Causes and Triggers

Both migraine and tension headaches are known to be more likely to occur to people who are not well rested are under a great deal of stress. Thus one major preventative behavior is to get sufficient amounts of sleep, with most people needing at least seven hours per night to healthy. Many aspects of our contemporary culture work against people getting enough rest: A mentality of “24/7” constant activity, pressure to bring work home, and late-night watching of television or computer monitors. Sufficient sleep can in itself help a person to deal better with stress, but some further activity may also be needed for this – such as regular exercise or the regular practice of meditation. Contrary to stereotype, meditation can be a simple, non-religious practice consisting of something as basic as listening closely to the sound of one’s own breath slowly moving in and out of the body. Although famously indulged in for hours by advanced practitioners, meditation can also be practiced in mere minutes per day!

After lifestyle factors such as sleep and stress levels, foods are the next possible trigger for migraine headaches in particular. Preserved forms of highly proteinaceous foods, such as meat, fish and cheese, contain high levels of the atypical amino acid tyramine, which appears to be a potent migraine trigger for some. Also many food additives, such as monosodium glutamate (MSG) and food colorings are known to be triggers for some individuals. Given current widespread dietary preferences for preserved, pre-prepared and other fast foods, food triggers as a cause for chronic headaches must be seriously considered by the clinician. People eating high amounts of cheese, smoked meats and fish, and also certain legumes such as fava and lima beans, might be triggering headaches if consuming such foods on a daily or near-daily basis. At the same time, occasional consumption of these foods is likely to be of little concern.

Alcohol is another common migraine trigger, at least for some people. However since stress also predisposes an individual to migraines, moderate intake of alcohol – in both amount and frequency – may also aid some people in preventing headaches. This is best undertaken not as an isolated step but as part of a modification of lifestyle that begins to include time for relaxation and reflection. Along these lines, both regular meditation and regular exercise are helpful to many people in reducing their incidence of severe headaches, in addition to having many other health benefits.

Caffeine, like alcohol, is another double-edged sword in regard to headaches. For those used to drinking coffee, tea or most cola drinks daily, a sudden abstinence from caffeine can bring about a severe headache. In this case, the headache is typically on both sides of the head and therefore more likely to be a tension type headache, and it can be fairly rapidly relieved upon drinking a source of caffeine. This effect is consistent with the inclusion of caffeine as an adjuvant in some “extra-strength” headache remedies. For example, it may be combined with aspirin and acetaminophen in some over the counter (OTC) medications, or with aspirin and the barbiturate butalbital in the prescription medication fiorinal.  Nonetheless, for some individuals not accustomed to drinking caffeine, it can act as a trigger to a bona fide migraine.

If you are suffering from one or more of these conditions, and you would like us to help, please call our office today at 713.467.4082.