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Sleep problems are one of the most frustrating symptoms of migraines. Migraines disrupt sleep, while lack of sleep triggers migraines. Like the proverbial chicken-and-egg, one might wonder: which came first, the sleep issues or the migraines?
For many of the over 36 million migraine sufferers in the U.S., they don’t care; they simply want to find relief.
In this article, we’ll cover the complex relationship between migraines and sleep problems. Then, we’ll provide advice on how to get better sleep, which, in turn, may reduce migraine symptoms.
Migraines are much more than just a bad headache. They’re an extreme headache accompanied by multiple other symptoms that completely incapacitate the sufferer, such as:
Migraines can last from a few hours to a few days. Meanwhile, the symptoms are debilitating. People can barely function when they’re experiencing a migraine. Symptoms can change from migraine to migraine, as can their intensity.
Because so many mistakenly believe it is “just a headache,” more than half of migraine sufferers never receive a diagnosis and self-medicate with over-the-counter pain medications.
Doctors still don’t know what causes migraines. Migraine is a common disabling primary headache disorder, according to the International Classification of Headache Disorders 3rd Edition. One study discovered that same gene mutation exists in both migraine sufferers and people with advanced sleep phase syndrome (having a sleep schedules that’s shifted much earlier than normal). Studies like these help bolster the claim that migraines are a neurological problem.
Migraines tend to run in families but can also be brought on by environmental factors like changes in weather, altitude, and sleep.
According to the American Migraine Foundation, migraine sufferers are 2 to 8 times likelier to experience sleep problems. The worse the migraines, the worse the sleep problems.
The largest barriers to relief often involve insomnia and resulting sleep deprivation. It’s impossible to do anything when you’re in the midst of a migraine, including sleep. As a result, people with migraines can have a tougher time going to bed due to a late night migraine. In the long-term this can lead to chronic sleep deprivation, which has a host of mental, emotional, and physical health problems of its own, including being a trigger for migraines.
Another common migraine trigger besides sleep loss? Oversleeping to try to make up for it. Sudden changes to your sleep schedule, like jet lag, can also trigger migraines.
Insomnia describes difficulty falling or staying asleep. People with insomnia typically spend fewer than 6 hours asleep on average, which is significantly below the recommended 7 to 9 hours for adults.
As a result, insomniacs are sleep deprived. They feel irritable during the day, tired and unfocused, and may develop depression or anxiety. These conditions create a stressful daily life, and stress itself is a headache trigger.
Over a third of people with migraines report getting only 6 hours of sleep on average per night. Problematically, shorter sleepers (those who sleep 6 hours or less) are more likely to have more frequent and severe migraines, as well as morning headaches. In another study, 80% of participants with migraines reported feeling tired upon waking up.
There is a clear correlation between lack of sleep and incidence of migraines:
Snoring and obstructive sleep apnea (OSA) have both been linked with migraines. Children with migraines are twice as likely as other children to have sleep apnea, and experience more sleep disturbances.
Snoring is noisy breathing during sleep. OSA is a more serious form of sleep-disordered breathing where the individual literally stops breathing momentarily during sleep, typically due to a blockage or narrowing of their airways. While all snorers do not eventually develop sleep apnea, it is a first warning sign, and both contribute to the kind of less restful sleep that eventually becomes sleep deprivation, which triggers migraines.
Nearly half of migraines are known as “awakening headache” since they occur between 4 and 9am in the morning. 71% of migraine sufferers experience this type of headache.
When this happens on a regular basis, it’s often a sign of a sleep disorder.
Hypnic headaches, also known as “alarm clock” headaches, are a rare type of headache disorder that affects older adults 50 and above. The pain is significant enough to wake the person up, and can last up to 3 hours after waking.
To be diagnosed as hypnic headache, the headaches must occur at a consistent time each night, typically between 1 to 3 am, and the person must experience them at least 10 days per month. Doctors suspect hypnic headache takes place during REM sleep.
