If you suffer from migraines, there’s only one question you want answered, what triggers migraines?
Seriously, what could cause pain such debilitating?
I’m all too familiar with this question. My first migraine was in elementary school and I lived with them for decades. (You can check out my migraine story here.)
Over the years, migraines sent me to the emergency room on many occasions.
During my worst migraine I was admitted to the Hospital of University of Pennsylvania for a week of tests, treatments and monitoring, only to be told, “it’s just a migraine.” Then I was given a handful of new medications to try.
Yet despite the strong medications – both preventative and rescue – I was still experiencing migraines and missing out on life.
Can you relate?
You’re 1 in 144 million
According to the American Migraine Foundation, there are 144 million of us worldwide who experience migraines.
The World Health Organization named migraine as one of the 10 most disabling illnesses. (Yup, I’ll agree with that!)
It’s heartbreaking to think of the plans I had to cancel, the people I let down, and the opportunities I missed out on over the years because I was stuck in a dark, quiet room with an ice pack on my head and making a mad dash to the toilet as I vomited to a state of dehydration. #morethanjustaheadache
Needless to say, you are not alone, my friend.
I get it.
So, I want to let you in on a little secret.
There’s more to discovering what triggers migraines than what your doctor is likely telling you.
My neurologist left me in the dark – literally and figuratively!
But first let me make no mistake about it, medication is an important part of managing migraines.
I have not found anything as effective as medication to get me out of an active and debilitating migraine.
That said, we aren’t getting migraines because we’re deficient in migraine medicine.
So, the question remains, what triggers your migraines?
There’s no short and easy answer to this question, nor is there one single answer that will apply to every migraine sufferer. But there are areas to explore that can set you on the path to discovering your unique triggers.
What Foods Trigger Migraines
The very food that we’re eating can trigger migraines. Some people will experience a migraine within minutes of eating a trigger food, while others may experience symptoms hours after eating.
Not everyone reacts to triggers the same, making it challenging to have a defined list of foods to avoid. That’s why it’s impossible for doctors to “prescribe” a migraine diet. It requires a bit of trial and error to learn your specific triggers.
Unfortunately, the list of foods that potentially trigger migraines is about as long as the inventory list of the grocery store.
To help eliminate the overwhelm, here’s a list of the biggest culprits for triggering migraines and where they may be in your diet.
- Baked goods
- Ice cream
- Cottage cheese
- Coffee – even decaffeinated
- Cola drinks
- Energy drinks
- Energy water
- Non-cola sodas (hello Mountain Dew!)
- Medications (both prescribed and over-the-counter)
- Granola and cereal
- Energy bars
- Thai and Asian dishes
- Pesto sauce
- Desserts (carrot cake, macaroons)
- Ice cream
Artificial Sweeteners & Preservatives
- Diet soda and juice
- Low fat yogurt
- Candy and gum
- Brightly colored processed food
- Packaged baked goods
- Hot dogs, lunchmeat and bacon
- Chinese food (MSG)
You have two options to discover which foods on this list are triggers for you.
Start an elimination diet
An elimination diet is the process of removing all migraine triggers at once until you notice an improvement in the frequency and intensity of migraines, then strategically reintroducing one food at a time to see which foods trigger migraines.
It’s an intense process, but highly individualized.
Eliminate the common triggers
The alternative is starting with the biggest culprits. Rather than eliminating everything at once, which can feel too restrictive and overwhelming, you can eliminate one category at a time.
For example you might start by eliminating gluten for 30 days, then reintroduce it to see how you respond.
Either approach involves some time and effort, but let me tell you, discovering your unique food triggers can be a game changer when it comes to reducing the frequency and intensity of your migraines.
It’s hands down made the biggest difference for my migraines.
How Sleep & Stress Trigger Migraines
Now it’s time to explore triggers beyond your plate.
Stress and sleep are big triggers as well.
Let’s first tackle stress.
For some people the onset of stress is enough to put them in the throes of a migraine. Others will get through the stress but then once it starts to lift, they’ll get a “let down headache.”
I fall into the latter camp. So weekends and vacations were a prime time for me to get a migraine. Lucky me, huh?
Whichever camp you fall into, managing stress is essential. We can’t expect to live a stress free life, it’s part of the journey. But it’s important to have the tools to keep it in check so it’s not triggering a migraine.
Getting consistent sleep is going to support you in managing your stress and help warding off your next migraine attack too.
Staying up late or even sleeping in on the weekends can trigger a migraine. Keeping a consistent sleep schedule is key.
Weather and Environmental Migraine Triggers
Now for the biggest wildcard in understanding migraine triggers – environmental factors. This is hard because it’s the one that we often have the least control over.
The change in barometric pressure – i.e. when a storm is brewing or there’s a quick change in temperatures – can be a trigger for many people. Some migraine sufferers have gone as far as to relocate to a different town if they live in an area that is prone to significant changes.
My best advice for managing the weather is to reduce the other triggers in your day/life so you’re less vulnerable when there is a change in weather.
The more migraine triggers that you’re exposed to, the more likely you are to be triggered by one. However, the less triggers you have, the less likely you are to be affected.
In other words, if you’re eating a lot of your migraine trigger foods, getting inconsistent sleep and have unmanaged stress, and then a storm rolls in, you’re more likely to get a migraine. Whereas if all those other triggers are managed, you’re less likely to be triggered by the weather.
Aroma and Light
Aromas and light are additional environmental factors that can trigger migraines.
Now is a great time to toss the scented products – laundry detergent, dryer sheets, perfume and air fresheners.
As for light, make sure you have a good pair of sunglasses when going outside, enjoy natural light during the day and dim lighting in your home at night, and do your best to avoid excessive use of electronics, especially before bed.
The Moral of the Migraine Story
While this might feel like a lot to tackle – because it is! – don’t let it discourage you from starting.
Simply pick one strategy that you commit to for one month. Remember, a life with fewer and less debilitating migraines is waiting on the other side for you.
If you’ve discovered your migraine triggers, please share them below so that we can learn from you too!
Want to Learn More?
Download my free eBook of Top 10 Overlooked Migraine Triggers.