Approximately 15 percent of U.S. adults suffer from chronic headaches or migraines, and about 10 percent of U.S. adults suffer from headaches multiple times each week. In fact, migraine, a type of headache disorder, is the third most prevalent and the 6th most disabling illness in the world.
In addition to headache issues, many Americans also struggle with sleep. In fact, according to a study released by the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), more than a third of Americans are not getting enough sleep (7 hours or more) on a regular basis.
With so many people suffering from insufficient sleep and headaches, one must wonder are headaches and sleep issues connected?
HOW IS THE BRAIN INVOLVED IN SLEEP AND HEADACHES?
Your brain is a complex organ. Different parts of your brain have different roles and responsibilities including:
- Telling your body to breathe and your heart to beat.
- Driving urges like hunger and thirst so you have the needed energy and nutrients for life.
- Regulating your emotions.
- Perceiving and controlling pain.
- Regulating your sleep and wake cycles.
Your very survival depends on your brain performing some of these tasks for you.
A key region in your brain that helps regulate your sleep is called the hypothalamus. The front (anterior) part of your hypothalamus supports your body in falling asleep and staying asleep and the rear (posterior) part of your hypothalamus supports your body in waking up and staying awake. Your hypothalamus plays a role in how your body perceives and controls pain as well. In addition, your hypothalamus is connected to your brain stem, which also plays a role in your sleeping and development of headaches.
Your brain also produces hormones while you sleep that help regulate your body’s functions. For example, the release of certain hormones helps reduce your need to use the restroom while you sleep, while other hormones support growth and tissue repair. If your hormone production is imbalanced, you may have difficulty with sleeping too much or too little, as well as difficulty falling asleep or staying asleep. Interestingly, imbalances in certain hormones are also connected to headaches.
In fact, some of the same brain regions and chemical messengers impact your sleep, headaches, and even mood. Not getting enough sleep or getting poor quality sleep can increase your likelihood of developing headaches. Those headaches can then in turn make it more difficult to fall asleep, stay asleep or achieve good quality sleep—creating a vicious cycle. In fact, people who experience migraine headaches and have difficulty getting sufficient sleep often also suffer from depression or anxiety, which can also be triggers for migraines.
HOW ARE SLEEP DISORDERS & HEADACHES CONNECTED?
Sleep disorders are health conditions that change the way you sleep. They often result in a significant lack of sleep that then increases your risk for other health conditions such as Alzheimer’s and heart disease. Sleep disorders may also impact your safety due to increased risk for accidents, attributable to sleepiness. Signs and symptoms of sleep disorders can include excessive sleepiness during the day, difficulty falling or staying asleep, irregular breathing during sleep or increased movement while asleep.
Headaches can also impact your ability to fall asleep and stay asleep. If you experience recurrent migraines, chronic tension-type headaches, or medication overuse headaches, you may have trouble with sleep as a result. For example, migraines can be triggered by poor quality or insufficient duration of sleep as well as excessive sleep; and people experiencing recurrent migraine headaches with poor sleep reported more frequent headaches than those with migraines who got at least 7 hours of sleep regularly. Likewise, people with migraine headaches often seek a dark space to sleep to help the headache pass. However, by sleeping during the daytime and therefore reducing your exposure to daylight, you can further disrupt your hormones and sleep cycle—making you more likely to have difficulty with sleep that night and thus risking a future headache triggered by insufficient sleep.
In fact, headaches can:
- Cause sleep disturbances.
- Result from insufficient sleep.
- Be the result of a sleep disorder.
The three main sleep disorders associated with headache symptoms include sleep apnea, insomnia, and teeth grinding.
There are several kinds of sleep apnea. They are characterized by abnormal breathing patterns during sleep, including breath slowed or stopped breathing. Risk factors for sleep apnea include genetics, age, family history, race, ethnicity and gender. Also, unhealthy lifestyle habits—such as being overweight, drinking alcohol and smoking—may increase your likelihood of developing sleep apnea. Snoring is the most common symptom associated with sleep apnea, but researchers have identified that (in some people) morning headaches are associated with untreated sleep apnea. If you are treating your sleep apnea with a CPAP machine, but are still waking up with a headache, this may be the result of blocked sinuses or your pressure on your machine may be set too high. It is best to check with your healthcare provider to discuss your morning headaches.
