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What Causes Migraines?

A migraine is a neurological disorder that is believed to affect the vascular system in the brain. Although the exact cause of migraines remains unknown, research into the condition indicates the problem may start with abnormal electrical activity in the brain which then affects the blood vessels in the area. In the majority of cases, migraines run in families, indicating a genetic predisposition for them. They also co-occur with a number of psychological disorders including anxiety, depression, and bipolar disorder.

Migraine Triggers

Migraines are usually triggered by environmental or internal biological events. Knowing what sets off your severe headaches can help you prevent future episodes. Here is a list of common migraine triggers.

1. Foods

Food is one of the top migraine inducers. Certain chemicals in foods, such as MSG, alter brain or body chemistry in a way that makes a person more susceptible to having a severe headache. People may be allergic to certain foods and get a severe headache after eating it. Lastly, dietary habits can also lead to the onset of migraines. Fasting, skipping meals, overconsumption of sugar or salt, drinking too much caffeine and other unhealthy eating habits can upset the delicate balance in the body and cause headaches as a result.

Common foods that reportedly cause migraines include:

  • Alcohol, particularly red wine and beer
  • Caffeine
  • Aged cheeses like cheddar, brie, or blue cheese
  • Chocolate
  • Processed foods
  • Salty foods (excess salt increases blood pressure)
  • Certain food additives like nitrates and MSG (monosodium glutamate)
  • Tannins found in tea, apple juice, and pears
  • Cultured dairy products such as buttermilk and sour cream

2. Hormones

Both men and women can suffer from these intense headaches. However, women are more prone to getting them, and it may be due to the monthly fluctuations in hormone levels that occur because of their menstrual cycles. In particular, researchers believe that the drop in estrogen is responsible for triggering migraines. Women reported getting these headaches a few days prior to starting their periods, around the time of ovulation, when beginning or ending the use of oral contraceptives, and during the first trimester of pregnancy. The constant rise and fall of estrogen levels may also be responsible for triggering migraines in menopausal women.

3. Stress

Stress is the underlying cause of many health challenges, and migraines are no exception. When a person is under stress, the body reacts as though it is under attack. The heart beats faster and glucose is flooded into the blood stream for quick energy. A little bit of stress is not harmful. However, chronic stress can lead to serious medical issues like heart disease, diabetes, and gastrointestinal disorders. The biological changes in the body can also induce migraines.

4. Physical Activity

Intense physical exertion like exercise can provoke migraines. It is unknown why this is, but it may be related to the temporary increase in blood pressure that occurs when a person is exerting his- or herself.

5. Changes in Sleep Patterns

Particularly sensitive people may get migraines if there is any change in their sleep-wake pattern. These changes can occur for a variety of reasons including jet lag, switching to the overnight shift at work, or even just getting less sleep than normal.

6. Sensory Stimuli

For some people, stimuli in the environment can trigger migraines. Some of the biggest offenders include flashing lights like strobe lights, bright sunlight, and strong scents like perfume or paint thinner. Other more subtle stimuli that have been reported as causes of migraines include changes in weather, barometric pressure, and altitude.

7. Medication

Like food, medication often alters the chemical makeup in the body, throwing the entire system off balance. For example, oral contraceptives like birth control pills change hormone levels in women, which is a common trigger for intense headaches. Other medications that can aggravate migraines are vasodilators such as nitroglycerin, blood thinners like warfarin, and corticosteroids.

Preventing Migraines

Part of preventing migraines is avoiding things that induce them. Finding out what your particular triggers are, however, can be challenging. The first thing you should do is begin recording what you eat and your day to day activities. This diary can be helpful in identifying patterns and making connections between your lifestyle and the onset of migraines. A simple notebook will suffice, but there are websites and smartphone apps that can also be of assistance.

Adopting simple lifestyle changes can go a long way towards limiting the severity, duration, and frequency of migraine episodes. Making sure to get plenty of sleep is a good place to start, particularly if you have poor sleep habits. Most people require between 7 to 9 hours of sleep per night. To facilitate a quick descent into dreamland, establish a sleep schedule and stick to it; go to bed and get up at the same time every night. Establish a bedtime routine, and avoid using electronics, watching television, drinking caffeinated drinks or exercising too close to bedtime. These can all contribute to sleeplessness.

Although exercise is a migraine trigger for some people, partaking in regular physical activity can lessen migraines since it helps reduce stress. The trick is to participate in moderation. You don’t have to go all out to experience the benefits of exercise. Even walking 30 minutes per day is enough to improve overall health and reduce episodes.

Practicing healthy eating habits is also essential to preventing migraines. Skipping meals, eating too much salt and sugar, and not drinking enough water can stress the body and trigger migraines. Eat regular meals, at least three times a day, and choose natural, wholesome foods like fruits, vegetables, lean meats, and whole grains. Drink 6 to 8 glasses of water per day to stay hydrated. Even mild dehydration can cause health problems.

Finding your triggers and making the necessary adjustments to your life will take time and patience. However, you will be rewarded with fewer migraines and improved health overall. Work with your family physician to design a migraine prevention and treatment program that works best for you.

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