6 Surprising Migraine Triggers
Making It to the Light at the End of the Tunnel
Stress is a classic migraine trigger, but the so are the days immediately following a high-pressure situation. There's even a term for it: "letdown headache." Experts see it all the time in students who've just finished finals and accountants who work around the clock until April 16, only to be hit by a migraine, says David Dodick, MD, a neurologist and migraine specialist at the Mayo Clinic in Scottsdale, Arizona, and president of the American Headache Society. The jury's still out on why they occur, but the peaks and valleys of hormones that flow through your body as your stress levels change might be one reason.
The Research: When migraine sufferers tracked their symptoms for 30 days, a decline in stress from one day to the next was associated with higher migraine rates during the second day, found researchers in a small 2014 study in Neurology.
An All-Too-Rare Saturday Where You Get to Sleep In
A brain that's prone to migraines functions much better on a regular schedule, says Louise Klebanoff, MD, a neurologist with the Headache Center at Weill Cornell Medicine and NewYork-Presbyterian. Meaning, any changes in sleep or wake time (which can throw off your circadian rhythms) can cause an episode. Other related culprits: skipping meals and being jetlagged.
The Research: Both too-short and too-long sleep increase the incidence of these intense headaches, reports the American Migraine Foundation.
Weird Weather Patterns
Both Dodick and Klebanoff often meet with patients who believe there is a link between their migraines and changes in barometric pressure or dew point and humidity. "There's evidence that says it's true, and some that says it's not, but so many people report weather as a trigger that there must be something to it," says Dodick. One commonly blamed system is the warm, westerly Chinook winds in the Pacific Northwest that can lead to drastic temperature changes. (One small study even confirmed that some migraine suffers are more likely to have episodes on pre-Chinook or Chinook days.)
The Research: In addition to the wind study, other research in Headache found that out of 77 people diagnosed with migraines, 39 were sensitive to the weather (though, interestingly, 48 thought they were prior to the study). As for the types of weather that led to migraines: 26 people were sensitive to temperature and humidity, 11 to changing weather patterns, and 10 to changes in barometric pressure (some were sensitive to more than one).
The Workout Class Everyone Says You Should Try
Exercise can be a blessing—or a curse—if you deal with migraines. A small study in Cephalalgia found that exercising for 40 minutes three times a week for three months was almost as beneficial in reducing migraine frequency as taking a prescription medication. However, "there's a small subgroup of people for whom exercise is actually a trigger," says Dodick, possibly because it increases heart rate, blood pressure and blood flow to the brain.
The Research: Numerous case studies of individual patients show a link between exercise and the onset of a migraine. Thirty-eight percent of migraine sufferers reported that breaking a sweat was a trigger for them, in a small study in the Journal of Headache Pain.
Meds That Take the Edge Off
Taking too many prescription or over-the-counter pain relievers can lead to a rebound headache once they wear off, and migraine sufferers are particularly vulnerable to medication overuse, according to the American Headache Society. They can also cause more-run-of-the-mill migraines, and experts are just starting to figure out why. "Migraines happen in people whose brains are very excitable by and sensitive to what's happening in their own body and in the environment around them," explains Dodick. "And these meds make the brain even more excitable and sensitive."
The Research: There's not much data on the prevalence of rebound headaches or regular migraines among people who overuse pain relievers, but it's an agreed-upon trigger among experts.
The Calorie-Free Sweet Stuff in Your Tea
Artificial sweeteners may lead to migraines, says Klebanoff, along with other possible food and drink triggers like alcohol, smoked meats and MSG. The link is unclear, but Dodick notes that there's some evidence that people actually crave these so-called culprits during the earliest stages of their migraines, when they may not realize they're having one. In other words, these foods and beverages may not be triggers after all but a sign that a head-pounder is imminent.
The Research: No conclusive research here. This one is purely anecdotal.