1. Home
  2. Migraines
  3. Migraine Triggers  
Main content

Top 5 Migraine Triggers

    • If you suffer from migraines – those intense, pounding, nauseating headaches -- you will certainly want to do all you can to prevent the next one. Understanding those triggers is the first step in learning to manage them.

      We talked with two migraine specialists, neurologists Stephen Knox, M.D., from Sacramento and Max Duncan, D.O., from Santa Rosa, about the most common migraine triggers:

      • Sleep – too little, or too much:
        Regular sleep patterns are key to preventing migraines. Ironically, migraines can be triggered by too much sleep, such as a vacation or relaxing weekend when you turn off the alarm and catch a few more hours. However tempting, avoid sleeping in to “catch up” on sleep. Instead, stay on a regular sleep schedule that allows time for adequate sleep, every night of the week. (See our top 10 tips for how to sleep better.)
      • Food – not enough, or the wrong kinds:
        If you rush out the door without breakfast and skip lunch, you can be inviting a migraine later in the day. As with sleep, keeping to a regular meal pattern can help.

        Certain foods containing tyramines have been shown to trigger migraines, including red wine, aged cheeses, cured meats and a host of others. The National Headache Foundation provides a handy list of possible migraine trigger foods.Opens new window Dr. Knox notes that a slice of cheese in your sandwich won’t necessarily trigger a migraine, but that platter of cheese, olives and salami at the party certainly could – especially if you add the glass of red wine.

        If you suspect other types of foods may be triggering your migraine, keeping a food log can help you narrow down the culprits. (Here’s an easy, printable food log to use.)
      • Weather pattern changes:
        Not much you can do about the barometric pressure rising or falling, but know that weather patterns can trigger a migraine. A storm front moving in or a windy spring day can lead to a migraine. Airplane travel, with its changing pressures, can also be a trigger.
      • Hormonal fluctuations:
        Female migraine sufferers probably already know that their menstrual cycle can trigger migraines. When estrogen levels rise or fall abruptly, it can set off a headache. Some women find their migraines aggravated during perimenopause, when hormone levels are changing erratically. (We talked with two Northern California women about the link between migraine and hormones in this video on migraines and women. Good news is that post-menopausal women may find their migraines lessening.
      • Stress:
        Any kind of emotional stress – school, work, family, life events – can set off migraines. Although easier said than done, our doctors recommend adopting good stress-reduction habits, such as regular exercise, yoga, or activities that you know will remove you from the cycle of stressful thoughts and resulting emotions. Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) classes are a helpful tool for people dealing with chronic pain and stress.

      Attending to these triggers may help you avoid frequent migraines, but they are not fool proof guarantees you won’t experience one. Many people who suffer regular migraines need to work with their doctors to get the relief they need. With good care, you can spend much more of your time headache free.

    Ask the expert a question about migraines