Woman holding a piece of chocolate

Tame Your Triggers

If your migraines seem out of control, one way to get back to feeling your best is to identify your triggers — and then learn how to manage or avoid them! The tricky part? Figuring out which triggers are affecting you. Read on for the best ways to manage the most common culprits.


TRIGGER: Food/food additives.
While food triggers tend to be unique for each individual, there are some that are more common, including chocolate, aged cheeses, processed meats, monosodium glutamate (MSG), artificial sweeteners, onions, tree nuts and seeds.

Managing a food trigger is simple — just avoid that ingredient in your diet. With additives like MSG or artificial sweeteners, you may need to be extra cautious about processed foods or ordering foods while eating out — be sure to research the different names the additive may be listed as (MSG, for example, can be listed using more than two dozen different names!) and always read nutrition labels. For items like nuts or cheese, you may find you react to some types but not others, so you may not need to give those foods up completely. Use an elimination diet to pinpoint which versions of those foods are potentially safe for you, and which are not.

TRIGGER: Hunger or overeating.
A sudden drop or spike in blood sugar can trigger migraines in some.

Try a trick that works for many people with diabetes: mini-meals! With this method, you eat smaller meals five or six times per day, rather than the typical three larger meals at breakfast, lunch and dinner that can lead to more extreme blood sugar swings.

TRIGGER: Stress.
One of the most common migraine triggers, both stress and the “let down” after a stressful event (like, say, the day after finishing a big test) can result in a migraine for some.

While some stress is unavoidable, you can help limit your body’s hormonal response to it by performing calming activities on a regular basis. These could be any activity you enjoy, such as reading or knitting, or an activity specifically designed to lower stress levels, such as meditation or deep-breathing.

Perfume and/or scented beauty or cleaning products are also some of the most likely migraine triggers.

If scented bath and beauty products are triggers, look for perfume- and scent-free versions (the section for sensitive-skin products can have lots of options), and don’t forget to do the same with your laundry detergent. If cleaning products are an issue, try making your own cleansers using vinegar or lemon juice. Since it’s not always possible to control the odors in your environment, one trick is to carry a medical mask you can put on if you encounter a triggering scent; or try carrying a small jar of coffee beans or another strongly scented item that you can open and breathe in when needed.

TRIGGER: Changes in your sleep routine.
Migraine sufferers are sensitive to schedule changes, particularly sleeping too much or too little.

Set alarms on your phone to help remind you each night when you should start getting ready for bed, and keep your wakeup alarm at the same time whether it’s a weekday or weekend.

TRIGGER: Weather changes.
Changes in barometric pressure and cold or humid weather can alter your body’s chemical balance. In the same vein, going from a cold air-conditioned room to hot outdoor temperatures in the summer, or a chilly winter day to a warm, stuffy room can spark a migraine.

While you can’t control the weather, you can keep an eye on forecasts and predict when a weather shift might trigger an attack, and take your medication preemptively to hopefully prevent or at least lessen the migraine’s severity. If temperature changes are an issue, dress in layers all year round, so you can pull off or put on clothes as needed to keep your body temperature stable.

TRIGGER: Hormone changes.
Sixty percent of women who suffer from migraines do so when estrogen levels drop (such as just before menstruation starts or during perimenopause).

Ask your healthcare provider if hormone replacement therapy (or hormonal birth control) might be an option for you, as this can help regulate the triggering hormone fluctuations. It may also help to track your hormone cycle and learn when your migraines are most likely to strike so you can use your rescue medications preemptively.

Nearly 90% of all migraine sufferers are sensitive to light. In a study published in Nature Neuroscience, researchers discovered a pathway in the brain that links the visual system to that which produces head pain.

If the light from electronic screens (such as phones, computers and tablets) are the issue, you can purchase special glasses that filter out the troublesome type of light these devices emit (look for them on sites like axonoptics.com or theraspecs.com), as well as filters you can place directly on the screens of the devices themselves. If fluorescent lights are the issue, considering switching them out for LED or incandescent bulbs where possible, or try wearing a visor or hat to block the glare.