Migraines and Sleep: Understanding the Reciprocal Relationship

Understanding the complex relationship between migraines and sleep.

By Ally

Sometimes when you get a nasty headache, all you want to do is lie down and rest. What’s cruel about migraines is that, though the pain can be debilitating, it may also be enough to prevent you from getting good, restorative sleep. What’s more, lost sleep can actually cause migraine symptoms to worsen, a vicious feedback loop. Thankfully, there are some strategies you can take to mediate migraine pain and to get back to good, solid rest.

Woman in chronic pain

What is a Migraine?

A migraine isn’t just a headache; it’s a particularly painful event that’s characterized by a throbbing or pulsing sensation, usually concentrated on one side of the head. A migraine may last for a few hours or even a few days, and often the pain is sharp enough to impede regular, day-to-day activities.

In addition to throbbing head pain, a migraine may also present other symptoms. Some of the most common ones include:

  • Fatigue
  • Nausea 
  • Dizziness/lightheadedness
  • Sensitivity to light
  • Weakness/numbness on one side of the body
  • Pins-and-needles sensation in the arms or legs
  • Difficulty speaking

Of course, with this range of symptoms, it’s not hard to understand how a migraine could be debilitating… or, how it might keep you up at night.

Migraines and Sleep Habits

It’s true that the throbbing pain of a migraine can cause sleeplessness, but it’s also true that bad sleep habits may increase your risk of migraines.

To understand why this is, it’s first important to understand how migraines work. A migraine happens when hyperactive nerve cells signal the blood vessels, telling them either to expand or to contract. Brain chemicals are then discharged, and the combination of these things leads to the throbbing pain.

If you get insufficient sleep at night, however, it interferes with your body’s production of dopamine, serotonin, and other hormones that are essential to health and wellness; the result may be an increase in migraine symptoms.

A number of sleep habits can put you in this higher risk category, including caffeine consumption too close to bedtime. This may cause you to toss and turn when you should be falling asleep. Additionally, trying to sleep in the wrong environment can deprive you of the rest you need; an uncomfortable mattress or too much ambient lighting may create problems.

Young woman is suffering from a headache against a dark background.

Migraines and Sleep Disorders

Insomnia

Migraines and sleep disorders can be interconnected in a number of ways. For example, take insomnia. Simply put, this is a disorder in which you have a hard time falling asleep or remaining asleep. Because insomnia deprives you of deep, restorative sleep, it also increases the risk of migraines; in fact, this is the most common sleep problem for people who live with migraines, and migraines in turn are linked to a higher risk of insomnia.

There’s good news, however, which is that treating insomnia can often reduce the frequency and intensity of migraines, in some cases clearing them up completely. Some good suggestions are to try melatonin supplements; to ensure a consistent bedtime and a soothing bedtime routine each night; to get some physical activity during the day; to moderate both caffeine and alcohol; and to ensure a bedroom that’s dark and cool, with a comfortable mattress.

Teeth Grinding

Another common sleep disorder is teeth grinding. This condition, also called bruxism, not only damages the teeth but may also lead to discomfort or pain in the jaw muscle. While the exact cause of bruxism isn’t clear, many researchers believe it to be connected to sleep apnea and/or to overbite and underbite conditions. Additionally, teeth grinding may be the result of stress.

Bruxism is often accompanied by a severe headache, and again, the specific reasons aren’t fully known. However, there are some worthwhile treatments for teeth grinding. Stress reduction and moderation of caffeine and alcohol can both help. Additionally, it may be prudent to consult with a dentist about getting a mouth guard.

Restless Leg Syndrome

Restless leg syndrome (RLS) is characterized by an uncontrollable desire to move the limbs; usually, it happens during nighttime. Studies have found a higher risk of RLS among migraineurs, and there is also a documented association between migraines and more severe RLS symptoms. According to some scientists, the link connecting these conditions is a dysfunction in the system that releases dopamine.

A number of treatments for RLS exist. To begin with, reduce intake of alcohol and caffeine. Make sure you get some moderate exercise during the day. Try some yoga or light stretching before bed. And, consider using either a hot or cold compress on your leg.

