Health & Wellness

Migraine Triggers and Prevention


For people who suffer from migraines, certain foods, strong perfumes, flickering lights, weather changes and other environmental factors can set off an attack. But not everyone has the same triggers, and not every time—and that makes the migraine trigger a frustrating prey to hunt down. There is, however, general agreement about the most common triggers and it can be helpful to keep a headache journal. Track the day, time, severity, and duration of any migraine. Also take note of the foods, beverages, weather, and activities preceding the onset of the pain.

Food triggers

Here’s a partial list of major food triggers, according to the National Headache Foundation.

• Ripened cheeses (such as cheddar, Emmentaler, Stilton, Brie, and Camembert)

• Chocolate

• Marinated, pickled, or fermented food

• Foods that contain nitrites or nitrates (bacon, hot dogs) or MSG (soy sauce, meat tenderizers, seasoned salt)

• Sour cream

• Nuts, peanut butter

• Sourdough bread

• Broad beans, lima beans, fava beans, snow peas

• Figs, raisins, papayas, avocados, red plums

• Citrus fruits

• Excessive amounts (more than 2 cups total) of caffeinated beverages such as tea, coffee, or cola

• Alcohol (including red wine and beer)


For many women, the menstrual cycle is a major trigger. Attacks usually occur a few days before or during their period or, for some women, at ovulation. A drop in estrogen is believed to be the culprit. As women near menopause, fluctuating estrogen levels may also trigger an increase in migraines.

Your environment

Strong perfume is an immediate trigger for some, making common spaces (offices, churches) a challenge, and the beauty counters in big department stores a particular hell. For others, it can be flickering lights—even a movie screen in a darkened theater or sunshine flashing through trees on a road as they’re driving.


The most common migraine trigger is stress. Migraine sufferers are thought to be highly responsive emotionally. Anxiety, worry, shock, and sadness can all release certain brain chemicals that lead to a migraine headache. (Ironically, the sense of release after a stressful period can also lead to migraines, which could be the cause of weekend headaches.)

Jenny DeFino, 36, of Yonkers, N.Y., has learned to live with her triggers. For her, consistency is key.

“There are so many external things that can wreak havoc with your life. A lot of the time it has limited my social activities. I can’t stay up late with friends because I need a consistent sleep pattern. You just have to try to be very controlled in your environment.”

Don’t avoid all triggers just yet

Remember that triggers are different for everyone, so the foods and stressors here are a list of suspects, not convicts: You need to narrow it down to your own personal triggers. Try keeping a headache diary to help you identify the ones that trouble you.

“I don’t have my patients avoid these things, I just have them be aware of them,” says Larry Newman, MD, director of the Headache Institute at St. Luke’s-Roosevelt Hospital Center in New York City. “Not every trigger is a consistent trigger, so chocolate may do it to you some days but not other days. It may be a combination of you having chocolate when you are vulnerable and on your period, or having chocolate and it’s about to rain, or having chocolate and you didn’t sleep enough the night before.”

If you keep track of patterns over time, you should be able to make changes that will help you cope—without having to sacrifice unnecessarily.


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Chris G.
4 years ago

Long time migraine sufferer, I have found white flour a huge trigger for me, along w/some other things, but Amerge or its generic Naratriptan to be my lifesaver.

7 years ago

I began suffering with migraine headaches as a small child. As a child they were short lived but as I got older they lasted longer and longer. I had to go to an Emergency Room several times for help because I would be sick for 3-4 days, not able to eat or drink anything. When Imitrex finally became available it changed my life immensely. At the onset of a migraine I can take Imitrex and usually in 30 minutes feel complete relief. There are times though when I have been through a particularly stressful time that I may have to have a second dose of Imitrex to get rid of the pain. I know stress, choclate, and bright flashing lights are triggers for me. I have tried topomax and a couple of other meds my doctor wanted to try but the side effects were not worth it. I have learned to just deal with the migraines with the use of Imitrex.
I am so glad there if more recognition and treatments for migraines than when I was a child.

8 years ago

I have been living with migraines for nearly 40 years. The triggers vary but include bright light, aged cheese, relaxing after periods of high stress and, weirdly, the smell of buttered microwave popcorn. I am fortunate in that I get the 30-minute aura warning of the oncoming pain. The only solution for me is to take Immitrex as soon as my vision goes crazy and avoid the pain. Otherwise, I would be out of commission for at least 12 hours – no noise, no light – just survival until it’s all over.

