Medically reviewed by Lauren Castiello, MS, AGNP-C
Lauren is a board-certified adult-gerontology primary care nurse practitioner. Lauren has done NP clinical practicums focusing on the adolescent, adult, and geriatric populations in internal medicine, long-term care, and in outpatient oncology/bone marrow transplant. Lauren received a BA from Assumption University, a BSN from Massachusetts College of Pharmacy and Health Sciences, and her MS in Nursing from the University of Massachusetts at Lowell. She is certified by the American Academy of Nurse Practitioners (AANP).
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Migraines & Sleep

The Migraine Research Foundation reports that migraines affect approximately 39 million U.S. adults and children, with one billion sufferers worldwide. This makes it the third most common disease in the world. Classified as a neurological disease, it is considered one of the worst, as it is responsible for over 1.2 million emergency room visits each year for acute attacks.

With migraines so prevalent in the world, studies and research are severely underfunded and lacking. Patients are left largely on their own when it comes to understanding their migraine triggers and the best ways to ease their symptoms. 

Migraine sufferers know that sleep typically plays an integral role in migraines. Sleep deprivation or excess may be a trigger for an attack, and many patients use sleep as a tool to cope with their pain. In fact, the proper sleep environment during an attack can be one of the best ways to soothe symptoms. We’ll explore the complex role sleep plays in migraines as triggers, preventative measures, and treatment.

Table of Contents

Sleep And Migraines

How Migraines Work

Researchers define a migraine as a neurological disorder that involves nerve pathways and brain chemicals. Anyone who has ever had a migraine knows how incapacitating it is. From the extreme throbbing pain on one or both sides of the head to the spotty or loss of vision and sensitivity to light, sound, touch and even smell. It could also involve nausea, vomiting and dizziness, and in some cases, people experience numbness or a tingling sensation on their face or extremities.

Fatigue and exhaustion are other symptoms of a migraine. When your brain begins pounding, and you feel that familiar pressure between your eyes, you find yourself unable to function in the face of such pain, and sleep is all that you want.

Sleep As A Migraine Trigger

For that reason, sleep is one of the most popular self-treatments for a migraine. By giving your eyes a break, your body has a chance to rest so you can recharge those batteries. In fact, the Migraine Trust reports that sleep is particularly effective in treating migraines in children. 

Although sleep can be a miracle for some migraine sufferers, not all experts agree that sleep is helpful for those blinding headaches. In fact, some researchers consider sleep to be a detriment, according to a new review of several case studies by Dr. Mark. Green, Director of Headache Medicine and Clinical Professor of Neurology, Anesthesiology and Dentistry for Columbia University. 

He argues that an untreated problem is still likely to be there when you wake up, writing, “Going to sleep with an untreated migraine is commonly a mistake, as it may worsen during the night and become difficult to treat in the morning. If a migraineur is sleep-deprived, he or she can expect more migraines, while those who oversleep may wake with attacks that are very resistant to therapy.”

Sleep Deprivation And Its Effect On Sleep 

While studies continue to uncover more about this elusive disease, we are learning more about it every day and how intertwined migraines actually are with our sleep.

We do know definitively that sleep deprivation and poor sleeping habits directly impact migraines. Missouri State University conducted a 2010 study that showed rats who were deprived of REM sleep were more likely to experience substantial changes to special proteins that work like pain triggers. When the rats didn’t get the full rest they needed, they secreted more of these proteins that overstimulated the nervous system and triggered pain. It is very similar to what happens in humans. The quality of your sleep can also affect the strength of your migraines and their frequency. 

Some experts consider migraines a warning system for the body, letting you know when you have pushed yourself too far and need rest. Says the Migraine Trust, “If you are sleep deprived, suffering a migraine may actually force you to keep still and lie down in the dark, in the hope of trying to sleep as a way of ridding yourself of the migraine. Having too much sleep may also have the opposite effect and keep you awake with a migraine on subsequent nights. Both scenarios may be a way of trying to redress both sleep pressure and circadian alignment, and keep the system in equilibrium.”

