Migraines | Causes & Risk Factors

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What causes migraines?

Doctors don’t know exactly what causes migraines. It appears that migraine headaches may 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. Another aspect that is being studied is that migraine headaches go along with a spreading pattern of electrical activity in the brain.

What are some migraine risk factors and triggers?

Some things make you more likely to get migraine headaches (these are called “risk factors”). Other things may bring on a migraine (these are called “triggers”).

Common migraine risk factors include the following:

  • Family history: You are much more likely to have migraines if one or both of your parents had migraines.
  • Sex: Women are more likely than men to have migraines.
  • Age: Most people have their first migraine during adolescence, but migraines can start at any age, usually before age 40.

Common migraine triggers include the following:

  • Food and drink: Certain food and drink (see list below) may cause migraines. Dehydration and dieting or skipping meals may also trigger migraines.
  • Hormone changes: Women may experience migraines related to their menstrual cycles, to menopause, or to using hormonal birth control or hormone replacement therapy.
  • Stress: Stress may trigger migraines. Stress includes feeling overwhelmed at home or work, but your body can also be stressed if you exercise too much or don’t get enough sleep.
  • Senses: Loud sounds, bright lights (such as flashing lights or sunlight), or strong smells (such as paint fumes) may trigger migraines.
  • Medicines: Certain medicines may trigger migraines. If you think your migraines might be related to your medicine, talk to your doctor. Your doctor may be able to prescribe a different medicine.
  • Illness: Infections, such as the cold or the flu, may trigger migraines, especially in children.

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: 04/14
Created: 01/96

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