It’s hard for me to imagine what it’s like to have a migraine. Honestly, I feel very fortunate that I’ve never had one and only have a “regular” headache once in a while.
Even though I’ve never experienced one, I’ve had enough conversations with people to know that they are real, they are very painful and they often happen repeatedly, if not being a continuous problem for some.
Because they are so frequent, I’ve done quite a lot of research into what causes them, which leads to how we heal them and how we prevent them. After all, getting to the root cause of a problem is the only way to truly resolve it.
Now, I want to say that the below is by no means an exhaustive list of migraine triggers. As you know, we are wonderfully complex beings and migraines are not a symptom of a specific underlying cause. In fact, the cause of a migraine is often multifaceted and a holistic approach to healing is often required in order to experience long-term relief.
As well, some people move from experiencing occasional migraines to chronic migraines which adds a whole new dimension to the problem. According to Danielle Aberman, RDN, CLT, CHWC, the biggest cause of the increased frequency is the use of pain medications (both opioids and NSAIDs) and overuse of triptans, a medication used for episodic migraines. As the Migraine Relief Coach, Aberman says, “It’s very common and called medication-overuse headache (MOH). Until the pain med is stopped and time passes, nothing will help.” So, if you suffer from chronic migraines and you’ve been using pain medications in an attempt to relieve it, keep this in mind.
Of course, whether your migraine is occasional or chronic and you are able to get past the MOH, you still have to figure out what triggered them to begin with! Sure, there is probably a genetic component that increases a person’s risk of getting migraines, but our genetics are not our destiny. Many genes related to diseases and health conditions have to be turned on or triggered before they will negatively impact us. This gives us a lot of control over what we experience in our bodies, as we can make food and lifestyle choices that give us power over how our genes express themselves.
With all that said, the following is a list of the most common causes of migraine headaches:
- Food sensitivities are a common trigger, and unsurprisingly some foods are more likely than others to cause migraines, although a person may be sensitive to absolutely any food! The common triggering foods include:
- Aged cheeses, soy sauce, alcohol, avocado, banana, raw onion, citrus and nuts… the most common triggers according to Aberman
- Food additives like artificial colors, flavors, sweeteners
- Tyramine, as found in fermented, aged, cured or spoiled foods (hence the aged cheeses in Aberman’s list)
- Nitrates, as found mostly in cured meats (including hot dogs) and to a lesser extent in vegetables and fruits (like arugula, celery, cress, lettuce and beets)
- Sodium (if taking in too much at once, especially on an empty stomach)
- Reactive hypoglycemia or dysinsulinism (In other words, problems with blood sugar control and insulin balance.)
- Histamine intolerance (Consider this one, especially if your migraines are linked to your menstrual cycle as estrogen levels impact the amount of histamine in your body.)
- Nutrient deficiency, listed in order of which ones show up the most often:
- Riboflavin (vitamin B2)
- CoQ10 / ubiquinol (Note that toxicity or mitochondrial dysfunction may also be related to a CoQ10 deficiency.)
- Vitamin D (Beware that a deficiency of vitamin D may be caused by genetic SNPs which prevent the body from efficiently creating and/or using vitamin D.)
- Folate, especially due to an MTHFR SNP which prevents the body from activating folate and B12. If a folate deficiency is present, B12 and/or B6 may also be needed.
- Neurotransmitter imbalance:
- High glutamate levels, which can come from sources like MSG. N-acetyl-cysteine (NAC) may help downregulate glutamate
- Melatonin might help to balance the neurotransmitters that cause migraines. Although be careful with this one because for some people it causes insomnia and makes them jittery. Basically, if you take it and it doesn’t make you sleepy, you probably don’t need it.
- Stress… not a surprise that stress would affect our brain function, but felt a need to list it for completeness.
- Lack of sleep, as this is when the body rebalances and heals.
If you suffer from migraines, I hope you will consider that there is hope for healing and prevention. It will take time and you will have to put in some effort to peel back the “layers of the onion” to find your triggers. But you can get better and get to the point that you don’t have to worry whether or not your head is going to take you out of commission.