Migraines and How They Affect Sleep

Migraines are not very difficult to explain. Imagine a severe regular headache, then make it worse and add a medium-sized list of unpleasant symptoms that can incapacitate a person for potentially a whole day – or a few days, in the worst case scenario.

Headaches are quite common among both children and adults. They usually range from inconvenient and annoying to unpleasant enough to cause sleeping problems. Most of the time, the simple solution is to get some rest, go for a long walk to get some fresh air and to take painkillers that let you function properly until it subsides. What we’re going to look into in this article is slightly different, however.

Migraines are the much more severe cousin of regular headaches, and they sadly often go undiagnosed or overlooked. If you’re suffering from migraines, it’s easy to classify them as regular headaches, since on the surface the two conditions function almost identically. Migraines affect more than 36 million people in the United States. Their effect on the person’s sleep quality and general daily performance is enough to cause workplace accidents or seemingly unrelated health issues. We will go into details to paint a picture of how problematic migraines can be, as well as how they’re connected to a person’s sleep and how to relieve their symptoms. Let’s get into it.

How Migraines Work

Migraines are not very difficult to explain. Imagine a severe regular headache, then make it worse and add a medium-sized list of unpleasant symptoms that can incapacitate a person for potentially a whole day – or a few days, in the worst case scenario. For this reason, people who have a history of dealing with migraines should focus on creating an environment or a single room to retreat to where they can rest without sharp noises and bright light. The list of symptoms goes as follows:

–          Blurred vision is a very common migraine symptom and one that makes any sort of precision-based work nearly impossible.

–          Throbbing and recurring headaches, of moderate or high severity, either localized to a specific region of your head (such as one side of your forehead) or spread across your whole head. Easily the most defining symptom of migraines, and the part that contributes the most towards disrupting your sleep schedule

–          Increased sensitivity to light can pose an issue. Noticing auras (which manifest as flashes of light or blind spots) is a key method of identifying a migraine. Make sure that you spend as little time as possible exposed to intense light during migraine episodes.

–          Nausea and stomach problems are quite common in migraine sufferers, too. Even taking a painkiller or two doesn’t resolve potential nausea that comes packaged in with the migraine, and the person can throw up multiple times as a result.

–          Fatigue accompanies a variety of neurological and sleep-related conditions, so it’s no surprise to see it show up on the list of migraine symptoms as well. Fatigue can cripple an individual’s daily performance in many areas of life. It’s responsible for workplace accidents, car crashes and more. Any condition that causes sleep deprivation also causes fatigue.

–          Vertigo is common among people with migraines and is also considered the most frequent form of dizziness. On its own, vertigo affects around 5% of the population each year. It’s characterized by the feeling that objects around the person are moving when they actually aren’t. Vertigo may cause trouble walking, vomiting or nausea in general.

–          Reduced appetite is another potential symptom and one that is often noticed alongside nausea and stomach pain caused by migraines. Try to consume foods such as bread and baked toast to minimize the chances of throwing up, since these foods can absorb some of the acids.

Any combination of these symptoms can crop up when a person experiences a migraine episode. It’s not always the same, and the overall migraine duration ranges from a few hours (enough to miss a day of work) to a few days (which causes considerable scheduling issues for the person and generally puts them out of commission for the whole duration). The intensity of the symptoms also tends to vary from migraine to migraine.

One of the biggest issues we have with migraines is that scientists and researchers don’t know the exact causes. Thanks to recent research, the idea that migraines are a neurological issue is becoming more and more widespread. Studies have shown that migraines share the same gene mutation as advanced sleep phase syndrome, a condition where your body wants to fall asleep much sooner than normal (to the point where the urge to go to sleep at 6 PM can be irresistible) and wakes up at around 2-5 AM. Because they’re tied to genetics, migraines often run in the family, although it doesn’t mean that every affected family member will experience a migraine the same way. Different lifestyle situations can trigger a migraine, but the most common ones are stress, poor sleep quality or quantity and weather conditions (particularly sudden shifts in the local weather).

How Migraines Affect Sleep

As you might imagine at this point, migraines have a considerable number of negative effects on your sleep quality, schedule and likelihood to experience a sleep disorder. The American Migraine Foundation (AMF) has determined that migraine sufferers have a 100-700% increased chance to have trouble getting enough uninterrupted rest. As a rule, the worse your migraine is, the more issues you’ll run into trying to fall asleep. Simply having migraines regularly can lead to a vicious cycle when it comes to sleep – a late night migraine can destroy your sleep for that night, which makes you sleep deprived and fatigued during the day. This sleep deprivation introduces a huge number of potential physical, emotional and mental health concerns, and worst of all – it causes migraines. Chronic sleep deprivation is an incredibly difficult obstacle to overcome for people who have migraines – and it’s far from the only sleep-related condition you can encounter. Here’s a list of problematic sleep disorders you should be on the lookout for:


Insomnia is characterized by an increased difficulty at which the patient can fall or stay asleep, and is possibly the most common sleep disorder. Insomniacs have trouble getting the recommended amount of sleep per night on average, which ranges between seven and nine hours for fully developed adults. As mentioned previously, the resulting sleep deprivation can itself be a trigger for new migraine episodes, which can create a seriously crippling loop of pain and exhaustion. Stress, anxiety, and depression can all be developed through sleep deprivation, and both stress and anxiety are common headache triggers.

