How to Identify Your Migraine Triggers
If you suffer from frequent migraines, you live in dread of that moment you feel that first throb in your temple and know that it’s about to ignite into full-blown agony. In fact, you are probably pretty adept at recognizing that moment. Oftentimes you may have warning signs of a migraine before it strikes—but by then, it may already be too late to stop it.
How can you get ahead of the game and start catching your migraines before they get to that point? One great method is to learn to identify your triggers and avoid them.
For the sake of this article, I am going to assume you already know for sure that you experience migraines—and not tension headaches, sinus headaches, or another common type of headache.
What Triggers Migraines?
Here are some potential causes and triggers for migraines. This is not an exhaustive list of triggers, but it should get you started:
- Not getting enough to eat
- Not staying hydrated
- Getting too much or too little sleep, or allowing your sleep schedule to be disrupted
- Hormonal swings (for example if you get menstrual migraines)
- Birth control pill use
- Alcohol or caffeine use or withdrawal
- Withdrawal from other medications you may be overusing (even migraine pain meds)
- Foods containing nitrates, tyramine or MSG
- Weather changes
- Bright light (especially sunlight)
- Hot weather (this may or may not be tied to dehydration)
- Stress, depression or anxiety
- Other types of headaches or pain
- Smoking as well as exposure to second-hand smoke
- Exercise (in some people—in others, it can work as a treatment)
- Sexual activity (in some people—in others, it can work as a treatment)
- Other health conditions or changes in them
How to Keep a Migraine Diary
Reviewing the list above, you might already recognize some potential migraine triggers which affect you. You might for example realize that you often get a headache after spending a day outside in the bright sun. If so, that is something to keep an eye on.
It is however important to get some solid data. This is especially vital if you really do not have a clue what triggers your migraines. And if you get them frequently, it could be easy to overlook your triggers since you may feel like your headaches are simply perpetual.
What should you track in a headache diary? Well, the list of potential triggers offers you a good starting point.
You need to note:
- What you are eating and drinking, how much, and how often.
- What types of exercises you are performing, when you are working out, how often you are doing it, and how consistently.
- The weather.
- When you are waking up and going to bed, how much sleep you are getting in total, and how restful it is. Also note changes in your sleep schedule.
- Where you are in your monthly cycle (if you are a woman).
- Whether you have been exposed to bright light.
- Whether you have been exposed to second-hand smoke, or have been smoking yourself.
- Sexual activity.
- Use of alcohol or caffeine.
- Other types of headaches or physical problems you have been experiencing.
- Use of birth control, medications, and supplements.
- Periods of stress, anxiety or depression—whether acute or chronic.
Obviously writing all of this down every single day would entail a lot of work—and it might be difficult to read through as well.
For that reason, I recommend that you take a broader approach to your headache diary.
A lot of what you do each day is going to be more or less the same. So start by making a list of any static routines you have. For example:
- Waking up at 6 a.m. each day, in bed by 10 p.m. each night, usually get 6-8 hours of sleep.
- Drinking one cup of coffee each day.
- Taking X medication and Y supplement each a day.
- Working out by taking a walk 20 minutes 4-5 days a week after dinner.
- Drinking one glass of wine each night.
There is no reason to log this type of information every single day—just note it once, and then update it if you make any overarching changes. If on occasion you end up deviating from the plan (like you forget to take a supplement, or you drink a second cup of coffee or a third glass of wine), then note it in an entry for that day.
Other information of course you will need to log each and every day that you experience a headache—the weather for example, or exposure to sunlight.
Over time, patterns should start to emerge. Note that you probably will not identify them right away. Some might become evident within a few weeks, but others may take months to pin down.
It took me years to figure out my own migraine triggers. There were several reasons for this. The first is that in the beginning, my migraine (yes, singular) literally had no pauses except while asleep—it was ubiquitous, so I didn’t have any patterns to observe. The second reason however was that I never bothered to take proper notes; I tried to do all this entirely in my head, so I missed a whole lot of information. So I highly suggest writing it down.
Just to give you an example of what progress feels like, here is an example of the data that emerged for me after I did finally start tracking my migraine triggers:
- Bright light is definitely a trigger for me, and so is hot weather. If the two are combined, that can greatly increase the chances I will get a migraine.
- Dehydration can cause a migraine for me, but not eating when I should is even more of a concern. Once again, if these two triggers combine, things are likely to be doubly bad.
- Getting less than 6 hours of sleep may trigger a migraine, especially if it happens multiple days within one week.
- My migraines are at their worst in the week following my period, which points toward an imbalance in my hormones.
- Exercising while I have a migraine can make it twice as bad.
- Sexual activity during a migraine may bring anywhere from mild to complete relief. Relief may be temporary or lasting.
- Caffeine can greatly reduce a migraine in progress, as can eating a full meal.
- Heat may help a migraine if a tension headache is involved. Otherwise, it may make it worse, especially if it causes sweating.
- Reliably taking a multivitamin and zinc seems to reduce migraine issues.
- Acute stress can definitely spur a migraine, especially if that stress leads to an emotional outburst (i.e. crying).
You can see how that wealth of information helped me turn my life around. It not only taught me triggers to avoid, but also some treatment options which can help.
In particular, identifying the week after my period as being a trigger was a game-changer, because it helped me identify the underlying cause of my migraines.
Since that cause is (somewhat) treatable, that has enabled me to live a fairly normal life. I still get frequent migraines, and sometimes they are very bad, but it is nothing like having one throbbing migraine that goes on and on perpetually.
Imagine being able to make a change like that in your life!
When You identify Your Migraine Triggers, You Too Can Take Back Control Of Your Life
Once you figure out your migraine triggers as well as some treatments that make you feel better, you can do the following:
- Avoid known triggers to the best of your ability
- Come up with a routine which you follow closely which prevents headaches
- Know when you might need preventative medication to cope with an unavoidable trigger (take some pain meds before you go out in the hot sun for a day for example)
- Take steps in the moment to rapidly treat and recover from a migraine when it happens
It does take a commitment of time and energy to log your headaches and triggers each day, and it can be especially taxing when you do have a terrible headache and just want to lie down.
But once you have enough data to start spotting patterns and taking steps to mitigate migraines, you should have a reduction in frequency and severity of headaches. In some cases, the improvement could be dramatic—and you could find yourself getting a lot more enjoyment out of life. So give it a try!