Understanding migraine triggers

What is a migraine trigger?

Many factors can cause the pain associated with migraine headaches. During a migraine, levels of chemicals in the brain go down, leading to the release of proteins, which can cause blood vessels to swell. The result is severe headache pain. Migraine “triggers” are stimuli that interact with the body and can bring on a migraine headache. These triggers are very specific to each individual. And they may work together in combination, making them harder to identify.

Common migraine triggers

Among the most common migraine triggers are specific foods and beverages. The list of possibilities is very long and includes alcohol, caffeine, peanuts, foods that are very salty, and some fruits and dairy products.

In addition to food and beverages, there are many other possible migraine triggers. These may include: changes in the weather; too much, too little, or disrupted sleep; hormone changes; fragrances; cigarette smoke; dehydration; flickering, glaring or fluorescent lighting; missing meals. One trigger alone may not set off a migraine. For example, eating a peanut butter sandwich may be fine, unless you did not sleep well the night before, or are sitting in a room with very bright flashing lights. Not on this list of triggers is stress, which by itself is not a trigger, but which can make a person more susceptible to the effects of migraine triggers.

Why and how to identify migraine triggers

Identifying migraine triggers can help you learn why you get migraines at certain times and in certain places, and give you the chance to make changes in your environment that will help decrease the number of migraine headaches you experience.

The best way to go about identifying your migraine triggers is to keep a very detailed migraine diary, keeping track of what you do, where you go, and what you eat every day, whether or not it was a day when you experienced a migraine headache. The more details you keep the better. Identifying specific foods can be very difficult and may mean trying an “elimination diet”, where you cut potential food triggers out of your diet and then, one at a time, re-introduce them into your diet. Talk with your health care provider about this, as they are a good source of information about possible migraine triggers, and may help you recognize things that you have never considered.

What to do when you identify migraine triggers

Once you have identified triggers, it seems logical to decide to avoid them in order to ward off migraine headaches. Some things are easier to change than other things. Many changes may be sensible healthy lifestyle choices, like improving sleep, stopping smoking, eating regular meals and drinking more water.

If your work, leisure activities, and friends, expose you to triggers like lights and fragrances, you will need to be more creative about making changes. For example, you may need to spend less time in some places, or protect yourself with dark glasses. Since bright light, including bright sunlight, is such a common migraine trigger, investing in a pair of high quality sunglasses that are coated for UVA and UVB rays, is always a good idea.


Your goal is to lead as full a life as possible, not to hide in a dark room, existing on bread and water! It will take discipline to learn what your migraine triggers may be, but will be well worth the investment of time to improve the quality of your life. Use your family, friends, and health care provider as helpers during your search, as they all know different things about you that may provide more clues.


Robert, Teri (2005). Living Well With Migraine Disease and Headaches. New York: HarperCollins

Young, W. & Silberstein, S. (2004). Migraine and Other Headaches, New York, NY: AAN Press.