Migraine Headaches 101: Causes and Triggers

Julia Dosik BS, MPH

What is a Migraine?

A migraine is a type of headache characterized by an extreme sensitivity to light, sound and/or smell, painful throbbing on one or both sides of the head, nausea, vomiting, dizziness, lightheadedness, blurry vision and an overall feeling of weakness. Do any of these symptoms sound familiar to you? If so, you could be one of the over 37 million Americans that suffer from migraines.

You may be wondering what you can do to keep these draining headaches at bay. Well, the first place to start is to understand the facts around them. What causes migraines? Is there a genetic component? What are auras? We will answer these questions below!

Migraine Causes

Although science has yet to uncover the cause of migraines, several theories have been developed. One theory is that blood flow in specific brain regions begins to decrease, which may contribute to the onset of pain localized in one area of the head. Another theory is that pain occurs due to waves of activity from excitable brain cells. These waves of activity spark chemicals in the brain to narrow blood vessels. Abnormalities in the communication between brain chemicals and nerve cells may also cause migraine episodes. For women specifically, migraines occur more often than men because of their fluctuating estrogen levels during fertile and post-menopausal years.2 However, that does not mean that men are immune to the attacks of migraines.

Do Genetics Play a Role in Migraine Headaches?

As with many other health conditions, migraines do have a genetic component. In fact, when one or both parents suffer from migraines, their children have a 50-75% chance of getting them, too.3

What are Auras?

Migraines are usually associated with visual, sensory or motor disturbances. In the context of migraines, these symptoms or sensations are known as auras. Common examples of auras include: seeing flashes of bright light, squiggly lines, blind spots in vision, tingling in the face and hands, muscle weakness and speech or language difficulty.4 In fact, some people can detect when they are getting a migraine because the aura usually precedes the pain. On the other hand, there are people that may get the aura, but do not get pain. Either way, getting an aura could actually be beneficial because it gives you time to prepare for what may come. Whether it’s taking medication or quickly getting to a dark, non-stimulating room, acting fast when experiencing an aura could save you from hours of agonizing discomfort.

Migraine Triggers

As you get to know your body more, you may find that certain foods, drinks, environmental conditions and stress can exacerbate existing conditions such as acid reflux, for example. Well, the same goes for migraines. There are certain triggers than can contribute to the onset of migraines in some individuals, especially those experiencing chronic migraines (occurring more than 15 days out of the month). Common migraine triggers are salty and processed foods, not eating and drinking enough water throughout the day, unusually bright lights, strong smells, loud noises, extreme exercise, sleep cycle changes, weather changes and even drinking too much caffeine.

You may be thinking, “but Excedrin has caffeine in it, and I take it for my migraines.” Yes, Excedrin is a popular over-the-counter (OTC) migraine medication and it does contain about 65 mg of caffeine. However, caffeine should be consumed in moderation as too much of it may lead to over overstimulation of nerve cells, which is one of the above theories behind migraine pain. The good news is that relief is possible with healthy habits and supplementation. Tomorrow, we will discuss how to get relief in part 2 of our migraine blog series.

About the Author: Julia Dosik, BS, MPH, is a clinical corporate trainer at Life Extension headquarters in South Florida. She holds a Bachelor of Science in biology and psychology as well as a Master of Public Health specializing in health education. Julia utilizes a mix of in-person, virtual and written training to educate employees and consumers on how the human body functions and the importance of supplementing with science-backed ingredients. It is her deepest belief that high-quality dietary supplements are fundamental to an individual’s physical and mental well-being.

  1. https://americanmigrainefoundation.org/resource-library/facts-about-migraine/
  2. https://www.hopkinsmedicine.org/health/conditions-and-diseases/headache/how-a-migraine-happens
  3. https://americanmigrainefoundation.org/resource-library/facts-about-migraine/
  4. https://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/migraine-with-aura/symptoms-causes/syc-20352072


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