Anyone who has experienced a migraine knows this: Migraine headaches are painful. These intense headaches can cause nausea; vomiting; sensitivity to sounds, smells, and light; and vision changes. If you experience sporadic migraines, the headache and symptoms may last only a day or two. If you suffer from chronic migraines, however, the symptoms may occur 15 days or more each month.

What Causes Migraines?

Migraine headaches are a bit of a mystery. Researchers have identified possible causes, but no definitive causes have been declared. Possible theories include:

  • Central nervous system disorder. An underlying disorder may set off a migraine episode when the disorder is triggered.
  • Vascular problem. Irregularities in the brain’s blood vessel system may cause migraines.
  • Genes. Having a family member who experiences migraine headaches increases your risk for having migraines, so researchers suspect an inherited gene may cause migraines.
  • Chemical abnormalities. Several types of brain chemicals and nerve pathways are active during a migraine headache. Abnormalities in any of these areas may cause migraine. 

What Can Trigger a Migraine

Unfortunately, because scientists have not been able to identify a cause, the best way to avoid migraines is to avoid what triggers them. Migraine triggers are unique to each person. What causes a migraine for one person might not for someone else. It’s not uncommon for a person to have several migraine triggers. The most common migraine triggers include: 

  • Food. Salty foods or aged foods, such as cheese and salami, may cause migraine headaches. Highly processed foods can trigger a migraine, too.
  • Skipping meals. People with a history of migraines shouldn’t skip meals or fast unless it is done under a doctor’s supervision. Missing a meal can cause a migraine.
  • Drink. Alcohol and caffeine may cause headaches.
  • Preservatives and sweeteners. Some artificial sweeteners, such as aspartame, can trigger a migraine. The popular preservative monosodium glutamate (MSG) can, too. Read labels to avoid them.
  • Sensory stimulation. Unusually bright lights, loud noises, or strong smells may set off a migraine headache, as can flashing lights or bright sun. Strong scents, such as perfume, paint, and cigarette smoke, are common triggers.
  • Hormonal changes. Hormone shifts are an especially common migraine trigger for women. Fluctuating levels of estrogen may trigger headaches. For example, many women report developing migraine headaches right before or even during their period. That’s because estrogen levels fall dramatically during that time. Other women may develop hormone-induced migraines during pregnancy or menopause.
  • Hormone medications. Medications, such as birth control and hormone replacement therapies, can trigger or worsen a migraine. However, in some cases, these medicines can actually reduce a woman’s migraine headaches.
  • Other medications. Vasodilators, such as nitroglycerin, can trigger a migraine.
  • Stress. Constant mental stress can cause migraines. Home life and work life are two of the most common sources of stress. Stress damages your body and your mind if you aren’t able to control it effectively.
  • Physical stress. Extreme exercise, physical exertion, and even sexual activity can trigger migraine headaches.
  • Sleep cycle changes. If you’re not getting regular, routine sleep, you may experience more migraines. Don’t bother trying to “make up” for lost sleep on the weekends, either. Too much sleep is just as likely to cause a headache as too little.
  • Weather changes. What Mother Nature is doing outside may affect how you feel on the inside. Changes in weather and shifts in barometric pressure can trigger a migraine.

Factors That Increase Your Risk for Migraines

Not everyone exposed to migraine triggers will develop a headache. However, some people are more sensitive to them. Several risk factors can help predict who is more prone to having migraine headaches. These risk factors include:

  • Age. Migraines can first appear at any age. However, most people will experience their first migraine during adolescence. According to the Mayo Clinic, migraines rarely begin after age 40.
  • Family history. If a close family member has migraines, you’re more likely to have them. In fact, 90 percent of migraine patients have a family member who has them, too. Parents are the best predictor of your risk. If one or both of your parents have a history of migraines, your risk is higher.
  • Gender. During childhood, boys experience migraine headaches more than girls. After puberty, however, women are three times more likely to have migraine headaches than men.