Sleep Apnea

Sleep apnea is a potentially dangerous condition that causes you to stop breathing for brief intervals during the night; if you’re a loud snorer, or often find yourself waking up gasping for air, then you may have sleep apnea. It’s worth noting that regular snoring, a leading symptom of sleep apnea, can increase your risk for chronic headaches. It has been speculated that sleep apnea increases the risk of headaches because it deprives the brain of its healthy oxygen supply.

If you struggle with sleep apnea, it’s best to see a doctor; you may need a CPAP machine to help you breathe more clearly during the night.

Headaches Connected to Sleep Problems

Cluster Headaches

There are multiple kinds of headaches that can be connected to sleep problems, starting with cluster headaches. According to The Mayo Clinic, these headaches “occur in cyclical patterns or cluster periods,” and rank among the most painful headache experiences. Additionally, The Mayo Clinic explains that “bouts of frequent attacks, known as cluster periods, can last from weeks to months, usually followed by remission periods when the headaches stop. During remission, no headaches occur for months and sometimes even years.”

Cluster headaches often happen during the evening or at night, and the pain is sharp enough that it can wake you from your sleep. Many clinicians believe that cluster headaches are triggered by the transition into or out of REM sleep.

Hypnic Headaches

According to the American Migraine Association, hypnic headaches are fairly uncommon. These headaches are sometimes called “alarm clock headaches,” for a simple reason: They only happen during sleep, and are usually severe enough to rouse you from your slumber.

Physicians aren’t yet sure what causes hypnic headaches, though there is speculation that the trigger has something to do with transitioning through different stages of the sleep cycle.

Wake Up Headaches

According to studies, about one out of every 13 people experience headaches early in the morning. There are a number of potential reasons for this, one of which is increased adrenaline production in the early part of the day.

“A lack of quality sleep or a sleep disorder may also result in morning headaches,” Healthline continues. “People with sleep disorders are 2 to 8 times more likely to have a morning headache than those without a sleep disorder.”

Link Between Mental Health, Migraines, and Sleep

Another important factor to consider is the link between migraines and mental health. Indeed, at least 20 percent of patients with migraines also experience depression. Similarly, between 30 and 50 percent of people who suffer from chronic migraines also have anxiety. Studies consistently show that the occurrences over a lifetime of depression, anxiety disorders, and bipolar disorder are significantly higher in migraine sufferers than in the general population.

This connection isn’t hard to understand. Living with chronic pain, including the pain caused by migraines, can lead to feelings of frustration, sadness, and helplessness, all of which may lead to ongoing anxiety or depression. Additionally, some researchers believe that both migraines and mental health conditions can be connected to the same underlying causes, such as imbalanced biochemicals in the brain.

Young African American woman waking up at home. Portrait of happy black girl smiling, enjoying a large king size mattress all for herself.

Treatment

Migraines can be maddening even before sleep disorders are added to the equation. Thankfully, there are some effective treatment options available.

Cognitive-behavioral therapy

Through Cognitive-Behavioral therapy, you can actually change some of the internalized beliefs that make it hard for you to sleep at night. For example, you can gain greater mastery over the negative or anxious thoughts that cause you to toss and turn. Improved sleep may also reduce the symptoms of migraines.

Meditation

Mindful meditation can also alleviate the symptoms of insomnia. Learning relaxation techniques prepares both the body and mind for sleep, and can help curb the day’s lingering anxieties. Again, a better night’s sleep may help reduce some of the symptoms of migraines.

Healthier Sleep Hygiene

Another consideration: Improved sleep hygiene. Ensure a cool, dark room with a comfortable mattress. Also, try going to sleep at the same time each night.

Diet and Exercise

One way to minimize migraines is to ensure a healthy diet, including consistent meals. Fasting generally increases the odds of migraine development. And, regular exercise during the day can help with both migraines and insomnia.

Conclusion

Migraines and sleep disorders can often function in a vicious cycle… but there are steps you can take both to minimize headache pain, and also ensure you’re getting the rest you need to feel your best.


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