Sleep Disorders and Migraines

In addition to too much sleep or lack thereof, there are other reasons to blame for interrupted sleep and migraines. Some can include insomnia, sleep apnea, teeth grinding and restless legs syndrome as leading causes. 

There are several other common sleep disorders that are more common in those who experience migraines:

  • Interrupted sleep
  • Insomnia
  • Fatigue
  • Snoring
  • Restless leg syndrome
  • Early morning wake-ups
  • Difficulty staying asleep

Insomnia

Insomnia is the most common problem that people face with their sleep, and it especially affects migraineurs. This refers to an inability to fall and stay asleep, with poor quality of sleep. Interrupted sleep and inadequate sleep schedules are also common symptoms. Those who experience migraines are more likely to have insomnia. Having both insomnia and migraines puts you at a greater risk of depression and anxiety.

Sleep Apnea

Sleep apnea is characterized by shallow breathing or gaps in breathing during sleep, which can cause the body to wake itself up to take a deeper breath. Not only is it dangerous, but it can make your migraines worse due to the lack of oxygen while you sleep.

Bruxism

Bruxism is more commonly known as grinding your teeth, and it is a popular coping mechanism for stress. The relationship between migraines and Bruxism is murky. Experts theorize that teeth grinding may activate the cranial trigeminal nerve that plays a role in migraines or that those with migraines have a highly sensitive central nervous system that is more susceptible to Bruxism pain.  

Restless Legs Syndrome

Interestingly enough, doctors have found that restless legs syndrome can also be associated with migraines. Migraine patients tend to have a higher risk of RLS, and RLS symptoms may be more severe in those with migraines.

If you suffer from any of these conditions, talk to your doctors to see how they can be helped. Your doctor may refer you to a neurologist who can better look at your brain and sleep patterns to find the right solution for you.

Image: Shutterstock/Prostock-studio

Taking Control Of The Sleep-Migraine Cycle

With sleep so closely tied to our health, it is crucial to take steps to reduce the impact of migraines and lower your risk of continued and more serious attacks.  Since too much, too little, and low-quality (interrupted) sleep can all be migraine triggers, prioritizing your sleep health is one major preventative measure you can take to protect yourself.

Maintain Good Sleep Hygiene

Just like our mouths and bodies have hygiene routines to feel their best, our sleep health has its own hygiene best practices. Sleep hygiene includes all of our daily habits that impact our ability to sleep, including exercise, diet, caffeine intake, and even screen time. A sleep hygiene routine is all about consistency so that you set your body clock to fall asleep quickly at the right time and wake up refreshed at the right time.

Sleep Hygiene Tips For Migraine Sufferers

When creating your new sleep hygiene, these are the five most important tips to follow to help ensure better sleep and fewer migraines.

  1. Don’t forget to eat. Your body needs fuel to function and fight off those headaches. Some foods, like fruit, nuts, and cereals, can help you sleep better, so you may want to prioritize those over heavier meals right before you go to bed.
  2. Get the right amount of sleep. Sleeping too little or too much can confuse your brain and cause a chemical imbalance that can lead to migraines. Unplanned or too frequent naps can also disrupt your sleep cycle. 
  3. Watch your caffeine and alcohol content. Both alcohol and caffeine are proven triggers for migraines and can significantly hamper your sleep hygiene.
  4. Limit your pain medications. Many migraineurs swear by Excedrin Migraine, and rightfully so, but taking these kinds of over-the-counter medications can actually prove ineffective or dangerous when taken more than a few days in a row. This includes other medications like acetaminophen, aspirin, ibuprofen or a combination of any of the above.
  5. Consider other treatments. Medicine isn’t the only way to treat a migraine. When you feel the familiar, dreaded stirrings, immediately try to find a cool, dark place where you can lay down, close your eyes and rest for a while.