Hypnic headaches are distinct from awakening headaches as well as migraines triggered by sleep apnea.
If you’re concerned your migraines are related to a sleep disorder, review the following questions. If you answer yes to more than one, it may be time to talk to your doctor:
Your doctor will ask you additional questions. If they believe you may have a sleep disorder like sleep apnea, they will refer you to an overnight sleep lab for observation. There, a sleep technician will monitor your breathing, brain waves, and more while you sleep. In the days following your exam, a doctor certified in sleep medicine will analyze your results for signs of a sleep disorder.
The same areas of your brain control your sleep and pain, which is why migraines and sleep are so interconnected. The more sleep you get, the better you are at emotionally and physically managing the pain caused by your migraines. The less sleep you get, the more painful your migraines feel.
Many researchers believe that reduced REM sleep in particular is linked to migraines. Each night, a healthy person with normal sleep patterns goes through several 4 to 5 sleep cycles, cycling from light sleep to deep sleep to REM sleep. Our REM sleep is concentrated in the latter half of the night, meaning that we spend more of our sleep cycle in REM in the second half of the night.
When people don’t get enough sleep, they don’t get enough REM sleep either. Insomniacs who sleep fewer than 6 hours per night spend more time in that first half of sleep, so they experience less REM overall. If one’s sleep is disrupted due to a problem like sleep apnea, their sleep cycle get interrupted as well, returning to light sleep earlier than would otherwise happen.
During REM sleep, pain-managing neurotransmitters like serotonin and dopamine are released. If someone doesn’t spend sufficient time in REM, fewer of these “feel good” chemicals will be released, making migraines feel much worse later in the day. This is why SSRIs are sometimes prescribed to treat migraines (as well as associated depression from insomnia).
Better sleep means fewer, less painful headaches. Fortunately, behavioral sleep modifications have been shown to reduce both the frequency and intensity of migraines. Get started with the following tips.
Go to sleep and wake up at the same time every day of the week. This will help entrain your circadian rhythms to a regular schedule, so your mind naturally makes you feel sleepier towards bedtime. Plus, setting and following a sleep schedule ensures you leave enough room for 7 hours of shuteye on a daily basis.
A relaxing bedtime routine calms your mind and body, preparing you for sleep. Try any of these ideas: taking a warm bath, drinking herbal tea, practicing meditation, or exploring aromatherapy. Inhaling lavender essential oil in particular has been shown to moderate migraine symptoms and induce sleep.
Part of your routine could involve transforming your bedroom a haven for sleep. Turn off all electronics, or better yet, remove them from the room entirely. Set the thermostat to a cool temperature. Clear up clutter that reminds you of daytime worries. Dedicate your bedroom to sleep, sex, and relaxation.
A healthy diet promotes healthy sleep. It’s best to generally avoid overly greasy, sugary, or fatty foods all the time, but it’s especially important at dinner. Heavy meals can upset your stomach and make sleep more challenging.
Also avoid alcohol and caffeine later in the day. Both of these substances interfere with sleep. The one exception to this is if you suffer from hypnic headaches. Caffeine before bedtime is an effective treatment, and in the case of hypnic headache sufferers, does not keep them awake.
Avoid sleep medications, too – many of these can become addictive, and they may interfere with any medication you’re currently taking to manage your migraines.
It’s not uncommon for people to think they’re sleeping more than they actually are. Keep a diary where you note the following:
If you think you have a sleep disorder, talk to your doctor and share your sleep diary with them. They will ask you some diagnostic questions and may refer you to sleep clinic for further diagnosis.
If you have snoring or sleep apnea, treat those underlying conditions first. The same goes for insomnia.
Cognitive behavioral therapy for insomnia (CBT-I) is an extremely effective treatment that can take as few as 6 to 8 sessions. Your therapist will work with you to recognize the problematic thoughts you have around sleep so you can learn to manage them and react with healthier, sleep-promoting behaviors. CBT can also be helpful for addressing any fear you’ve developed of going to sleep and waking up with a migraine.