Migraines | Causes & Risk Factors

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What causes migraines?

Migraine headaches seem to be caused in part by changes in the level of a body chemical called serotonin. Serotonin plays many roles in the body, and it can have an effect on the blood vessels. When serotonin levels are high, blood vessels constrict (shrink). When serotonin levels fall, the blood vessels dilate (swell). This swelling can cause pain or other problems.

What can set off a migraine?

Things that can set off migraines include the following:

  • Strong or unusual odors, bright lights or loud noises
  • Changes in weather or altitude
  • Feeling tired, stressed or depressed
  • Changes in sleeping patterns
  • Certain foods (see the list below), especially those that contain tyramine, sodium nitrate or phenylalanine
  • Missing meals or fasting
  • Menstrual periods, birth control pills or hormonal changes (in women)
  • Intense physical activity, including sexual activity
  • Smoking
  • Fumes

Foods that may trigger migraines:

  • Aged, canned, cured or processed meat, including bologna, game, ham, herring, hot dogs, pepperoni and sausage
  • Aged cheese
  • Alcoholic beverages, especially red wine
  • Aspartame
  • Avocados
  • Beans, including pole, broad, lima, Italian, navy, pinto and garbanzo
  • Brewer's yeast, including fresh yeast coffee cake, donuts and sourdough bread
  • Caffeine (in excess)
  • Canned soup or bouillon cubes
  • Chocolate, cocoa and carob
  • Cultured dairy products, such as buttermilk and sour cream
  • Figs
  • Lentils
  • Meat tenderizer
  • Monosodium glutamate (MSG)
  • Nuts and peanut butter
  • Onions, except small amounts for flavoring
  • Papaya
  • Passion fruit
  • Pea pods
  • Pickled, preserved or marinated foods, such as olives and pickles, and some snack foods
  • Raisins
  • Red plums
  • Sauerkraut
  • Seasoned salt
  • Snow peas
  • Soy sauce

Source

Headaches in Children and Adolescents by DW Lewis, M.D. (American Family Physician February 15, 2002, http://www.aafp.org/afp/20020215/625.html)

Written by familydoctor.org editorial staff

Reviewed/Updated: 09/10
Created: 01/96

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