What Causes Migraine?

Research on the exact cause of migraine is ongoing. But, changes in the brain, hormones, and genetics may contribute to the onset of symptoms.

A migraine is a severe form of headache that usually affects one side of your head and causes symptoms such as throbbing pain, nausea, and light sensitivity. Migraine is a chronic condition, meaning these headaches are recurring. 

Migraine headaches are common—roughly 12% of the U.S. population gets them. But still, researchers don’t currently know the exact cause of migraine. Experts believe that genetics and your brain structure can play a role in the onset of symptoms.

Several risk factors can also increase your likelihood of developing the condition—and if you already have a migraine, certain triggers can also lead to a migraine flare-up. Given how debilitating migraine can be, it's important to understand what these risk factors are and what you may be able to do to prevent a migraine flare-up.

woman sitting at her desk feeling migraine symptoms

Deepak Sethi / Getty Images

Potential Causes of Migraine 

The exact cause(s) of migraine are unknown. But, some studies have developed theories that may explain potential causes of the condition.

Brain Structure

Researchers believe that migraine is related to changes in the neurological (brain-related) activity in certain regions of your brain, including your brainstem—the part of your brain that connects to your spine. 

Some people can have a variation in how their brain is structured. When this happens, the way your blood moves through your brain can change and blood flow can become restricted. You might experience migraine symptoms and more sensitivity to pain as a result.


Newer theories suggest that the hormones that your brain releases can also induce migraine symptoms

Your brain has several neurotransmitters, or chemical messengers in your brain that send electrical signals from one cell to the other. When these neurotransmitters become activated, they can release several hormones such as serotonin (the “happy hormone”). When your brain releases serotonin, your blood vessels can become narrow causing an interruption in your blood flow. This can increase your sensitivity to pain and lead to migraine symptoms.

Is Migraine Hereditary?

Some evidence suggests that having a family history of migraine can also increase your risk of developing the condition. However, more research is needed to understand the connection between migraine and genetics. 

One research study published in the Journal of Headache and Pain found that 30% to 60% of people with migraine tend to have at least one blood relative who also experiences migraine.

Who Gets Migraine?

Anyone can get migraine headaches, but you may be more likely to get them if you:

  • Were assigned female at birth: Theories suggest that migraine is linked to the female sex hormone estrogen. If you were assigned female at birth, you are twice as likely to develop migraines than those assigned male at birth.
  • Are between the ages of 30 and 40: Migraine can affect people of all ages, but people in their 30s may be more likely to develop them. Your risk of migraine increases after puberty but tends to decrease with age. In people who have periods, menopause can lower your risk of getting migraine.

Migraine Risk Factors and Triggers

Certain factors can both increase your risk of developing migraine symptoms and trigger your migraine if you’ve already developed the condition. These risk factors include, but are not limited to:

  • Stress: Research suggests that nearly 70% of people with migraine develop symptoms and experience migraine flare-ups when they are feeling stressed or anxious.
  • Mood disorders: People with anxiety and depressive disorders are two to 10 more likely to develop migraine symptoms than those who do not have mood disorders.
  • Dietary habits: Skipping meals or consuming certain foods and drinks such as alcohol, chocolate, smoked fish, cured meats, and aged cheeses may increase your migraine risk.
  • Dehydration: Not drinking enough water can lead to symptoms of several types of headaches, including migraine. Research suggests that you should drink two liters (or, half a gallon) of water each day to prevent symptoms.
  • Lack of sleep: If you’re frequently tired or not getting enough sleep at night, you can affect the function of your circadian rhythm (or, your brain’s natural cycle of wake and rest). To prevent symptoms, researchers suggest getting seven or more hours of sleep a night and having a set sleeping schedule. Sleep disorders, such as sleep apnea and insomnia, can also lead to the onset of symptoms.
  • Medications: Taking too many pain medications may make you more sensitive to migraine pain. Most painkillers are not intended for long-term use. You may want to consider limiting your use of non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs)—such as aspirin and ibuprofen—to prevent an increase in pain sensitivity.
  • Fluctuating hormones: People assigned female at birth may experience fluctuating levels of estrogen during menstruation, pregnancy, perimenopause, and menopause. Hormone changes can also happen if you are taking oral contraceptives (e.g., birth control) or hormone replacement therapy. These fluctuations can increase a woman’s risk of developing migraine symptoms.
  • Environmental factors: Sensory stimuli in your environment can lead to migraine flare-ups. These triggers may include strong odors (e.g., from perfumes, gas, or paint), flashing lights, loud noises, and changes in weather patterns.

A Quick Review

A migraine is a severe type of headache that can cause throbbing head pain, among other symptoms. The exact cause of migraine is unknown, but researchers think that your brain structure and hormones can play a role in disease development. 

Other risk factors such as being female, having a family history of migraine, having poor sleep hygiene, feeling stressed, and being exposed to sensory stimuli can also lead to the onset of symptoms. 

Migraine can be a frustrating and debilitating condition to endure. If you think you may be at risk for migraine or have started to develop symptoms, reach out to your healthcare provider to get tested and to learn what you can do to better manage your condition. 

Was this page helpful?
13 Sources
Health.com uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. Burch RC, Buse DC, Lipton RB. Migraine: Epidemiology, burden, and comorbidity. Neurol Clin. 2019;37(4):631-649. doi:10.1016/j.ncl.2019.06.001

  2. MedlinePlus. Migraine.

  3. Dodick DW. A phase-by-phase review of migraine pathophysiology. Headache. 2018;58 Suppl 1:4-16. doi:10.1111/head.13300

  4. Underwood E. Science. The science of migraines

  5. Sutherland HG, Albury CL, Griffiths LR. Advances in genetics of migraine. J Headache Pain. 2019;20(1):72. doi:10.1186/s10194-019-1017-9

  6. American Headache Society. How migraine evolves with age

  7. Maleki N, Becerra L, Borsook D. Migraine: Maladaptive brain responses to stress. Headache. 2012;52 Suppl 2(Suppl 2):102-106. doi:10.1111/j.1526-4610.2012.02241.x

  8. Peres MFP, Mercante JPP, Tobo PR, et al. Anxiety and depression symptoms and migraine: A symptom-based approach research. J Headache Pain. 2017;18(1):37. doi:10.1186/s10194-017-0742-1

  9. American Migraine Foundation. Migraine and diet

  10. Arca KN, Halker Singh RB. Dehydration and headache. Curr Pain Headache Rep. 2021;25(8):56. doi:10.1007/s11916-021-00966-z

  11. Negro A, Seidel JL, Houben T, et al. Acute sleep deprivation enhances susceptibility to the migraine substrate cortical spreading depolarization. J Headache Pain. 2020;21(1):86. doi:10.1186/s10194-020-01155-w

  12. American Migraine Foundation. Medication overuse headache

  13. Sacco S, Ricci S, Degan D, et al. Migraine in women: The role of hormones and their impact on vascular diseases. J Headache Pain. 2012;13(3):177-189. doi:10.1007/s10194-012-0424-y

Related Articles