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.Isolating your personal headache causes 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, even weather changes and smells can lead to migraines. Some people react to headache causes consistently; for others, the item that triggers a headache one day may not trigger it the next. Using a headache diary may help narrow down possible triggers.
Food and Food Additives
Foods and food additives are extremely common dietary triggers. While any food can conceivably be a 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, coffee, and red wine.
Cured / Smoked Meats: ham, bacon and other cured meats contain both nitrates and nitrite, common migraine triggers.
Dried fruits: apricots, most notably, often contain sulfite
as a preservative.
Starches: potatoes and yeast breads.
Legumes: most peas, and beans.
Chocolate and Diet Chocolate: 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.
Artificial Sweeteners: aspartame, saccharin.
Stress and Muscle Tension
Stress, both emotional and physical, can cause 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.
Light, sound and smells: all have the potential to elicit migraines. 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 trigger.
Noise, either intensely loud or prolonged, can start 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: most people know of motion sickness, either from the movement of cars, planes, or ships. Those same motions have been know to cause migraines in some people.
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 capable of setting a migraine in motion.
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 only found in Chinese food, it is often added to canned soups and seasonings. If you are sensitive to MSG, check labels carefully.