Migraine Causes

Medically Reviewed by Carmelita Swiner, MD on November 12, 2022
2 min read

You know how your migraine headaches start but have no idea why you get them. What makes you more likely than some other people to get these awful headaches?

Doctors aren’t totally sure what causes migraine headaches, but they think imbalances in certain brain chemicals may play a role.

The trigeminal nerve in your head runs your eyes and mouth. It also helps you feel sensations in your face and is a major pathway for pain. Your levels of a chemical called serotonin may fall at the start of a migraine, and this nerve can release chemicals called neurotransmitters that travel to your brain and cause pain.

You might be more likely to have migraines because of:

Your genes. If someone in your family gets migraine headaches, you’re more likely to have them.

Your age. Migraine headaches can hit at any point in your life, but you’re more likely to get your first one in your teens. The headaches tend to peak in your 30s and become less severe later in life.

Your gender. Women are about three times more likely to get them than men.

Things that may set off a migraine include:

Hormonal changes. Shifts in the hormone estrogen can bring on migraines in women. Medications like birth control pills or hormone replacement therapy can trigger headaches or make them worse. But other women have fewer migraines when they take these medications.

Emotional stressThis is one of the most common migraine triggers. When you’re stressed, your brain releases chemicals that set off your “fight or flight” response. Anxiety, worry, and fear can create even more tension and make a migraine worse.

Certain foods. Salty, processed foods and aged cheeses like blue cheese are known triggers. The artificial sweetener aspartame and flavor enhancer monosodium glutamate (MSG) may cause them, too.

Skipping meals. If you miss a meal, your blood sugar could drop, triggering a headache.

Alcohol and caffeine. Do you ever get a raging headache after that glass of wine? Alcoholic drinks and drinks high in caffeine can be migraine triggers.

Sensory overload. Bright lights, loud sounds, and strong smells can bring on these headaches in some people.

Changes in your sleep pattern. If you get too much or too little sleep, you may get a migraine. Traveling between time zones? Jet lag can be a cause, too.

Physical strain. An intense workout, like heavy exercise or even sex, can cause a migraine. You should still be active, but you might do better with a more moderate pace.

Changes in weather. This is a big trigger. So is a change in the overall air pressure.

Too much medication. If you have migraines and take medications for them more than 10 days in a month, you may be setting yourself up for what’s called a rebound headache. Your doctor will probably call it a medication overuse headache.

Although you might not be able to prevent migraine triggers altogether, some simple things -- like regular, good-quality sleep, a healthy diet, exercise, and stress management -- may help you stop them before they start.