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7 Migraine Triggers and Causes

In this post today I'm sharing causes and triggers so you can eliminate them one by one and then in a follow-up post I will share some natural solutions for migraines.
Dec 5, 2019 | Joy McCarthy

When I was in grade seven playing field hockey, before I realized it, my opponent drew back her stick back and “slapshotted” me in the side of the head. It knocked me out for about 30 seconds and as I lay on the field, I noticed the whole side of my face was soaking wet... from blood. She literally hit me on the orbital bone—the bone that holds your eye between your temple and your eyeball. After some stitches, I was fine… or at least I thought I was.

This was also the same year I hit puberty, so my hormones were changing (maybe even raging) and I still remember my first migraine clear as day. I was getting ready to go out to the movies with some friends.

I looked at myself in the mirror and I couldn’t see half of my face. I looked at my hand and it looked like I had two fingers missing!!!

This was pretty terrifying. I didn’t know if this meant I was having a stroke or I had been taken over by aliens. This progressed into a sensitivity to light and noise, and then later on, debilitating, pounding pain in my head that lasted for over 24 hours with severe nausea.


This was the beginning of my experience with migraines. Of course, my parents took me to the doctor, and I had a battery of tests from cat scans to blood tests and I was diagnosed with a “classic” migraine. Classic migraines are preceded by an aura (that was the part that made me think I was going blind), sensitivity to light/noise, nausea and pounding pain.

I suffered from migraines on and off only for about two years, until I identified my triggers; one of them being chocolate. I still don’t know to this day if it was that field hockey accident or the tsunami of hormones I was experiencing that provided the perfect storm for me develop them.

Here I am today, a holistic nutritionist and happy to report I rarely get them anymore. Once in a while a get a real doozy of a headache before my period and sometimes with a bit of nausea, but not to the extent I had as a young child. I realize this was a long introduction to share with you, but I wanted you to know I’ve been there too.

In this post today I'm sharing causes and triggers so you can eliminate them one by one and then in a follow-up post I will share some natural solutions for migraines. 

This post will also help you address headaches too, because they have very similar causes and triggers. Migraines are the third most prevalent illness in the world, and now nearly one in four U.S. households includes someone who has at least occasional migraines. I don’t want you to suffer anymore!

Food Sensitivities

Diet plays a significant role for individuals with migraines. Food sensitivities are one of the most common triggers. There are no specific foods or drinks that trigger migraines for everyone like for me it was even chocolate the size of a crumb; however, there are certain foods that have been identified as culprits, including:

  • Refined sugar
  • Artificial sweeteners
  • Alcohol
  • Coffee
  • Processed grains
  • Conventional dairy products
  • Chocolate (still a bit of a trigger for me)
  • Eggs
  • Food additives: nitrates, sulfates, MSG
  • Oranges and citrus fruits
  • Tomato
  • Peanuts

Individuals with migraines may also be sensitive to histamines which are chemicals in the body that play a role in our immune health, digestion, and central nervous system. Histamines also help modulate our inflammatory responses that cause the blood vessels in the body and brain to dilate and contract (more on that below!) 

Histamine Connection

An intolerance to histamines is the result of a defect in the enzyme diamine oxide (DAO), that helps break histamines down. When histamines accumulate in the body, they can result in a number of reactions, including migraine headaches. This reaction may also be related to the dilation of blood vessels in the brain triggered by a histamine reaction.

Many foods are high in histamines and as healthy as they may be and avoiding them can help prevent migraines and reduce their frequency.

