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Learn Your Triggers

A migraine is caused by abnormal brain activity, which is triggered by stress, certain foods, environmental factors, or something else. However, the exact chain of events remains unclear.

Scientists used to believe that migraines were due to changes in blood vessels within the brain. Today, most medical experts believe the attack actually begins in the brain itself, where it involves various nerve pathways and chemicals. The changes affect blood flow in the brain and surrounding tissues.

Migraine attacks may be triggered by:

  • Alcohol
  • Allergic reactions
  • Bright lights
  • Certain odors or perfumes
  • Changes in hormone levels (which can occur during a woman's menstrual cycle or with the use of birth control pills)
  • Changes in sleep patterns
  • Exercise
  • Loud noises
  • Missed meals
  • Physical or emotional stress
  • Smoking or exposure to smoke

Certain foods and preservatives in foods may trigger migraines in some people. Food-related triggers may include:

  • Any processed, fermented, pickled, or marinated foods
  • Baked goods
  • Chocolate
  • Dairy products
  • Foods containing monosodium glutamate (MSG)
  • Foods containing tyramine, which includes red wine, aged cheese, smoked fish, chicken livers, figs, and certain beans
  • Fruits (avocado, banana, citrus fruit)
  • Meats containing nitrates (bacon, hot dogs, salami, cured meats)
  • Nuts
  • Onions
  • Peanut butter

A good way to identify your triggers is to keep a headache diary. Write down:

  • When your headaches occur
  • How severe they are
  • What you've eaten
  • How much sleep you had
  • Other symptoms
  • Other possible factors (women should note where they are in their menstrual cycle)

For example, the diary may reveal that your headaches tend to occur more often on days when you wake up earlier than usual. Changing your sleep schedule may result in fewer migraine attacks.

To download our headache diary, click here.

Above content provided by the National Institutes of Health in partnership with Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center. For advice about your medical care, consult your doctor.

Posted October 2009

Contact Information

Arnold Pain Management Center
Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center
One Brookline Place, Suite 105
Brookline, MA 02445
617-278-8000
617-278-8065