Madeline M
8 years ago

My battle with migraines has been going on for 36 years and I could write a small book with all the different triggers that have come and gone, and the many different drugs that we have tried to prevent them, or stop them once they would get started. Results have been mostly mediocre.

Today I take Topimax at night, along with some extra herbal supplements, and all this has helped. But the closest thing to a silver bullet has been botox shots. These have stopped about 85% of the headaches I have in one month. Doctors have been unable to determine underlying causes. I suppose that’s good, but it doesn’t answer any questions.

Lynn W.
8 years ago

I’m 61 and had my first migraine in 5th grade – went totally blind. I have many triggers but the smell of tires (auto parts store) gets me as fast as light flashing off the chrome of a nearby car. Still get the blindness and nausea somewhat regularly but (fortunately) the pain doesn’t come that often anymore — just the ocular problems.

S Oehling
8 years ago

I come from a family of migraine sufferers. My father had migraines triggered by smelling gasoline engines. Once at a street carnival he became so ill he passed out while driving home. My sister had migraines everytime she had a stressful situation. I had them whenever a low-pressure weather system moved into the area. I had several aunts and cousins with migraines. I would say with that family history was deffinitely a factor.

My sister found when her doctor gave her a beta-blocker drug, her headaches stopped. I asked my doctor if this might help me. He put me on a low dose (10 mg.) of Corgard and later Nadolol. (I now take Metoprolol. These are generic versions I believe. They are relatively low in cost compared to drugs marketed for migraine sufferers.) My headaches let up and within a few months I was not having them at all. I sitll take a beta-blocker drug for other reasons, and do not have migraines at all.

Another generation in our family now has migraines. Some of my nieces and cousins have children with the problem. Heredity is definitely a possibility and even with that, what triggers them varies from person to person.

8 years ago

Is smoke of all kinds also a Migraine trigger? Like smoke from burning thing “candles, trash, smoked tobacco”, or smoked foods?

8 years ago
Reply to  unamercat

Almost anything can be a trigger, and certainly smoke could be. I have never, in almost 30 years of having migraines, figured out what mine are, but they definitely run in the family. My great grandmother looked down on anyone who got sick, but one of her “sick” headaches could put her in a darkened room for 3-4 days. I have finally found relief from a combination of Topamax (which has finally gone generic, thank god!), Nadalol and Elavil. These all have inexpensive generic forms available and for the first time in years I don’t have to rely on an expensive triptan for migraine relief!

8 years ago

The lack of sleep or a bad nights sleep is my trigger.

8 years ago

Bright sunlight, especially reflected on a heavy snow cover. Need those sunglasses!

8 years ago

The flickering lights also include CFL and LED bulbs.

8 years ago

The list does not mention aspartame, an ingredient found in diet sodas, which can also cause migraines. About 15-20 years ago, I was having crippling migraines where I had to retreat to bed in a darkened room for one to two days to recover. At that time, I was drinking at least one or more diet sodas a day – Coke, Pepsi, etc. I stopped drinking sodas and the headaches vanished. I did not make any other changes in diet or lifestyle; in fact, stress increased when I had quit working to take care of my daughters’ dad following a stroke. I figured out that the aspartame in the diet Coke I was the cause of the migraines and haven’t had one since as I carefully read labels and if the fine pring says, “aspartame” on it, I won’t drink it.

Patricia Campbell
8 years ago

I had an 18 hour brain buster a few days ago and it’s still lingering in the background. I wonder if it could be brought on by Red Tide neurotoxins. SW Florida is in the midst of one of the worst episodes of Red Tide in many years.

8 years ago

I never could understand why I would get a migraine the day after I was going through something particularly stressful. I didn’t know the “sense of release after a stressful period” could be a trigger. Thanks for that information as well as the other triggers you covered. Great article!

Rick G
8 years ago

It took years for me to finally figure out my trigger. Once I did, life got so much better. I didn’t see it on your list, but shellfish triggers me. I wasn’t able to figure it out until I tried the glucosamine for joints, and it instantly triggered. Since I’ve learned this, I’ve been relatively migraine free.

8 years ago

Very informative and practical article. Excellent work.

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