Histamine rich foods to avoid are:

  • Fermented foods: sauerkraut, vinegar, soy sauce, kefir, yogurt, kombucha, fermented cheese, yogurt, and kefir
  • Vegetables: eggplant, avocados, spinach, tomatoes
  • Seafood: shellfish or fish
  • Citrus fruits: oranges, limes, lemons
  • Dried fruits: raisins, dates, figs, prunes
  • Nuts: walnuts, cashews, peanuts
  • Processed meats & smoked fish
  • Leftover foods: specifically, meats
  • Eggs

Bacteria found in the mouth

One potential migraine trigger that you may not have thought about before are the bugs that live in your mouth. You’ve heard me talk about the microbiome before here and here when Walker and I interviewed University of British Columbia Microbiologist Dr. Brett Finlay. But, there’s also an oral microbiome! You’ve also got millions of bugs that live in your mouth and there are specific bacteria that have been identified in studies as a potential trigger for migraines. So, skip the mouthwash!

Researchers have found that the bacteria in the mouths of people who suffer from migraines have a higher number of microbes that break down nitrates.

  • Foods high in natural nitrates include beets, celery, lettuce, radish and spinach
  • Nitrates are also added to processed meats as a preservative to enhance flavour and colour

The microbes responsible for breaking down nitrates play an essential role in converting nitrates into nitric oxide. Nitric oxide is important for helping to widen blood vessels. However, research suggests that if there are too many of these nitrate loving bugs in the mouth, they can break down nitrates too quickly. This process causes the blood vessels in the brain and scalp to dilate, resulting in a migraine. So, maybe it’s time to skip that prosciutto on your pizza!

Neurotransmitter deficiency

The neurotransmitter serotonin, which we often associate with helping to regulate our mood, has been identified as a migraine trigger. Studies have shown that migraine patients tend to have lower levels of serotonin in their brains. Low levels of serotonin can impact the blood vessels and nerves in the brain, causing them to become inflamed, which in turn can trigger a migraine.

Melatonin, a hormone that regulates our sleep-wake cycles, is also derived from serotonin. If we have low levels of serotonin, we therefore have low levels of melatonin.

Studies have also shown that patients suffering from chronic migraines also have unusually low levels of melatonin.


Hormonal Imbalances

Unfortunately for us ladies, migraines do in fact affect more women than men. Women make up approximately 70% of all migraine suffers, and research suggests a strong hormonal connection. Most women experience their first migraine during puberty and will experience increased frequency of migraines during PMS, their first trimester of pregnancy, and during menopause. A phenomenon referred to as “estrogen withdrawal,” which occurs during the late luteal phase leading up to a women’s period, has been linked to migraines triggered by hormones.

Although some women may take the birth control pill to alleviate migraines, it has also been implicated in activating migraines for others.

This was the case for me—in my teens I was on the pill and it made them worse. During the placebo week on hormonal birth control, estrogen can drop significantly. Fluctuations in estrogen can then increase inflammation in the brain and body.

Our hormones, insulin and glucagon also regulate our blood sugar levels. When we skip meals or do not eat enough, our blood-glucose levels can drop too low. If the brain is not getting enough glucose or energy, then migraines can result. This can also be a trigger for headaches too, and I mention it because it’s definitely a trigger for me!

For more on hormones and how they relate to our cycle, check out this interview with hormone expert Jenn Pike.

Weather Changes

One common trigger that is entirely out of our control are changes in the weather! Researchers have found that even the slightest change in atmospheric pressure can activate a migraine. One study from Japan identified a connection between the increased sale of migraine relieving drugs with a drop in atmospheric pressure.


Stress is a common denominator for almost every health issue out there! This is because stress triggers an inflammatory response in our bodies. So, it is no surprise that stress can increase the frequency and severity of migraines. Studies have shown that 50-80% of individuals with migraine headaches list stress as one of the main culprits for their symptoms.

There are other factors that are less researched and not as well known, but in speaking to many migraine sufferers they are definitely a trigger. 

  • Artificial blue light from mobile devices or computers
  • EMF radiation from mobile devices or computers

Now that you know all the potential triggers, I do hope I’ve uncovered some new information for you because half the battle is identifying your causes. Sometimes just eliminating those triggers is enough to stop a migraine in its tracks.

