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Migraine Triggers List and The Bucket Theory

The Bucket Theory is talked about frequently in our private Facebook group. We use it to explain exactly how things on the migraine triggers list can go about triggering migraine attacks. The theory developed out of a desire to explain the complications involved in identifying personal triggers on the migraine triggers list. Especially the triggers that might trigger us one week and not the next. Sound familiar?

The following is a Bucket Theory illustration of how the migraine mechanism is tripped which results in a migraine attack.

Bucket theory explained

It begins something like this. Each day we start out with a bucket that isn’t empty but contains things that we can’t avoid (ie. hormones, stress, lack of sleep and weather). These things can fill up 1/3 or even 2/3 of the bucket. The level in the bucket is dependent on where you are in your stress level. For example, if you had interrupted sleep, weather changes and approaching menstruation your levels will be high.

Imagine your bucket which is already about half full of water from the things you can’t avoid. We then start adding in other triggers like allergies, smells, foods and drinks. Each thing we add takes up space or volume in the bucket. Every thing has a different volume attached to it based on how much of a trigger it is for you.

The End of Migraines by Alexander Mauskop MD


As you drop these triggers into your bucket, the amount of water it displaces is how it will affect your head. This also dictates the overall load it has on tripping the migraine trigger mechanism for the day.

For example, raw onion may have the volume of a rock the size of your fist, whereas a bit of lime juice has the volume of a pebble. If we eat or encounter too many rocks in any given day, the bucket overflows and an attack will ensue.

How about when a trigger isn’t always a trigger?

Having a trigger that isn’t always a trigger is very frustrating. This comes up in conversation frequently. And it’s a good question. Why would raw onion bother me today, but not next week?

We rarely have a static day when it comes to migraine. Meaning things are always fluctuating. We eat different foods, sleep differently and have different levels of stress every single day. However, the migraine brain really likes routine. Each change is something our brain has to roll with and make adjustments.

Every time we consume a given trigger, all of the other variables will change as well. The next week, when the weather might be fine and our stress level low, the raw onion that triggered us the week before won’t have as much of an effect because the level in the bucket is lower overall. In this instance, no migraine attack would ensue.

This is where the confusion about food triggers gets, well…more confusing. If it’s a trigger only sometimes, how can we possibly ever know when a food will trigger a migraine attack?

How to proceed and identify personal triggers on the migraine triggers list

Generally, the goal is to eliminate all of the ‘commonly known’ food triggers from the migraine triggers list. This helps us to empty our bucket as much as possible. The easiest way to start is using a migraine oriented elimination diet. Studies have shown that ‘elimination diets can prevent headaches in subgroups of persons with headache disorders.’ (1)

Some doctors don’t like elimination diets because they can be hard to follow and all of the foods eliminated won’t be personal triggers. That is true and we agree. The elimination diet is used for a limited period of time to help the migraine brain calm down. Danielle Aberman, a registered dietitian, explains the process in this article about the Heal Your Headache diet. This is a must read!!

Doctors typically can’t support the many questions that come up with elimination diets. However, ‘evidence exists to support the use of comprehensive diets in the prevention of migraine and other headache disorders.’ (2) For patients, having a sense of control and learning about migraine is part of the migraine oriented elimination diets. ‘The identification of food triggers, with the help of food diaries, is an inexpensive way to reduce migraine headaches.’ (3)

Migraine Strong has had amazing personal success with the Heal Your Headache diet and we recommend it often. Not everyone has food triggers, but using this tool can help to uncover them if you do.

Neutralizing the migraine triggers list

While diet can be important for calming our brains, the treatment pie, can address the other non food triggers on the migraine triggers list. This is a process that could take anywhere from a couple of weeks to several months.

Adding the known migraine specific supplements, movement, meditation and other slices of the pie can also help us to reduce our trigger load. When we implement all of these slices, we can get to a baseline where the weather and hormones don’t bother us quite as much. Patience and keeping an accurate record of your attacks is key.

Discusses how to attack migraine using a multimodal approach. The treatment pie includes the following slices: sleep, diet, movement, supplements, medications, miscellaneous, hydration, meditation, therapy | Migraine Strong
The Treatment Pie

Stress is still a big trigger or stress let down, which is the after effects of a stressful event. We can learn to manage stress in different ways. Some people use exercise, while some use breathing techniques or meditation.

There are many guided meditations or general meditations available on YouTube that deal with chronic pain, relaxation and sleep. The Calm app has daily 10 minute meditations on various subjects. They also have Body Scans available in different lengths. I recommend the Body Scans and the Emergency Calm sessions and find both provide immediate relief.

Not following an elimination diet?

Check out some of our handy graphics below to see if some of the most common triggers are part of your daily diet.

Studying the migraine triggers list and its affect on individuals

The Bucket Theory is one of the reasons that medical studies about food triggers feel a little off for those of us that experience them. Trying to level the confounding individual factors like stress, hormones, weather and sleep while delivering doses of potential trigger foods is nearly impossible.

Guacamole may be well tolerated on a day when a person is well-rested, the weather is perfect and their difficult boss is on vacation. However, guacamole may overflow the bucket on a stormy day, with pressing deadlines, after a sleepless night.

Hopefully this article has given you some clarity on how triggers can affect our daily bucket level. For more discussions on these and other migraine topics, join our private Facebook group.


  1. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/27699780/
  2. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/27699772/
  3. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/19454881/

Migraine Triggers List and The Bucket Theory

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2 thoughts on “Migraine Triggers List and The Bucket Theory

    1. Hi Samuel. Stress and stress let down are mentioned several times in the article. Can you explain ‘relief of stress’ in a different way? I was thinking that was stress let down. -eileen

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About the Author

Eileen Zollinger

I began having migraine attacks when I was a teenager, but was never properly diagnosed until I was an adult. This began 18 years where I was chronic and mostly intractable, resulting in a migrainous stroke in the summer of 2014. By implementing the protocols from the Heal Your Headache book by Dr. David Buchholz and the Migraine Strong Treatment Pie, I have been able to reduce my migraine frequency to episodic and maintain that since 2015. The end result of continuing to practice these tools is being able to actively participate in my life as a wife, mother, family member and friend. My goal as a migraine advocate, educator, and wellness coach is to help others gain more control over migraine. Let us know how we can help.

View all posts by Eileen Zollinger