What triggers migraines, and is there anything you can do to prevent this condition if you’re susceptible? Learn more about these intense episodes and what you should do if you suffer with them.

If you’ve ever experienced a migraine, you’ll be aware of how disruptive the symptoms can be to your everyday life. More than just a simple headache, migraine is a chronic condition that causes severe, often throbbing pain on one or both sides of the head. It is sometimes accompanied by nausea, vomiting, and a range of sensory symptoms, such as seeing flashes of light, lines or spots in your vision, or extreme sensitivity to loud sounds or bright light.

Migraines can last for hours, days or even weeks, and have a debilitating effect on those affected and their families. Many people are unable to carry on with work or other everyday activities, and may be forced to avoid light, sound and other stimuli.

What causes migraines?

The precise cause of migraines is not completely understood. It is generally thought that the symptoms result from an over sensitivity in some people’s brains to ordinary stimuli. The condition seems to be genetic, with migraines tending to run in families. They are also more likely to affect women than men. Researchers have also identified certain genes that seem to be associated with particular types of migraines, and which may be the cause of the abnormal brain cell reactions.

In people who are genetically predisposed to migraine, an individual episode may be brought on by any of a number of triggers. These consist of both internal and external stimuli, although sometimes it can be difficult to establish a direct causal effect. Some of the commonly cited triggers include:

Physical triggers

being overtired; sleeping too much or too little; going too long without eating, such that your blood sugar drops (hypoglycaemia); keeping irregular hours, as with shift work; having poor posture; and reactions to certain types of medication, such as sleeping pills, the combined contraceptive pill, and hormone replacement therapy (HRT).

Dietary triggers

dehydration; large amounts of caffeine or alcohol; certain food additives, such as tyramine; particular foods to which some people may have sensitivity, such as citrus, chocolate, gluten or cheese.

Environmental triggers

bright light; loud noises; strong odours, especially cigarette smoke; overly warm or stuffy conditions; sudden changes in temperature, humidity or other climatic conditions; flickering lights, such as a poorly adjusted computer or television screen, or overhead bulb.

Emotional triggers

feeling stressed or anxious; being tense or overly excited; experiencing depression or a sudden shock.

The specific triggers may vary by person and change over time, and sometimes require a combination of several of the above factors to set off an attack. Hormones are also thought to play a role in how sensitive people are to triggers. Women in particular, tend to report more migraines around the time of their monthly period, when oestrogen levels drop in the body. This could also explain why women are more susceptible to migraines than men, as they usually experience more frequent and drastic hormonal fluctuations throughout their lives.

What to do if you suffer from migraines

If you believe you are suffering from migraines, it is important to speak to your GP for a diagnosis. This can usually be done on the basis of your symptoms and case history, and gives them an opportunity to rule out other causes of the pain. You should immediately seek medical assistance if your migraine is accompanied by other severe symptoms – such as weakness or paralysis on one side of the body or face, difficulty speaking, confusion, seizures, double vision or a high fever – as these may indicate a stroke or other serious illness.

There are medications and treatments available for when the symptoms take hold, which can be prescribed based on the frequency and severity of your headaches. These include:

Your doctor or consultant will advise on the treatments that are most appropriate for you.

Can migraines be prevented?

One of the first steps in preventing migraines, is to avoid any known or potential triggers as much as possible. If you’re not sure what your triggers are, it can help to track the onset and development of your symptoms in a migraine diary. This can help you to identify a pattern in your attacks or an association with a particular food, environmental factor or physical or emotional state.

It can also help to maintain an overall healthy lifestyle. A balanced diet, that avoids excess alcohol, caffeine and sugar, and frequent moderate exercise to help relieve stress and keep your body functioning at its peak. Since migraines are often triggered by changes to your body’s status quo, it can be useful to establish and stick to a routine which includes regular mealtimes and sufficient sleep. If you anticipate changes to this routine – for instance, when travelling, or over the festive period when you’ll be attending lots of parties and social events – try to ease your body into it gently, so as to minimise the disruption and decrease the risk of an attack.


Don’t forget, if you’re a Vitality health insurance member, you can set up video GP consultations and get onward consultant referrals via the Vitality GP app.