If you suffer from migraine headaches, you know all too well how intense they can be. These severe periods of pain, which can last up to 72 hours, are a form of vascular headaches—when nerve fibers inside your brain’s blood vessels are stimulated, narrowing them and decreasing oxygen flow. Although symptoms can be classic—throbbing pain, nausea, sensitivity to light and sound—the reasons for them aren’t so universal.
Though migraines can be complicated, taking the time to learn about and address some of the things that could be causing yours—beyond genetics or hormonal changes—can go a long way. You may have found solutions that can effectively ease your pain when it strikes (lying in a dark room, taking medications), but you could enjoy a future where you rely on them less and less.
Here are a few common causes of migraines—some of which may apply to you more than others, all of which you have some power to influence.
Stress and Unhealthy Sleep Habits
When you’re worried or anxious, your stress hormones—adrenaline, cortisol and norepinephrine, in particular—rise. This causes the chemicals in your brain to become imbalanced, which can provoke a migraine. Stress also encourages the release of peptides, protein particles that cause blood vessels to become inflamed, which can result in pain. The same can be said when you clock too few hours of restorative rest (or too many, for that matter).
Strategies for Managing Stress
Bank a Better Night’s Sleep
A balanced, healthy diet makes for a balanced, healthy body. Unfortunately, many people consume what’s known as the Standard American Diet (SAD)—plenty of starches and meats, but few fruits and vegetables; too much unhealthy fat, and not enough whole food carbohydrates. These choices create inflammation that can cause and perpetuate a migraine (and other health concerns), says Kevin Murray, N.D., naturopathic physician and licensed acupuncturist at Canyon Ranch in Lenox, Mass. Plus, SAD lacks antioxidants, vitamins and minerals, which can cause migraine-causing fatigue. Lack of magnesium can play a role too. According to the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey, 70 percent of Americans don’t meet their daily needs for magnesium—key for regulating blood vessel size and relaxing muscles. Eating more magnesium-rich foods, like rice and nuts, can help reduce the onset of migraines.
For a majority of migraine sufferers, specific foods and ingredients are the dietary culprits. Wheat, caffeine (or caffeine withdrawal), wine, chocolate, cheese and other dairy, and products that include chemical additives (like aspartame-containing soft drinks or processed meats with nitrates) are common offenders, but you may find that others affect you more. Reasons differ, but many are thought to affect blood flow and blood vessels in the brain.
From pollutants in the air to chemicals in your water, environmental elements can also play into your migraine pain. Though our bodies are used to breaking down such toxins, an overload can cause a “jam” in your blood stream. “You start feeling tired, you’re not thinking clearly—that lethargy can lead to headache,” says Murray. You may not be able to completely change the world around you on your own, but you can take steps to reduce toxins in your diet and aid your body’s natural detoxification abilities.
Detox Your Diet
Top 10 Body-Cleansing Foods
Exercise (be it from a class at the gym, daily chores or even sex) affects migraine sufferers differently. You may find that skipping workouts you’re normally dedicated to causes your migraines (or at least more severe pain when they strike); levels of “feel good” chemicals your body normally enjoys from breaking a sweat may be in short supply. Or, very intense activity might actually dilate vessels in your brain enough to set off your migraines. Tune into how your body reacts.
Stiffness below or at the base of your skull—often caused by tense neck or shoulder muscles—can cause head pain that can gradually develop into a migraine. Even clenching your teeth or tightening your jaw can tighten facial muscles enough to affect your trigeminal nerve, which runs from that area up to your head. The resulting irritation can cause a migraine to develop.