About 15 percent of us worldwide suffer from migraine, women being three times more affected than men. That makes being a woman a risk factor. This could possibly be due to higher stress scores.

There are several causes and risk factors that make you prone to having migraine headaches. A genetic trait is a common factor; you will find that a person who suffers from it will have a family history of it.

Besides genetics, environmental factors also play a major role in making you more prone to a migraine headache. Such factors include changes in weather or climate, traveling, change in altitude, and more.

Migraine is a harmless condition, – meaning it does not have any after-effects on the body. But, those of us who suffer from it must know how miserable you can feel during its attack.

It is a recurring headache of severe intensity. It recurs when you are affected by the triggering factors. There are several such factors including certain foods, mental stress, physical fatigue, and more. They are described below.

During a migraine attack, you are incapable of doing anything. You just want to lie down in bed preferably in a dark room because any physical activity or a light glare can make the headache worse.

There are various causes attributed to developing a migraine headache and each sufferer can have a different cause. Some risk factors make you more prone and there some conditions that trigger migraines in people who already suffer from it.

Secondly, each sufferer has a threshold vis-à-vis the trigger. For example, if you have a little portion of ice cream, it may not give you a headache. But, if you consume too much of it, you may develop a migraine headache.

Having said that, let’s look at the various causes that can trigger this condition. If you are among those unfortunate ones, this post will help you to know what to avoid to reduce your risk of an attack.

Causes of migraine headaches

The following are reasons that can cause or trigger a migraine headache. As mentioned above, they can be genetic, environmental, and related to your lifestyle.

Stress migraine

Mental stress can be due to reasons, which may not be in your control. It may be due to a major stressful event such as a death or a divorce, job-related factors at work, or some personal problems related to finance or a sickness.

In some, the stress can trigger a migraine and in others, it can make an existing headache worse. Stress also increases the duration and frequency of the headache.

Stress causes the release of certain brain chemicals, which can cause the dilatation of the blood vessels. This stretches the nerve endings in the wall of the blood vessels, which causes a headache.

Mental stress also causes your neck muscles to tense up giving rise to the so-called “tension headache”.

Certain foods

Certain foods, when consumed, are known to trigger a migraine attack. Sometimes, it may not be the foods but certain additives in the food preparation that can cause the headache. Such additives could be the preservatives or colors regularly used in food preparations.

In some people, it may not be the food but the absence of it that can launch an attack. Missing a meal and staying hungry is known to cause a headache in quite a fair number of migraine sufferers.

Foods that are commonly responsible are:

  • Chocolate is the most commonly blamed. Chocolate contains a chemical known as phenylethylamine, which acts on the blood vessels in the brain and can trigger a migraine.
  • Processed Meats
  • Certain preservatives like nitrates
  • Ice creams and cold foods
  • Certain fruits like avocado, papaya, pineapple, strawberries, raspberries
  • Certain vegetables like mushrooms, lentils, raw garlic, onions, raw garlic
  • Dairy foods like aged cheese, peanut butter, sour creams, and yogurt
  • Some people may experience a headache about 30 minutes after having a Chinese meal. Chinese food contains an additive called MSG (monosodium glutamate), which is used to enhance the flavor and make the meat more tender.

Sleep deprivation

Lack of sleep due to work or family pressures or jet lag can be a triggering cause. Too much sleep can also be a trigger such as during the weekends giving rise to “a weekend migraine”.

Migraine headaches due to sleep disorders usually occur between 04:00 and 09:00 am.

Certain medications

The list of medications that can trigger a migraine is long but the most common ones are birth control pills, vasodilators like nitroglycerine, medicines for high blood pressure, etc.

Some people’s headaches may worsen after taking pills for an existing headache. This is called a rebound headache. OTC, as well as prescription pills, can cause this type of headache. Examples of such pills are aspirin, acetaminophen, ibuprofen, and sleeping pills.

Physical exertion

Too much sustained and strenuous physical exercise or a sudden increase in physical exertion can give rise to migraines. In such cases, migraine is usually accompanied by an aura. Physical exertion including that due to sexual activity can also give rise to an attack.

These headaches are secondary to other conditions in the brain such as bleeding in the brain or a brain tumor. Conditions outside the brain such as coronary artery disease can also trigger a post-physical exercise headache.

Weather changes

Weather changes can cause chemical (such as serotonin) imbalances in the brain, which can give you a migraine headache. These changes can also worsen an existing attack triggered by other factors.

Climate changes include:

  • Bright sunlight
  • Extreme heat or cold
  • High humidity
  • Windy or stormy weather
  • Changes in altitudes

Hunger and thirst headache

Staying hungry such as by missing a meal can cause your blood sugar to fall. A headache is a common symptom of low blood sugar.

Similarly, not drinking enough water can launch a migraine headache. Not drinking enough water can cause dehydration and headache is a common symptom of dehydration.

Hormonal changes

Hormonal changes during the menstrual cycle can cause a headache in some women. You will suffer from this headache more just before and during the menstrual period when estrogen levels are low.

Two-thirds of such headache sufferers report the absence of the headaches after menopause.

Smoking and exposure to smoke

Smoking and second-hand smoke can trigger an attack in many people. Cigarette smoke contains nicotine, which has a vasodilatation effect on the blood vessels.

This causes the nerves in the walls of the blood vessels of the brain to stretch giving rise to head pain.


Drinking alcohol can give you a hangover headache. What is not known is that alcohol can also cause a migraine headache.

A hangover headache occurs the morning after a night of heavy drinking while a migraine sets in within 30 minutes to 3 hours of consuming even a modest amount of alcohol.

There is a general belief that red wine is the alcoholic drink most responsible for causing migraines. However, all alcohols can trigger such an attack in those susceptible to it.

Bright lights and loud sound

Bright and flickering lights such as after watching a movie or television have precipitated a migraine attack in many men and women. You will find this in those with a low tolerance for light and sound.

Exposure to the hot sun

Some people with reduced tolerance to light experience a headache even after walking for 10 to 15 minutes in the sun, especially the sun of the afternoon. In such people, the longer they stay out in the sun, the more intense is the headache.

Strong odors

The most common smells that trigger a migraine are gasoline, tobacco, and perfumes. If you develop a headache after using a particular deodorant or a perfume, make sure you don’t use it again as it could cost you a day’s work

Caffeine withdrawal

People who are used to drinking coffee frequently during the day may develop a migraine if they abruptly stop drinking it.

Caffeine causes the blood vessels to narrow including those of the brain. When you go off caffeine, the blood vessels dilate, and as explained above you land with a headache. An OTC painkiller will give relief.

Migraine Risk Factors

Not all triggering factors have been explained as there are some, which may be exclusive to one individual while not to another. The onset of a migraine after exposure to a trigger factor can vary from a few hours to two days.

The following are the factors, which increase your risk.

  • Age. Your chances of developing migraines are more between the age of 10 to 40 years. After 45 years, the chances are low.
  • Gender. Women are three times more prone to developing this type of headache.
  • Family history. 90% of people have a family history in which either or both of the parents have had migraine attacks during their life.

A person who suffers from migraines must keep these triggers in mind and avoid them as far as possible.