Common Ways to Trigger Symptoms of Migraines

Quincy AdamMigraine Learn

Migraine word cloud
The symptoms of migraines are all too familiar to those who suffer from them. You might see flashes of light and/or feel pins and needles that foreshadow the attack. These are followed by a throbbing headache, light sensitivity, nausea, fainting and more.

Unfortunately, if you experience migraines, it’s not possible to avoid all attacks. However, having a good understanding of what triggers your migraines and recognizing the symptoms when they come on may help to reduce the frequency and/or lessen the severity of attacks. There are so many potential triggers, and the sources of migraines can build on each other. For example, your triggers may be chocolate, lack of sleep and dehydration. If so, you may be able to get away with savoring some chocolate brownies and forgetting to drink enough, but if you also deprive yourself of sleep, it may put your body over the edge.

Keeping a log of what sets of your symptoms is an important start to understanding what your triggers may be.

Possible Migraine Triggers

Below are some common migraine triggers. Bear in mind that what causes your migraines may be different from what sets off someone else’s. Check out this list to see if you can identify possible causes of your migraines.

Eating and Not Eating

Avoiding all the foods that can trigger migraines is like navigating through a field full of land mines. You have to circumvent chocolate and cheese; steer clear of citrus fruits, cured meats, onions, nuts, dried fruits and fish; sidestep the salty foods; and avoid anything with food additives, such as MSG, nitrates and nitrites, or artificial sweeteners. Instead of avoiding everything on the list, keep a food diary and see if you can correlate any foods with your symptoms of migraines.  Despite all the foods that could cause problems, skipping meals may not be an option. For some people, the lack a good, square meal can be the ticket to the next migraine.

Drinking and Not Drinking

Caffeine can be a problem for some migraine sufferers. If you drink too much tea or coffee, a migraine may hit. Then again, if you withdraw too quickly from caffeine, that pounding headache may be on its way. Also, if you want to relax at the end of a day with a glass of red wine or bottle of beer or celebrate with whiskey or champagne, a migraine may be on its way.  If some of your favorite drinks may be on your migraine triggers list, make sure you drink enough water. Dehydration can also cause migraines, so keep water at hand at all times.

Sleeping Too Much and Too Little

The sleep issue is a bit of a Goldilocks problem—you may need to get it “just right.” Migraines punish some people for oversleeping and others for sleep deprivation.

Being a Woman

About half of women who have migraines say that their menstrual cycle is a factor. That’s because of hormonal shifts. When estrogen drops before your period, it may trigger a migraine.

Outside Stimulants

There are many outside stimulants, such as lights, noise, odors, and the weather, that can bring on the symptoms of migraines.


According to the National Headache Foundation, if you suffer from migraines, it may mean that you have other health conditions as well.1 Sadly, the medications you take for one condition may lead to a migraine. So make sure that your doctor knows about your migraine issue when he or she prescribes medications.


While studies have shown that moderate exercise can decrease the frequency and severity of migraines2, some people complain that exercise causes their pounding headaches. Sometimes this is due to factors surrounding the exercise, such as not drinking or eating enough prior to a long run. Other times, the exertion itself causes the migraine. Be aware, however, that extreme conditions such as high temperatures and altitudes are often a factor.

While this list may seem long, don’t let it overwhelm you or lead you to think it is a no-win situation because, yes, stress and depression can bring on migraines, too. The best thing you can do is to become alert to your possible triggers, identify those associated with your migraines and try to steer clear of them.

1 Yoffee, L. “Medications That Can Cause Headaches.” Accessed November 17, 2015.
2 “Exercise and Migraine.” Accessed November 17, 2015.