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Migraine triggers

There are lots of potential triggers and they can vary from one person to another. We investigate the most common triggers.

Various environmental factors are thought to precipitate or trigger migraines. Some migraines are totally unpredictable, occurring for no apparent reason.

Common examples of triggers include:

  • Undue stress or relaxation after a stressful period of time

  • Anxiety

  • Exposure to chemicals such as paints, varnishes and strong cleaning solutions

  • Hormone levels during the menstrual cycle

  • Bright or glaring lights

  • Alcohol

  • Unusual weather conditions

  • Over-exercising

  • Too little sleep or too much sleep/lack of oxygen

Migraine sufferers find it helps to keep a personal diary of whenheadaches occur and suspected triggers to learn the best way to avoidthem in the future. It's all about knowing your own body.

The most commonly identified culprits are:

  • Dehydration

  • Alcohol

  • Caffeine withdrawal

  • Missing a regular meal, causing excessive hunger

Suspect foods

A craving for certain foods is likely to be a symptom of an imminentmigraine approaching rather than a cause of the migraine. A recentreview of research evidence concluded these suspect foods could not beshown to trigger attacks or that a diet avoiding these foods will notstop people having migraines.

Nevertheless some migraine sufferers do individually report goodresults when they avoid some foods. As a result some specialists willrecommend people cut these out of their diets.

The foods long suspected of being trigger foods are those thatcontain histamine, tyramine, nitrates, nitrites and sodium glutamate.

Tyramine and histamine occur in foods naturally, particularly thosethat are aged or preserved. Histamine is also released in the body inresponse to eating certain foods (an allergic response) whereasnitrates and nitrites are added to foods to preserve them.

Glutamates (or flavour enhancers numbered 620-625 on food labels)are a traditional form of flavouring additive. The chemical family ofglutamate compounds is also found naturally in some foods such as hardcheese, soy sauce and fish sauce, and small amounts are found in manyother foods.

Foods containing these substances

  • Aged cheddar, blue and white rind cheeses

  • Chocolate

  • Smoked and cured foods, eg salami, pepperoni

  • Fermented foods, eg soy sauce, miso, sauerkraut, beer, sherry, ginger beer, vinegar, yoghurt, soured milk products

  • Salted and dried foods e.g. bacon, anchovies

  • Pickled foods, eg olives, gherkins

  • Broad or fava beans

  • Yeast extract, eg Marmite, Vegemite, soup mixes

  • Meat tenderiser

  • Monosodium glutamate (MSG or flavour enhancer 621 or INS 621)

If you're trying to avoid these foods when eating out, ask fordetails from the kitchen if you're unsure of the ingredients in a dish.

Thanks to Annette Hallam, National Director of New Zealand MigraineSufferers Support Group for her advice and assistance in reviewing thecontents of this article.

Date modified: November 23 2016
First published: Feb 2007

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