Know Your Triggers

Everyone’s body is different, so it’s normal for people to react to migraines differently. What may be a severe trigger for one person may not be a trigger for others. If you can identify what is causing your migraines, you are already one step ahead of the game because now you know exactly what to target. 

These common migraine triggers are good things to keep track of:

  • Stress
  • Exercise
  • Fatigue
  • Medications
  • Alcohol and caffeine
  • Poor diet

It’s important to take the time to record your migraines. Try to record as much information as possible, including the time and date, its length, your symptoms and where you feel pain. If you treat your migraine with medication or another treatment, indicate those, as well. This migraine journal can help your doctor understand your migraine triggers and how to manage them.

Accordingly, a sleep log can be beneficial in identifying your sleep patterns over an extended period of time. Be sure to review our tips on creating a useful sleep log that you and your doctor can use to study your sleep-related issues and better understand how they impact your migraines. 

Sleep During a Migraine: How to Make it Work

When a migraine is severe enough, it can be painful just to close your eyes and lay in bed. These are some tips to help you get comfortable if you choose to sleep off a migraine:

  1. A damp washcloth is a popular go-to and should be placed over the eyes, temples or the back of your neck, depending on where you feel the most pain. The cool wetness will help alleviate some of the inflammation that is causing all of that pain. Some migraine sufferers find a cold leaf of lettuce or frozen washcloth particularly helpful.
  2. Gel eye masks can also help in times like these and can be kept in the freezer, so they’re ready at a moment’s notice. Inexpensive options can typically be found at the drug store, online on Amazon, or discount retailers.
  3. You can also purchase a special cooling pillow to fight inflammation associated with migraines.
  4. A headache-targeted massage can be incredible for reducing some of the tension and helping your brain to relax. If you do not have someone to give you a head massage, consider an inexpensive scalp massager. The American Massage Therapy Association also provides guidelines for self-massage that sufferers can use during an attack to jumpstart the healing process.
  5. Invest in a soft but supportive mattress to get a comfortable sleep. A migraine attack is not the time when you want to feel a worn-out mattress, have a spring poking you in the back, or otherwise experience physical irritation. There are plenty of great mattresses available for under $500 that can transform the way you sleep.
  6. Install blackout curtains to keep out the light. When your eyes are throbbing, any sign of light can make the pain worse. Blackout curtains will not only help you establish great sleep hygiene in general, but they can also be a lifesaver when you can’t bear the stabbing pain of the light.

Tools For Migraine Sufferers

Several apps are also available to help those who live with migraines. These can be very helpful in tracking, analyzing and treating your migraines in the future and for many different reasons. 

Migraine Buddy – A diary and tracker all-in-one, this app is actually designed by real neurologists who add tons of educational resources to help you understand why migraines are happening to you.

Manage My Pain Pro – This paid app focuses on information gathering for your medical team. As you add details about your migraines and sleep, the app will generate charts, graphics and statistics to understand your neurological health that much easier.

Blue Light Filter & Night Mode – With so many of us increasingly dependent on our smart devices, this blue light filter and night mode can help your eyes adjust to ambient conditions and protect you from migraine-causing blue light and eye strain.

Relax Melodies: Sleep Sounds – Find relaxation and establish more regular and deeper sleep with this free app that includes guided meditation and exercises to help prepare your brain and body for sleep.

Migräne App – Created by German migraine scientists, this app is not only a treasure trove of information, but it also includes everything you need to track and analyze your migraines for your doctor. You can also use the app to connect with a global community of scientists, researchers and migraineurs just like you.

The Bottom Line

Every day, science is learning more and more about our brains and how chemicals interfere with healthy brain activity.  Developments in medicine, combined with healthy habits, can make a difference in both the frequency and severity of migraines. To live a more migraine-free life, evaluate your sleep patterns and lifestyle to see what changes you can make for a healthier and more pain-free tomorrow.