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Migraine: what causes this headache?

There are “regular” headaches and there are migraines. Anyone who has ever had it knows the difference. Whereas ordinary headaches are nagging and often come on slowly, migraines often come on suddenly, violently and throbbing. Sometimes that includes (light) flashes. The pain is often only on one side of the head, and not infrequently the attack is accompanied by nausea and vomiting. It is, to say the least, a hugely annoying phenomenon. It can be disruptive for those who suffer from it. The question is: what is causing this headache? Could nutrition play a role, or lifestyle?

What is migraine?

What we call “migraine” is the prickling of the nerves in the head. This stimulation causes blood vessels to open up and nerves to become more active, which in turn causes more pressure on the head. This increased pressure on the head leads to pain symptoms, which can be very severe. Exactly what causes migraines we do not know, although genes are thought to play a role. Not infrequently, then, migraine occurs in multiple family members. We do know that, for people suffering from migraines, there can be several triggers for an attack. If you know what the triggers are, then – by avoiding those triggers – you can ensure that the likelihood of a migraine attack is reduced.

Possible migraine triggers

1. Hormone fluctuations

Some women experience migraines especially around the time of menstruation, probably due to changes in hormones such as estrogen. This type of migraine usually occurs between 2 days before the start of menstruation and 3 days after. Although some women experience migraines only around this time, most women who suffer from them occasionally experience them at other times as well. The annoying thing is that what provides relief for some, actually causes aggravation for others:

  • Many women find that migraines improve after menopause, although menopause can actually cause or worsen migraines in some women.
  • Taking the birth control pill can also relieve or worsen migraines
  • Pregnancy usually causes a (temporary) decrease in symptoms

2. Emotional triggers

Those who regularly suffer from migraines do well to avoid emotional triggers. These are known to be able to trigger a migraine attack. Emotional triggers for migraines may include:

  • Depression
  • Tension
  • Fear
  • Stress
  • Excitement

3. Physical triggers

Physical triggers can also trigger a migraine attack. Consider:

  • Poor or too little


  • Fatigue
  • Night shifts and irregular working hours
  • A bad attitude
  • Neck and shoulder tension
  • Too low a blood sugar level
  • Sudden intense exercise or exertion without proper preparation
  • Jet lag

4. The role of your diet in migraines

Migraines can also be caused by a particular diet or habit. For example, if you eat irregularly, regularly skip meals, or regularly eat too much or too little, it can trigger migraines. Consuming too much


, coffee or tea with theine also often has a negative effect on those suffering from migraines.

Less well known is that certain specific foods are suspected to be triggers for migraines as well. In particular, these are foods that contain the substance Tyramine. Tyramine is found, for example, in smoked fish such as salmon, in sour herring and in certain cheeses such as cheddar and camembert.

Citrus fruits and chocolate can also increase the risk of a migraine attack in some cases.

5. E numbers that trigger migraines

Although not proven, there are studies that seem to indicate that certain artificial additives we know as E numbers have a negative impact and can cause migraines. The best known of these are:

  • Aspartame: is used in just about all light drinks and in many other light products. It is a substance that replaces sugar and gives a sweet taste to products.
  • Nitrate: Occurs naturally in spinach, for example, but is also often added artificially to improve the shelf life of a product or to give a color to the product.
  • Sulfite: Is especially common in wine, but is also used in meat, mainly to make products last longer.

6. Environmental triggers

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Finally, environmental triggers naturally affect the occurrence, or prevention, of a migraine attack. Thus, it is best to avoid bright lights. Bright lights or bright flashing lights can not only trigger migraines, they can also make them worse. Therefore, people who suffer from migraines often benefit from a darkened room.

Loud noises can also be a trigger, as can severe climatic fluctuations, such as severe cold or just a very humid environment.

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What can you do to prevent migraines?

Unfortunately, the truth is that migraines cannot always be prevented. However, you can reduce the chances of an attack by taking the triggers mentioned into account. For example, keep products containing tyramine or aspartame out of your diet, avoid bright lights and loud noises whenever possible, drink plenty of water and prevent too low blood sugar by eating regularly. If it succeeds in reducing the number of attacks that way, it is certainly worth trying.


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