Around a third of all the people with migraines in the US report getting an average of 6 hours of sleep per night, which can endanger them at work, damage their social life and lead to traffic accidents and a variety of health problems. Remember that fatigue weakens your immune system significantly – a seemingly unrelated illness could have a root cause in fatigue, and every single sleep disorder causes fatigue in one way or another. Short sleeping is sometimes considered a direct contributor to the risk of early death. Unfortunately, sleeping for six hours or less is one of the easiest ways to ensure a migraine activation the next day. Around 80% of people who have to deal with migraines have reported feeling very tired when they wake up.

Sleep Apnea and Snoring

Migraines have a surprising connection to sleep apnea and snoring in general. Children who experience migraines are around twice as likely to encounter sleep apnea or snore, and also have to deal with many more sleeping disturbances than children without migraine issues. Snoring is described as noisy breathing during sleep and is often treated as an early warning sign for potential sleep apnea. Fortunately, not everyone who snores has to eventually face sleep apnea, but it’s best to be on the safe side when it comes to sleep disorder prevention. Both snoring and sleep apnea cause sleep deprivation and fragmented sleep, which seriously increases the risk of migraines.

Sleep apnea generally falls into two main categories – obstructive sleep apnea (OSA) and central sleep apnea (CSA). Both of these result in temporary loss of breath during sleep, and they differ in how they obstruct airflow and the specific treatment plans. OSA occurs when there is a physical blockage in the patient’s airways, usually caused by the relaxation of muscles responsible for breathing. This muscle relaxation often causes the tongue to enter the airway, which blocks air passage. CSA is different in that instead of physical blockage, the “culprit” behind airflow prevention is the brain, and its inability to regulate breathing muscles properly through electrical signals. Both types of sleep apnea are treated through the use of a CPAP (continuous positive air pressure) generator. This generator is connected to a hose, which funnels humidified and pressurized air into the patient’s mouth and nose through an attached mask. Depending on which type of sleep apnea you have, the measurements for how humid the air is and how much pressure is applied are different.

Awakening and Hypnic Headaches

We’re grouping these two types of headaches together because it’s very easy for an uninformed person to mistake one for the other, as they behave similarly. Awakening headaches occur for around 70% of all migraine sufferers, usually between 4 AM and 9 AM (hence the name). If these headaches happen regularly, it often means there’s an underlying sleep disorder.

Hypnic headaches affect adults age 50 or older. They have an alternative name that hints at their behavior – alarm clock headaches. Hypnic headaches always occur at a consistent time every night they pop up, typically around 1-3 AM. They cause enough pain to instantly wake the person up, causing fragmented sleep and lasting up to three hours after waking. Hypnic headaches happen once in three days or so, and a quota of 10 days per month is required to diagnose them properly. Some researchers theorize that alarm clock headaches always occur during REM sleep.

Sleeping Tips for People With Migraines

As was shown, migraines are an obstacle that has to be worked around by the people who experience them. While you can never get rid of migraines altogether, there are steps you can take to alleviate the symptoms and achieve good enough rest to minimize how often you get headaches. Most of these steps are simple lifestyle changes that help you stay healthy in general, so you get a lot of benefits even outside of migraine prevention. Here’s the list:

–          Watch your diet. Diet problems cause a huge number of health risks, and migraines are no exception. In general, you should try to avoid stuffing yourself full of sugary and greasy foods, but the importance of this is doubled when you’re close to bedtime, as it can lead to a spike in blood sugar and an upset stomach, which prevents you from relaxing enough to fall asleep properly.

Alcohol and caffeine are well-known sleep-destroying substances by now, but they’re worth mentioning. Alcohol, in particular, has a negative effect on your overall sleep quality, so don’t be tempted by the initial relaxation benefit. Caffeine is only acceptable if you suffer from hypnic headaches, as it can minimize the odds of them occurring when consumed in calculated doses.

–          Establish and maintain a strict sleep schedule. One of the best ways to minimize the frequency of migraines and their severity is to force yourself into a healthy sleeping schedule. Aim for 7-8 hours of sleep each night, and don’t deviate from this schedule except during emergency situations. By doing this properly, you “train” your circadian rhythm to make you feel sleepy at the same time every day, which decreases sleep onset latency.

–          Try to create a “bedtime routine.” This routine can consist of a variety of relaxation exercises and sleep-friendly habits. You have a ton of options – drinking herbal tea, meditating, practicing yoga, doing regular breathing exercises, taking a warm bath, etc. Get creative, as long as you don’t develop a habit that indirectly leads to trouble sleeping.

–          Keep a sleep journal and headache diary. If you plan on visiting a doctor (which is a good idea if you suspect you’re dealing with a sleeping disorder), the best way to help them reach an accurate diagnosis is to keep track of your problems over the course of several weeks. Sleep tracking doesn’t necessarily have to be done by hand, but headache diaries don’t have a convenient app alternative we could recommend. Make sure to take note of what time of day you get headaches, how long they last, how severe they are, and how often they occur. Any information you can give the doctor is one step closer to proper treatment.


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