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What's Causing Your Migraines?

Dec 4 2020
5 min read
Man pulling curtains closed.

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 what’s at the root of yours — beyond genetics or hormonal changes — can go a long way. And while you may have found ways to ease your pain when it strikes (lying in a dark room, taking medications), wouldn’t it be nice to enjoy a future where you rely on them less and less? To help, here are common causes of migraines that 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, which are protein particles that cause blood vessels to become inflamed, and often results in pain. The same can be said when you clock too few hours of restorative rest (or too many, for that matter).

Poor Nutrition

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 — a key mineral to regulate blood vessel size and to relax muscles. Magnesium also helps keep blood pressure normal, bones strong, and the heart rhythm steady. Eating more magnesium-rich foods, like rice and nuts, can help reduce the onset of migraines.

Trigger Foods

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, as well as products that include chemical additives (like aspartame-containing soft drinks or processed meats with nitrates) are common offenders. Reasons differ, but many are thought to affect blood flow and blood vessels in the brain. Consider keeping a food/headache diary to help uncover your specific triggers.


From pollutants in the air to chemicals in your water, environmental elements can also play a role in spiking 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.

Physical Activity

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.

Muscle Tension

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.

Headshot of Kevin Murray, ND, LAc at Canyon Ranch Lenox

About the Expert

Headshot of Kevin Murray, ND, LAc at Canyon Ranch Lenox

Kevin Murray

ND, LAc, Naturopathic Doctor, Acupuncturist

With a background in naturopathic medicine, acupuncture, and education, Dr. Murray brings a holistic approach to developing personalized treatment plans for our guests.

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