To this day, the exact causes of a migraine have not been determined. What has been determined however, is that genetic, environmental and lifestyle factors appear to play a significant role in migraine attacks.
From a scientific standpoint, migraine attacks are believed to be triggered by brain chemical imbalances. This includes serotonin, which aids pain regulation in the nervous system. Changes in the brainstem and its interactions with the trigeminal nerve (largest cranial nerve responsible for sensations in the face, and motor functions) are also believed to be involved as well.
Realising that what takes place within the body hinges largely on how we carry out daily activities, let’s learn more about five of the most common migraine triggers around.
Lack of Quality Sleep
It is widely known that regular, restful sleep of between 7-8 hours per day can be extremely beneficial for one’s overall health. Believe it or not, both too little and too much sleep can in fact trigger a migraine attack. However, a migraine attack’s relation to sleep is much more complex as it not only relates to sleep duration, but quality of sleep which is directly affected by sleep disorders.
Sleep disorders such as insomnia and sleep apnea, or snoring and teeth grinding can be triggers of a migraine. All these disorders all have one thing in common – poor restful sleep. Not getting enough restful sleep can result in fatigue, loss of concentration and motivation, besides triggering a migraine attack.
Consuming Too Much Caffeine
The consumption of caffeine is actually associated with pain relief, especially in migraine attacks. This is because migraine attacks relate to adenosine, a naturally-occurring and necessary brain substance in the body. Adenosine acts by sticking to certain receptor molecules on the surfaces of brain cells. It also increases an individual’s blood levels during a migraine attack, causing pain. Caffeine can block the action of these receptors, and in turn stop the effects of adenosine.
However, excessive consumption of caffeine daily may invoke a tolerance in the brain. This creates a dependency towards caffeine that if unmet, can result in a variety of withdrawal effects. For example, headaches, nausea, fatigue, difficulty concentrating and other symptoms related to migraine. A “weekend migraine” too, may be a withdrawal effect as a result of caffeine deprivation. This relates to attacks caused by “sleeping in” longer on weekends with the purpose of delaying the consumption of an early morning coffee.
Staring Too Long at a Computer Screen
Sitting in front of a computer for prolonged periods can have serious consequences for migraine sufferers. This is especially prevalent in those who suffer from sensitivity to light (also known as photophobia). It is unclear as to how staring at a computer screen causes migraine, but it can relate to several different factors. One of these factors is screen brightness. This is mainly due to light intensity, as well as the differences between both light and dark screen contrasts.
Another contributing factor is the duration of exposure, which can cause both short and long term effects. For example, intensive viewing for a minimum of 30 minutes can cause computer vision syndrome symptoms, including headaches. On the other hand, continuous screen exposure of 2 hours daily can result in headaches, while daily exposure of anywhere between 4-9 hours can be extremely debilitating. Additionally, certain screen colours can be catalysts of headaches and migraine attacks – specifically those involving blue and green spectrums. Most visible screen lights fall into this category, which makes avoidance extremely difficult. Not only that, blue light is also believed to impact sleep patterns, as well as other biological processes. Low resolution computer screens can also produce visual signals which contribute to migraines.
Being Out of Sync with the Environment
Interestingly enough, environmental factors can also be directly linked to the occurrence of a migraine attack. These include high altitudes, changes in weather, humidity, and loud noises. A change in weather, be it extremely cold or humid temperatures, can affect the body’s chemical balance, triggering a migraine.
A change in pressure too, such as those that occur when flying in an airplane or diving in the deep sea, can trigger migraines. Similarly, individuals living or traversing in high altitudes can experience migraines as a result of change in barometric pressure. Bright lights can also trigger migraine attacks, especially if they are flickering. This form of flickering light usually appears as sun reflections in snow, sand or water.
Change in Hormones
Fluctuation of a woman’s hormone levels can be a significant contributing factor to the occurrence of menstrual migraines. This change in hormonal levels happens during three stages of a woman’s life – monthly menstrual cycle, pregnancy, and menopause. It is important to note that the occurrence of hormonal migraines is associated directly with the estrogen hormone.
Prior to a woman’s menstruation, her estrogen and progesterone hormones drop to their lowest levels, while fluctuating hormone levels during the years leading up to menopause (also known as perimenopause) can trigger a migraine attack. For pregnant women, migraines usually occur during the early stages of pregnancy, but tend to go away after the first trimester.
Migraines and their preceding triggers can be different for each individual. Therefore, it is extremely important to pay close attention to your personal triggers and stay clear from them. Understanding these unique triggers will also help neurologists to deliver a proper diagnosis, which in turn allows for better treatment of your symptoms.
Hello Health Group does not provide medical advice, diagnosis or treatment.