9 Unexpected Things That Can Trigger A Migraine

by Kyli Rodriguez-Cayro

I can only speak for myself, but as someone who suffers from chronic migraines, I go to great lengths to avoid things that can trigger the painful and debilitating symptoms that accompany it. Common things that cause migraines include a lack of sleep, bright light, and caffeine, but what about the not-so-common migraine triggers?

Before diving into all the things that could be causing your head pain, it's important to understand migraines are not the same as headaches. "A migraine is much more than 'just a headache,'" Dr. Susan Hutchinson, founder of the Orange County Migraine & Headache Center, tells Bustle. "A headache is a non-specific diagnosis, and usually refers to a tension headache that almost everyone has experienced at some point in their life. It is most commonly described as a tight band-like feeling around the head, and does not include the symptoms of nausea or sensitivity to light."

According to the Migraine Research Foundation, migraines are the sixth leading cause of disability in the world, and around 18 percent of American women suffer from them. People that have co-morbid chronic health issues — such as depression, pain disorders, or digestive problems — have a higher risk of experiencing migraines, but the neurological issue can also be a standalone disorder.

If you experience migraines, limiting your exposure to things that may set one off is key. Here are nine unexpected things can trigger migraines, and what you can do to avoid them.


Sleeping In

A lack of sleep can undoubtedly cause a migraine, but did you know sleeping in can also trigger one? "Many migraine sufferers find that sleeping in on a weekend can cause them to have a migraine. This can be very frustrating as many of us mistakenly think it is good for us to 'catch up' on sleep on the weekends, or days off from work," says Dr. Hutchinson. "The reality is that migraine individuals should try to go to bed the same time every evening and get up the same time every morning including weekends."

If you have trouble keeping a healthy sleep schedule, you can try a few science-backed hacks to catch some Zzz's, including keeping your room cool, limiting your naps, and being active during the day.


Your Phone Or Laptop

Yes, most of us know fluorescent lights and sunny days can be the worst if you have migraines, but, staring at your phone or computer screen can trigger a migraine, too. (Yes, even if you turn that brightness all the way down.) Dr. Nauman Tariq, MD, director of the Johns Hopkins Headache Center, tells Bustle, "With younger people using smart phones and tablets past their bedtime — which results in poor quality of sleep — my concern is that the number of migraine attacks might increase in the future."

If you have to often check your phone or computer for work (or, if you can't stop refreshing Twitter), opt for digital screen protection glasses to protect yourself from your electronics' blue light — which can trigger migraines.



Dr. David Dodick, the Chair of the American Migraine Foundation (AMF), and Professor of Neurology at the Mayo Clinic in Arizona, tells Bustle that visual patterns, such as "blinds or block floor patterns stimulate the occipital cortex in the brain, which is already hyperexcitable" for people who get migraines. Meaning, busy patterns can be triggering for those people that get migraines (aka, migraineurs), and it's probably best to keep with simple designs when it comes to rugs, bed sheets, and other household items.


Stressful Events

Dr. Hutchinson says that many people can experience "let down" migraines following a stressful event or week — not necessarily while you are experiencing stress in the moment. "Many migraine sufferers think 'I can’t wait until this stressful time in my life is over, and I can finally relax,' only to then be hit with a horrible migraine. Migraine individuals often 'power through' a stressful time, and then the migraine hits. There can be a rush of adrenaline during the stressful time that helps the individual get through the stress itself," she explains.

"To prevent this migraine trigger, it is prudent to pace oneself during the stressful time and try to have a healthy lifestyle — including adequate sleep, consistent eating habits, and a regular exercise program. Stress-reduction measures could include yoga, meditation, [or] massage."


Sudden Changes In Temperature Or Pressure

Dr. Dodick, Dr. Tariq, and Dr. Hutchinson all say that sudden fluctuations in the weather or barometric pressure can trigger migraines, though Dr. Tariq adds, "This topic is debated among headache specialist community."

However, if atmospheric pressure or temperature is a trigger for you, you can still manage it. Dr. Hutchinson says, "For those with identifiable triggers such as weather change and drops in barometric pressure, the use of the MigraineX ear device," for which Dr. Hutchinson is a medical advisor, "with the associated app can be quite helpful, as the app predicts changes in barometric pressure and can send an alert, the individual can then insert the earplugs."


Certain Food Additives

Dr. Tariq says, "Certain foods, for example, red wine and processed meats, can trigger a migraine." Moreover, Healthline lists aged cheeses, fermented foods (like pickles or kimchi), and artificial sweeteners found in things like diet soda as foods that can potentially cause migraines.

Luckily, you can avoid food that triggers you once you know what they are. "Food related triggers vary greatly from one migraine individual to another. Keeping a headache diary and watching the pattern of food to headache occurrence can help identify one’s particular triggers," suggests Dr. Hutchinson.


Sleep Apnea

According to the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute, sleep apnea is a common health condition that occurs when your upper airway is blocked while you sleep, and you stop breathing for periods of time. Dr. Dodick says because of "decreased oxygen concentration," sleep apnea can cause migraines. Women with sleep apnea can also feel depressed or anxious, which can make it more difficult to diagnose, but the condition is treatable — so make sure you keep a diary of your symptoms, and consult your doctor.


Common Medications

Common medications, like oral birth control and anti-depressants, can cause migraines for some people. "Oral contraceptives contain synthetic estrogen and progesterone and often are prescribed to 'even out' the hormones, and help reduce menstrual migraine. However, in some individuals, they can exacerbate migraine," says Dr. Hutchinson.

Additionally, she explains that, "Some anti-depressants including the popular SSRIs [...] are frequently prescribed for anxiety, depression, and “off label” to prevent migraine. However, for some migraineurs, they can cause headache. It is important to monitor changes in headache pattern anytime new medications are started or are changed."


The “Headache Tree”

So, it turns out that there's a tree that can cause migraines — just by touching it. "Umbellularia californica [aka, the California Laurel] is a tree native to the coastal forest of California that has a substance in its leaves known as umbellulone that activates a receptor on pain nerve endings that trigger migraine," says Dr. Dodick. Fortunately, the tree is only native to The Golden State and coastal Oregon, so this trigger isn't much of a concern for you if you don't live there. But, it's still good to know if you ever plan a visit (and also, what the heck, nature.)

Like with any chronic health issue, what may trigger your migraine may not be a trigger for someone else. Learning to identify the surprising things that cause your migraines, and consulting with your doc on how best to avoid these triggers can help you avoid how often you have to deal with this debilitating disease.