If you suffer from migraines, you know the drill. Avoid caffeine and strong scents. Cross your fingers and hope the barometric pressure doesn’t change. Have some sumatriptan on hand. Keep the lights low and try hard not to throw up. Gulp.
Five million Americans had at least one migraine last month, and 30% of women suffer from migraines at some point during their lifetimes. There is also strong evidence that headaches tend to run in families.
Looking beyond hormones
Some migraine triggers, like hormonal shifts, are well known. One important but lesser known trigger is no shocker to us: poor sleep. According to the American Migraine Association, “In specialty headache clinics, well over half of headache patients have chronic sleep problems.” Which makes sense, because the same area of the brain that controls sleep also controls headaches and mood. One telltale sign that sleep may be the culprit: waking up with a headache.
Disrupted sleep cycles
So what’s going on here? While it hasn’t been conclusively proven, it’s commonly thought that the lack of deep, restful sleep is a major factor in headaches. Poor sleep does more than leave us tired. It interferes with the night’s healthy sleep cycles, leaving them incomplete.
Quick recap: Sleep isn’t just one long period of uneventful rest. Your brain cycles through different kinds of sleep with various functions for each. The brain uses those cycles to cleanse, repair and refresh itself along with the rest of your body. Cycles repeat about four times a night through a progression of slow-wave sleep, deep sleep, and REM sleep. The first two are mostly for healing the body, while REM refreshes your emotions and memory. But all the types of sleep rely on completed, repeated cycles to get their jobs done.
Headache sufferers often miss out on sleep cycles 3 and 4, the most restorative cycles of the night. That leaves us low on serotonin and dopamine, the brain’s feel-good chemicals, which can lead to depression and feeling pain more acutely.
According to Dr. Ben Smarr, neurobiologist and circadian rhythms specialist, when you don’t get enough restful sleep, “Not only are your brain’s transmitters not reset, but metabolic wastes aren’t fully cleaned. When your brain isn’t reset emotionally or intellectually, it works less efficiently. This makes everything in your day harder to manage, including pain.”
Here are a couple of specific sleep issues linked to headaches.
Snoring and Sleep Apnea
Does your partner say you snore? Do you already know you do? If you suffer from headaches in the morning on any consistent basis, snoring or sleep apnea could be a cause. Sleep apnea is nothing to mess around with; it can have some very serious health consequences. See a doctor.
Poor sleep habits
Research has proven that people who get six hours or less of sleep have far more headaches. Too much sleep, i.e., 8.5 hours or more for adults, is no good either. An unstable sleep schedule will also lead to headaches. Go to bed at a consistent time, get the appropriate amount of sleep, darken your room, keep it cool and keep distractions to a minimum. For more advice on good sleep hygiene, click here.
While we’re at it, an easy non-sleep-related thing you can do that may prevent migraines is to drink a little water at bedtime. Dehydration is a major cause of headache. Keep a glass of water on your nightstand and take a few sips if you wake up in the middle of the night.
Rolling out of bed with a headache stinks, frankly. If you’re like most people, you’d probably like to get off to a cheerful start each day. So try improving your sleep to see if it makes a difference. Other than insomnia and headaches, what have you got to lose?