Next week I will follow up with another post on natural solutions for migraines. 

Wishing you a migraine-free week!

Joy xo

France Gingras   •   December 10, 2019

Thank you for sharing .... my migraines started when I was a teenager and I still get them and I absolutely agree with this information ... food sensitivities are my main triggers and you would think I would eliminate them but unfortunately when I feel good I think to myself oh just one little piece of chocolate should be ok this time lol not so as it’s difficult to break bad habits 😩thank you this is excellent information 😊

Joy McCarthy   •   December 10, 2019

Karen   •   December 11, 2019

Thank you for this! My boyfriend gets terrible migraines.....I will share this with him a d hopefully it will help him!

Joy McCarthy   •   December 12, 2019

Marni   •   December 14, 2019

Interesting read. I've only been a migraine sufferer for the last 10 years. Mine developed after I had all of my wisdom teeth removed. Prior to that I was just a regular headache type. Migraines are the pits - auras, pain, burning sensations and creepy feelings up my neck and head. But my superpower is predicting the weather. I even set up a Facebook page to warn my friends to get their clothes off the line because I'm accurate to about 30 minutes. I am intrigued though because the studies you link to talk about the barometric pressure dropping and people being triggered where mine is when the pressure goes up. I'm currently in the middle of testing meds and scans and stuff. Doctors are baffled. Long battle but interesting learning all of this stuff.

Joy McCarthy   •   December 16, 2019

Annette K   •   December 20, 2019

Thank you for this great post! I have suffered with migraines since my early teens and still suffer with them today at 52 after menopause. I believe food sensitivities play a big role in my migraines as well as strong smells and the weather. I try to follow a clean diet (celiac and dairy intolerant) but when I feel good I always hope one taste (feel so deprived at times) won’t hurt but it’s usually backfires. My parents both suffered with migraines, my mom was worse than my dad for migraines .... I continue on my health journey hoping one day to have minimal to no migraines!

Joy McCarthy   •   December 22, 2019

Pamela   •   December 26, 2019

Hi, Did you send out your 2nd segment on migraines. I'm looking forward to reading it.

Joy McCarthy   •   December 26, 2019

Michaele Suisse   •   February 4, 2020

Hi Joy, Thank you for this wealth of information. Curious if you have any references for the histamine connection? I've found cutting out animal products and processed foods solved my migraines 99%. Wonder if there is a difference between animal and plant-based histamines.

Joy McCarthy   •   February 6, 2020

Lauren Ferraro   •   December 11, 2021

Hi Joy are you or someone on your team doing 1:1 sessions these days?

Joy McCarthy   •   December 13, 2021

Michael Ketchum   •   December 12, 2021

Excellent information on migraine causes!!! I’ve had migraines since I was a young child, but at that time my mom just thought I had the “flu”. I realized in my 20’s as I began my teaching career and began drinking coffee, I was as getting auras, followed by severe headaches and the vomiting. After a couple of years of this I was diagnosed with migraines and prescribed medication. Taking the medicine just didn’t sit well with me, so I didn’t take it and stopped drinking anything with caffeine, even cola!! This of course had many benefits and greatly reduced the number of migraines and there severity. Stress is the remaining factor that I have some control over, but severe weather low pressure systems will bring them on some. It’s about taking control of the factors in our lives that we can and then we can feel much better!!

Joy McCarthy   •   December 13, 2021

Destiny Hill   •   February 12, 2022

Reading your article, I just have no words! I have always described my migraines like having a stroke! People have a had time understanding and believing me. It is so nice (although horrible) to have someone else describe it exactly like me. It took me years to find out the it was from food and then all of the foods that I couldn’t have! I am still discovering things 8 years later, that sneak in ingredients, like Jello! I’m allergic to chicken, eggs and therefore I can’t have anything with Soy lecithin. Not just eating, but the touch and the smell cause a bad reaction with these allergens.

Joy McCarthy   •   February 14, 2022

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