What Causes Migraines? (It’s Not What You Might Think)

what causes migraines

As you recover from a migraine, you may feel drained and exhausted. One of these episodes–much more than just a headache–takes a lot out of you. So your first thought might be how to prevent another one. To do that, you need to figure out what causes migraines.

To ask what causes migraines is a rather complex question. There are so many reasons they happen, that it’s difficult for doctors to pinpoint specific causes for each patient. Instead, they work with individual patients to identify triggers. These triggers vary from person to person.


What is a Migraine?

A common misconception about migraines is they’re just really bad headaches. But, if you’ve ever had one, you know that they are much more than that and how debilitating they can be. Before we can parse the causes we need to understand the nature of migraines.

Doctors describe migraine as a neurological disease typically caused by changes in brain chemistry. Migraine patients generally suffer from a headache of moderate to severe pain. The symptoms and pain levels vary for everyone. Some symptoms include dizziness, nausea, and light or sound sensitivity. Some migraines last a few hours, others for days.

According to the Science of Migraine, studies show that more than 1 in 3 adults suffer from this disease. It is also “the seventh leading cause of years lived with disability worldwide.”


Migraine Causes

Many doctors, myself included, suspect that migraine causes are typically environmental. Contributing factors include:

  • Stress
  • Diet
  • Hormones
  • Changes in weather

Patients report individual triggers as diverse as the smell of artificial cinnamon to high barometric pressure. Migraines affect both genders but they are more predominant in women than men. This is likely due to hormonal differences. Doctors suspect that women suffer most when estrogen levels reach their lowest point in the menstrual cycle.


Body Chemistry

Doctors have some ideas about why certain people suffer more than others. One variable at play is body chemistry.

The Mayo Clinic discusses how a chemical imbalance in the brain may cause migraines. They pinpoint serotonin specifically as it helps regulate pain in the nervous system. “Serotonin levels drop during migraine attacks. This may cause your trigeminal nerve to release substances called neuropeptides, which travel to your brain’s outer covering (meninges),” they explain.


Genetics and Age

A family history of migraines may also predict your chances of suffering. According to the American Migraine Foundation, “if one or both of your parents have it, there is a 50-75% chance you will too.” They recommend asking each member of your family about their history with migraines, including what age they first experienced them.

It is believed that age plays a large role. The Mayo Clinic states that migraines “peak” in a person’s 30s. They tend to decrease in the 40s and 50s.


Dietary Triggers

Certain dietary habits can cause headaches or migraines. Many triggers hide in our everyday foods. For instance, some patients figure out that tyramine triggers their migraines. Tyramine occurs naturally in the fermentation process of certain foods. Common sources include aged cheese, processed or cured meats, and pickled vegetables like sauerkraut or olives.

Additives like aspartame and MSG could also cause migraines. You’re probably familiar with these, if not from my warnings, then from public resistance to both of them. Aspartame is used as an artificial sweetener, such as in diet soda, to lower calorie count. You’ll probably be most familiar with aspartame by the name of Equal.

MSG, or monosodium glutamate, comes in many packaged foods and restaurant meals. Food producers use it as a flavor additive. It can lead to a wide range of health issues, not just migraines. It contributes to overall poor health, as it adds a huge amount of sodium to your diet.

Other dietary triggers include things like going too long without eating. Some report getting migraines from too much caffeine or alcohol, especially red wine. If you think one of these may be a trigger, try to cut it out completely and quickly. Once you get it out of your system and adjust, introduce it back into your diet slowly. If the migraines return, you have found one of your triggers.


Sometimes it can be difficult to pin down what exactly is triggering your migraines. If you are suffering, a helpful tool can be writing down what you ate or what you were doing when a migraine started. Then, make an appointment with your doctor to review your records. Identifying your triggers is the first step toward feeling better.


Please feel free to contact me to schedule a telemedicine consultation or office consultation at our Integrative Medical Center in Metamora, Indiana. I will be glad to help you.

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