  • Medications you took

Also record details about the migraine, such as how long it lasted, where you felt the pain and any other symptoms you had. Share your diary with your doctor at your next appointment to come up with a migraine treatment and prevention plan that will work best for you.