I’ve got some good news for the estimated 36 million people in the U.S. who experience migraines. After working with patients for the last decade and seeing many with migraines, I have identified five common triggers and three easy, natural ways to overcome them.
If you’ve ever experienced a migraine, you know it’s MUCH different from a regular headache. Left untreated, a migraine can last anywhere from 4 to 72 hours. Unlike a typical headache, migraines can be so severe that they interfere with your everyday activities. The pain can be so intense that it keeps you in bed, unable to function. Migraines can make you nauseous and very sensitive to sound and light, and can even cause disturbances in the nervous system known as auras. Symptoms of auras include flashes of light, blurred, wavy vision, auditory hallucinations, pins and needles, weakness, and difficulty speaking.1
The onset of migraine headaches can occur anywhere between 10 and 40 years old.2 The frequency of these headaches vary from person to person, however most people who get migraines suffer from them on a regular basis—usually a few times a month. Women are about three times more likely than men to experience migraines, and that number is rising.3 Researchers suspect the increased prevalence of migraines could be related to our toxic environment, higher stress levels, sedentary lifestyles, and other chronic illnesses that are also on the rise including depression and anxiety, high blood pressure, and autoimmune disease.4,5
Symptoms of Migraines
- Throbbing, pulsing pain usually on one side of the head or behind one eye
- Nausea and vomiting
- Sensitivity to light, noise, touch, and certain smells
- Blurred vision
The Migraine-Autoimmune Connection
Although typically classified as a nervous system disorder, new research suggests that migraines may have an autoimmune component. Rates of autoimmunity are higher in people who regularly suffer from migraines. For example, migraines tend to be more common in patients with systemic lupus or irritable bowel syndrome (IBS).7,8 One reason for this may be due to inflammation.
Inflammation is at the root of nearly every chronic illness, and the more inflammation you have, the further along you are on the autoimmune spectrum. At the same time, patients with a migraine diagnosis tend to have higher levels of C-reactive protein, a marker for inflammation. When the blood vessels in your brain become inflamed—whether from stress, hormonal imbalances, environmental toxins, etc.—white blood cells flood the area to ”fight off” the danger, just as they would respond to a scrape or a virus. This can cause swelling that leads to the painful symptoms associated with migraines.
As with autoimmune conditions, migraines also have a genetic component. If one of your parents experienced migraines, you have a 50% chance of inheriting them. If both your parents had them, your chance rises to 75%.9 However, just because you inherit the gene does not mean you will necessarily develop an autoimmune condition or migraines. There are common triggers that can turn these genes “on” and increase your risk. Thankfully, this also means there is A LOT you can do to prevent migraines using simple changes to your diet and lifestyle!
The 5 Common Migraine Triggers
Stress is not purely psychological—it’s an actual inflammatory response. When faced with a stressful situation, your body releases cortisol and other fight-or-flight hormones. Your immune system revs up in response, ready to fight off any danger. Our modern lifestyle, full of chronic stressors, creates an inflammatory state that never lets your immune system cool down after the perceived threat has passed. Migraines can be triggered by stress-induced inflammation, either physical or emotional, which is why it’s crucial to find ways to relieve your stress on an everyday basis. Meditation, deep breathing, or even a short walk outside are all great strategies for managing stress. Find a technique that works for you and use it regularly.
2. Hormone Fluctuations
One explanation for why women are more susceptible to migraines is hormone imbalances. An underactive thyroid, which controls the body’s metabolic rate, can lead to fluctuating hormones (estrogen in particular), which can trigger migraines. This may be why women going through menopause or perimenopause may experience an increase in migraine attacks.10 This connection could be caused in part by the effect estrogen has on serotonin, a neurotransmitter that regulates pain and mood.11 Estrogen increases serotonin levels, so a significant drop in estrogen can lead to painful migraines, as well as depression and anxiety, which can exacerbate the severity of migraine headaches.12
3. Foods, Drinks, and Additives
Certain foods are known to trigger migraine headaches in some people. These foods include chemical additives such as aspartame, nitrates and nitrites, and monosodium glutamate (MSG).13 In fact, the FDA received so many reports of adverse reactions to foods containing MSG that these reactions (characterized by headaches, nausea, and facial pressure) were termed “MSG symptom complex”. Avoid these as much as possible, whether you have migraines or not!
Aged cheeses, red wine, cured meats, and other high-histamine foods are also likely to cause migraines, especially in those who have histamine intolerance. Histamine is a neurotransmitter that causes your blood vessels to swell, or dilate. This action notifies your immune system of potential dangers. People with histamine intolerance don’t break down histamines properly, and the buildup from high-histamine foods can cause blood vessel swelling that leads to migraines, dizziness, nausea and vomiting, facial redness, and a host of other symptoms. Skipping these common food triggers can go a long way to reducing the recurrence and severity of migraine headaches. Instead, load up your plate with these 7 foods that fight inflammation.
As simple as it sounds, dehydration could be behind your migraine headaches. When you are dehydrated, the fluid balance of your body is disrupted and your brain can actually shrink and pull away from your skull.14 Dehydration can be caused by excessive sweating during strenuous exercise, or simply from not drinking enough water throughout the day. Even being mildly dehydrated can lead to a migraine headache. The good news is that migraines caused by dehydration are easily prevented. Drink plenty of water (aim for at least 8 glasses at intervals during the day) and increase that amount when you exercise or during hot weather.
5. Sleep Disturbances
A whopping half of all migraines occur between 4am and 9am.15 People who suffer from migraines also tend to experience sleep disturbances including insomnia, restless leg syndrome, and sleep apnea.16 Impaired sleep can cause disruptions in hormone secretion and other bodily functions such as blood pressure regulation, which affects the blood vessels in your brain.17 Regulating your circadian rhythm and developing healthy sleep hygiene habits could help you overcome recurrent migraines, especially if you tend to wake up with a migraine.
Finding Relief Naturally
For a quick fix, many people rely on NSAIDs such as Advil, Motrin, and Excedrin to treat their migraines. However, these medications come with their own risks. NSAIDs can disrupt your gut flora and cause leaky gut, which can leave you even more susceptible to autoimmune issues.18 They have also been shown to cause intestinal bleeding, even at very low doses.19
Fortunately, you don’t have to sacrifice your gut health to find relief from migraines. Natural lifestyle solutions such as avoiding common food triggers, managing stress, supporting your sleep, and staying hydrated are all simple measures you can take to help prevent migraines from striking in the first place.
Consider a daily dose of curcumin! Curcumin, the active compound of turmeric, supports a healthy inflammatory response and optimal blood pressure. It also fights oxidative stress.20 What’s more, there are no known negative side effects to taking curcumin.
2. Omega 3s
The most powerful Omega 3s for supporting the immune system and an appropriate inflammatory response are the ones found in fish oil: docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) and eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA).
Prioritizing quality sleep and stress relief can help reduce your risk of migraines. One of my favorite supplements for supporting a relaxed mood and restorative sleep is magnesium. Magnesium promotes optimal blood vessel dilation. Proper blood flow is critical for optimal brain health, including the processes that produce the visual and sensory disturbances characteristic of auras. Blood flow also affects the chemicals in the brain that cause you to feel pain, including Substance P and glutamate (as in monosodium glutamate).21
Migraines can be a disruptive, extremely frustrating condition. However, your genes are not your destiny! You can significantly reduce the frequency and intensity of migraines by minimizing or avoiding the five triggers completely. Plus, adding a few natural supplements to support wellbeing and an optimal inflammatory response, can give you even more tools to take back your health and improve your life.