What Triggers Migraine Headaches – Use SEED/DS!

What Triggers Migraine Headaches
What Triggers Migraine Headaches

Want to know more about what triggers migraine headaches? Jennifer Robblee, MD, and Amaal J. Starling, MD from the Mayo Clinic Department of Neurology in Scottsdale, Arizona, offer a wonderfully helpful method for understanding exactly that.

The Cleveland Clinic Journal of Medicine published their article SEEDS for success: Lifestyle management in migraine. Jennifer credits  Lawrence C. Newman, MD, with creating the SEEDS mnemonic.

Dr. Newman explains the mnemonic in a slightly different way, but both of them have the same general idea. SEEDS stands for:




Diary (Jennifer and Amaal) / Drinking Plenty of Fluids (Dr. Lawrence)


Dr. Newman suggests that we who suffer from migraines have difficulty handling changes in sleep patterns, weather, hormones (women), and stress.

Fortunately, however, there’s much we can do to control migraines. Memorizing and following the SEEDS mnemonic is a great way to begin.

 SEED/DS Keys to Ending What Triggers Migraine Headaches


“Homeostasis” refers to a cellular state of equilibrium, balance, and stability.  The job of maintaining homeostasis throughout our bodies, including our sleep cycles, belongs primarily to the hypothalamus.

A migraine’s first phase is strongly associated with our hypothalamic activity. So, it’s no surprise that getting up on the wrong side of the bed may be the first migraine trigger of the day!

Multiple studies on sleep disorders and alterations have correlated migraines with poor sleep quality. And it cuts both ways: anything that makes us sleep too little or too much can throw a sleep cycle for a loop!

Love to sleep in on the weekend? For a migraineur, it may be asking for trouble. One of the most important steps a person can take to curb migraines is to establish and stick with a healthy sleep routine every day of the week.


Some migraineurs who’ve experienced exercise as a trigger become less physically active. Yet, research indicates that a consistent workout routine helps prevent and manage migraines.

Being in pain or under stress tells our hypothalamus and pituitary to release endorphins, also known as one of our four “happiness” hormones.  As natural pain blockers, endorphins help us tolerate painful conditions.

For example, the pain or stress of working out increases endorphin levels, creating the euphoric “runner’s high. a” However, during migraine attacks, the opposite occurs. Endorphin levels drop, leaving migraineurs almost defenseless against their pain.

One study surveyed 22,397 -participants “not likely to have a headache” with a questionnaire on physical activity. They were the prospective baseline group.

Eleven years later, the same participants answered another questionnaire on physical activity and headaches. The results showed that those who were physically active at baseline were less likely to have migraines than those with sedentary lifestyles.

Another study from University of Nebraska researchers found that NCAA basketball players have fewer migraine headaches than the general population, likely due to their more frequent exercise.

And according to Jennifer and Amaal,  the American College of Sports Medicine’s recommended goal of 30-60 minutes of moderate cardiorespiratory exercise three to five times weekly could help migraineurs experience fewer attacks.


In addition to controlling the sleep cycle, the hypothalamus also regulates our appetite, food intake, hunger, and thirst. Consistent meal routines and water intake are essential.

What Triggers Migraine Headaches - Kicking one or drinking the other can trigger migraines.
Kicking one or drinking the other can trigger migraines.

High on the list of what triggers migraine headaches are caffeine withdrawal and alcohol. Both of them can mess with hypothalamic function.

 A 2019 paper found “several lines of evidence” that migraines and caffeine withdrawal primarily affect the hypothalamus.  And a study published that same year identified alcohol consumption as a trigger for about 10 percent of migraineurs.

(See tomorrow’s post for more on migraine-related foods and dietary factors.)


Shortly after we married, my wife decided that the best thing she could do to help me reduce my headaches was to track my migraine frequency and food intake in a diary.

The diary let us determine specific triggers that seemed to affect me. It became the first big step towards reducing my migraine frequency.

Keeping a headache diary is an extremely valuable tool because specific triggers may vary throughout a migraineur’s life.


Headache Center of Atlanta Medical Director Leslie Kelman, MD, conducted evaluations involving 1,750 migraine patients.  Her goal was to ascertain what triggers migraine headaches.

What did she find?

The data revealed that what triggers migraine headaches most often among her patients is stress:

What Triggers Migraine Headaches - individual triggers

Our hypothalamus is a crucial player in the stress response. And when stress throws our equilibrium out of whack, a headache may be on its way.

As Dr. Kelman’s graph indicates, what triggers migraine headaches differs in different people. Many factors with hypothalamic links may start an attack.

Reducing migraine frequency and intensity IS possible, but only if we’re willing to make lifestyle changes that give our bodies the balance they need.

For anyone who wants to end migraine headaches, healthy sleep, regular exercise, healthy eating behaviors, tracking progress with a diary, and stress management are essential!

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