Types Of Headaches Migraine Headaches Triggers

Migraines are “vascular” headaches, meaning that their source is the contraction and dilation of blood vessels. Originally, vascular headaches were thought to be caused solely by changes in the dilation of blood vessels. More recent research, however, indicates that the nervous system and genetics contribute to the problem.

Proposed Causes of Migraine Headaches

The exact causes of vascular headaches are a mystery. Some researchers have suggested that migraines can be traced to an overactive nervous system. When the nervous system detects certain substances, sensations or other triggers, it sets in motion a series of brain activity that leads to blood vessel dilation or contraction.

Some theories hold that nerve fibers surrounding blood vessels give off chemicals that cause the blood vessels to dilate or constrict. Others suggest that brain neuron activity sets off a reaction in the brain stem that causes the facial arteries to become inflamed.

Yet another theory suggests that the brain’s blood vessels spasm, reducing the amount of blood to certain parts of the brain. When the spasm eases, the blood vessels widen, and the sudden dilation causes pain.

Recognizing Migraine Headache Triggers

Isolating your personal migraine triggers often requires patience and a fair bit of detective work. Almost any substance can prompt a migraine: Stress, food additives such as MSG, preservatives such as nitrates or nitrites, muscle tension, and even weather changes and smells can lead to migraines. Some people react to migraine triggers consistently; for others, the item that triggers a migraine one day may not trigger it the next. Using a migraine diary may help narrow down possible triggers.

Migraine Headache Triggers - Types of Headaches

Food and Food Additives

Foods and food additives are extremely common dietary triggers. While any food can conceivably be a migraine trigger, some foods are more common triggers than others. Food additives such as MSG, artificial sweeteners, sulfites, nitrite and nitrates have all been listed as potential headache triggers. Common food triggers include:

Dairy Products: milk, cream, ice cream, hard cheese, aged cheese (contains the food additives tryamine and sulfites), processed cheese, and brie.

Beverages: caffeine-heavy soft drinks and coffee, and red wine.

Cured/Smoked Meats: ham, bacon and other cured meats containing nitrates or nitrite.

Dried Fruits: apricots and other dried fruits preserved with sulfite.

Starches: potatoes and yeast breads.

Legumes: most peas, and beans.

Artificial Sweeteners: aspartame, saccharin.

Chocolate: Migraine Trigger or Not?

Commonly removed from the diet as a precaution, chocolate may not be as common a trigger as was previously thought. Diet chocolate can be used as a substitute, but may contain artificial sweeteners that can also trigger headaches.

“Chinese Restaurant Syndrome”

Monosodium glutamate (MSG) is a common flavor enhancer added to Chinese food and Oriental sauces. MSG has been implicated as a common migraine trigger. Many Chinese food restaurants will make dishes without MSG, if requested.

Be aware, though, that MSG is not found only in Chinese food. It is often added to canned soups and seasonings. If you are sensitive to MSG, check labels carefully.

Stress and Muscle Tension

Emotional and physical stress are common causes of migraines. Holidays and weekends are peak times for migraines, due to the extra stress that accompanies those times. Some sufferers can benefit from stress management skills and relaxation techniques. Muscle tension often accompanies stress. Muscle tension in the neck, shoulders, and jaw has been linked to both migraine and tension headaches.

Sensory Triggers of Migraine Headaches

Light, sound, and smells are all potential migraine triggers.

Strong, intense light is a common trigger, as is the flickering light from television screens. The light oscillating effect that occurs driving past a fence or trees with the sun shining behind them can also act as a migraine trigger.

Noise, either intensely loud or prolonged, can trigger a migraine, and so, surprisingly, can smells. Exhaust fumes, perfume, and paint smells have all been linked to migraines. It has been suggested that the actual smell may not be as important as the intensity of the smell.

A final note on sensory triggers: The motion of a moving car, plane or boat/ship can trigger not only motion sickness, but can, in some sensitive people, trigger a migraine.

Weather Changes

Migraine sufferers are often highly sensitive to weather changes. High humidity or extremes of heat and cold can start headaches. Sudden changes in air pressure, such as before a storm, are also possible migraine triggers.

Oral Contraceptives

A recent study at the Norwegian National Headache Center in Trondheim, Norway has confirmed that women using estrogen-containing oral contraceptives (birth control pills) are more likely to experience headaches during their menstrual period than women who are not on the pill. Among participants using oral contraceptives, migraines occurred forty percent more often and non-migraines occurred twenty percent more often.

Researchers believe that the drastic drop in estrogen levels just prior to menstruation is what triggers the headaches. Birth control pills can increase the level of estrogen to four times its normal level. To reduce the likelihood of menstrual headaches, menstrual headache-prone women should talk with their doctor about using an estrogen patch a few days before their period, switching to Depo-Provera injectable birth control to reduce the number of menstrual periods to four times per year, or trying an ultra low dose birth control pill that contains 20 micrograms of estrogen or less.


American Medical Association. (1998). What is migraine headache? Medem Medical Library.

Lee, D. (nd). Migraine headache. MedicineNet, Inc.

Migraine Relief Center. (nd). Understanding migraine triggers.

New York Methodist Hospital. (2001). What causes migraine headaches?

Aegidius, K., Zwart, J.A., Hagen, K., Schei, B.