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Top 9 Migraine Triggers

A Widespread Problem

Migraine headaches affect over 37 million people in the United States alone and are one of the top 3 reasons someone visits an Emergency Room; and identification of migraine triggers a key to successful relief. The combination of an intense headache, nausea, vomiting, mood swings, food cravings, and unusual light, noise and smell sensitivity greatly impact the quality of one’s life.

What to Know and What to Avoid

The following are 9 common triggers of migraine headaches:

  1. Vertical Scrolling– When using computers, phones, and iPads, we are not only exposing our brain to high amounts of blue light but also spending more time scrolling vertically versus more typical horizontal eye movements. When we move our eyes up and down, we fire the part of our brainstem known as the midbrain. The midbrain controls everything from pupil contractions to our dopamine levels; and, most importantly, pain modulation. The upper part of the brainstem is where our “fight or flight” response lives. Stick to old fashioned books and print out articles instead of reading online. If primarily working via technology, limit your screen time to 30 minute increments and use blue blocking glasses after dark.
  2. Impaired Sleep– Sleep loss and oversleeping are common headache triggers. The hypothalamus is the part of the brain responsible for regulating sleep and wake cycles as well as pain modulation. Another link between migraine and sleep is melatonin levels; which is producing by the pineal gland in the brain. Simple changes like establishing a routine of consistent sleep and wake times can reduce the likelihood of this trigger. Aim to sleep 7-9 hours per night and remove any technology from the bedroom.
  3. Food Sensitivities– Studies have found a link between immune reactions to food and migraine headaches. Food sensitivities can occur from genetics, but also from “leaky gut syndrome” where the protective barrier in our intestines allows food particles to leak through and cause an immune response. This can occur from chronic antibiotic use and even a hit to the head/concussion. Keep a journal of what you eat and drink to find patterns of reactivity to certain foods. For a more accurate assessment, consider running a Food Sensitivity test to examine for immune IgA and IgG reactions. Elimination diets (even for 6 weeks) have been showing to reduce the number of headache days for migraine prone individuals.
  4. Muscle Spasms– Our eye muscles and neck muscles are deeply connecting through our inner ear balance system, the vestibular system. When we move our eyes, we can feel the back of the upper neck (occiput) move because these muscles are linking. When we are unable to stabilize our gaze on a specific target, we are constantly firing these muscles all day long and they become fatigued and inflamed. This happens when we try to maintain eye contact, when we are using technology all day long; even when we close our eyes. Working on gaze stabilization exercises, stretching the neck daily, and getting routine Chiropractic care is recommending.
  5. Excitotoxic Additives– Check your labels for common FDA approved food additives. Some have damaging neurological effects and can trigger migraines. These excitotoxins overstimulate the neurons whose job is to ensure proper communication within the brain. Try to avoid common food enhancers such as MSG (monosodium glutamate), which has been showing to cross the blood brain barrier and cause misfiring. Read labels for artificial sweeteners like Aspartame which is found in low calorie food products.
  6. Head Trauma/Concussion– Headaches are the most common reported side effects of a mild traumatic brain injury (mTBI). Trauma induced migraines occur most commonly among children and adolescents. These migraines can persist when the individual suffers from PCS (post-concussive syndrome) where full recovery after a hit to the head is not achieved. Consider being evaluated for continued symptoms if the headache frequency and severity changed after a concussion, fall, or motor vehicle accident. The “wait and see” approach is not always best.
  7. Stress– There are many ways that stress can impact migraines in those who are predisposed. These attacks can occur from biochemical changes such as cortisol that is being releasing response to stress. Often it is not the stressful situation itself, but rather our response to these stressors. Effective stress management skills have the potential to help reduce the frequency of migraine headaches. Stress reduction habits such as spending time outdoors, 1:2 breathing exercises, meditation practice, and more in-depth brain training with neurofeedback.
  8. Hormones- Headaches, especially migraines, have been linking with the hormone estrogen. This is largely because estrogen is not only a sex hormone, but it also controls the sensation and perception of pain. Hormone levels can shift due to many factors from perimenopause and pregnancy to oral contraceptives and hormone replacement therapy. If you notice that your migraines have changed along with other signs of hormonal changes (fatigue, joint pain, constipation, food cravings, acne), it may be time to check your estrogen levels.
  9. Exercise– Strenuous exercise can trigger migraines. Do not let this stop you from taking care of your physical health but rather create a more comfortable workout scenario. When picking the time or location, choose a temperature-controlled environment like indoors or early in the mornings in the summer. Exercising in hot and humid weather can increase the risk of developing a migraine due to dehydration or the inability to regulate body temperature (homeostasis). If an exercise continues to trigger a response, consider switching to a lower intensity option such as yoga, walking.

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