Insomnia is a sleep disorder that is described as having difficulty falling asleep or staying asleep. Insomnia may be a short-term problem or last for a long period of time. It can also come and go, meaning you may have trouble with sleep for a while and then sleep well for several months, followed by a period of difficult sleep again. Insomnia may be the primary problem, but it can also be a side-effect of certain medications or a symptom of other medical conditions. Insomnia also becomes more common past age 50 and may be attributed to side-effects from increased medication use with age, changes in physical activity, increased pain from conditions like arthritis, or age-related changes to your sleep cycle. Insomnia can lead to a tension headache, which can then make it more difficult to fall asleep at night, which can then lead to more headaches. Practicing good sleep hygiene habits like managing stress, reducing caffeine use, and keeping a consistent bedtime may help prevent insomnia. However, if you are experiencing issues with difficulty falling asleep or staying asleep, it is highly recommended you connect with your healthcare provider to assess the potential cause. Chronically getting insufficient sleep increases your risk for accidents and chronic health conditions, in addition to headaches.
Teeth grinding and clenching, known more formally as bruxism, can occur while awake or asleep. During waking hours, it is usually an involuntary response to stress or anger and typically you would notice that you were grinding your teeth and stop. However, when you are asleep and grind your teeth, you are likely not aware of the activity and therefore cannot make adjustments to stop. Bruxism typically occurs early in your sleep cycle and is most likely to occur in people with heightened stress or anxiety, as well as those who consume caffeine or nicotine near bedtime. Bruxism can result in not only impaired sleep and face tension, but also damage to your teeth. In fact, it is often identified by a dentist first.
If you are waking up with tightness in your jaw or face, sore teeth, or if your partner says you make grinding noises with your teeth during sleep, you may want to bring this to the attention of your dentist and/or primary care physician. Sometimes sleep position can also play a role in teeth grinding. Hence, getting professional support to help you address teeth grinding can be important and may include lifestyle changes to address the stressors, mindfulness practices to help calm anxiety before bed, adjusting your sleep position, and/or the use of special night guards to protect your teeth.
WHAT TYPES OF HEADACHES ARE LINKED TO SLEEP?
Headaches that are linked to sleep include: wake-up headache and hypnic headache. Migraines are a disorder, of which a headache is one symptom.
Wake-up headaches have been found to be associated with teeth grinding (bruxism) during sleep. Hypnic headaches are a rare sleep-related headache disorder. They ONLY develop during sleep and are characterized by 10 or more morning headaches a month. The pain can be so severe that it can wake you from a deep sleep and will usually last 15 minutes to up to 4 hours after waking. If you are experiencing headaches that wake you from your sleep, it is important to bring this to the attention of your healthcare provider, as there may be an underlying medical condition or medication issue causing the headache. Migraine is the most common type of headache people wake up with in the morning.
HOW CAN YOU IMPROVE YOUR SLEEP AND DECREASE YOUR HEADACHES?
Many of the factors that impact sleep also impact your risk of triggering a headache. Hence, the following sleep hygiene recommendations may also help reduce your risk of headache, which may reduce your risk of difficulty with sleep, thus improving that negative feedback loop. If you want to reduce your risk for waking up with a headache, you may want to:
- Address unmanaged sleep apnea. If you wake frequently with a dry, sore throat, or if your partner complains of you snoring, you may want to ask your physician to evaluate these symptoms for possible sleep apnea.
- Manage high stress or anxiety levels. If you are experiencing high levels of stress and/or anxiety in your day, this can spill over into your ability to sleep well and may lead to tension headaches during sleep. It is recommended you try a mindful practice before bed to help you relax and reduce tension. Research demonstrates improvements in sleep with music relaxation, meditation, breathing exercises, or slow movement practices such as Tai Chi.
- Control environmental allergens. Some people have issues with dust mites, pollen, and other allergens in their sleep space leading to headaches. To reduce the likelihood of those issues, you may want to explore purchasing hypoallergenic bedding and pillows. Also, frequently washing your bedding is important if you have allergies. Brooklyn Bedding has several great hypoallergenic pillows, bed toppers and mattress options.
- Adjust your sleep position. Also, your sleep position may be causing muscular pain that is leading to both poor sleep and headaches. Our recent article on sleep positions can offer some great insights on finding the right position for your body. In addition, certain mattresses and pillows are best suited for specific sleep positions.
- Improve your sleep support. Also, having a mattress that is worn out, not sized appropriately to your height and weight, or that does not support your preferred sleeping position may be a source of head, back or neck pain that is resulting in headaches and sleep issues. Check out our store to view Brooklyn Bedding’s wide variety of mattresses that are designed specifically to support different sleep positions as well as different sized sleepers. Mattresses are not a one size fits all product, nor are they intended to be used for decades.
The most important thing to remember in your busy life is that sleep is a basic human need, just like breathing, drinking and eating. As we shared in previous blog posts, sleep plays an important role in your health and well-being across your lifespan. Therefore, taking steps today to improve your sleep may help improve your overall pain, mood and long-term health while alleviating specific issues like headaches. Connect with one of our sleep consultants to learn how Brooklyn Bedding can help support you on your path to a better night’s sleep, and hopefully reduce your headaches along the way as well.