Migraine sufferers are two to eight times more likely to suffer from sleep deprivation than the general public.

Sleep deprivation lowers your pain threshold which makes your pain so much worse. More than half of my migraine patients have chronic sleep disorders, which worsen as the headaches do; however, research has shown that good, quality sleep can help relieve headaches.

sleep deprivation and migrainesMany people with migraines often complain of having symptoms upon awakening.  Most morning headaches happen between 4 and 9 a.m.  This is a strong indication that sleep is causing the headaches, so treating your sleep disorder may treat your headaches as well.

Identifying Sleep Disorders that May be Affecting Migraines

If you suffer from morning headaches, you probably have a sleep disorder.  The most common sleep disorders are obstructive sleep apnea and insomnia, both of which have serious health consequences.

Other sleep disorders that can reduce the quality of sleep are:

  • Restless leg syndrome
  • Chronic pain or fibromyalgia
  • Narcolepsy
  • Sleepwalking
  • Jaw clenching
  • Body clock disorders

Sleep Apnea:  Snoring is a sign of sleep apnea; however, not everyone who snores has sleep apnea.  There are other symptoms to watch out for, including:

  • Excessive daytime sleepiness
  • Witnessed starts and stops in breathing during sleep
  • Frequent nighttime awakenings
  • Night sweats

Insomnia:  This is probably more common than sleep apnea among my migraine patients.  Symptoms include:

  • Difficulty falling and staying asleep at night
  • Not feeling refreshed upon awakening
  • Early morning awakenings, after only a few hours of sleep (usually less than 6 hours)
  • Cognitive impairment
  • Clouded judgement
  • Poor focus
  • Irritability, anxiety, or depression

Anxiety and depression are often a problem in migraine patients with a sleep disorder.  This seriously interferes with functioning and significantly lowers quality of life, which worsens headaches.

The Brain, Serotonin, and Sleep

Several studies link headaches with sleep difficulties.  Both happen in similar regions of the brain.  Sleep deprivation lowers our pain threshold, making the pain worse than usual.  This exacerbates both the physical and emotional responses to pain.  This is why most migraineurs will feel better after getting a few good nights’ rest!

Some studies have found that migraine headaches are the result of our bodies not going through the proper number of REM or deep sleep stages.  REM is the dream state, and deep sleep stage is when our body restores itself.  The link between migraines and sleep stages is still a bit foggy, but it is clear that there are hormonal and chemical changes in the brain that are causing the headaches.

Serotonin is probably the most prominent hormone related to sleep, headaches, and mood changes.  It regulates the sleep/wake cycle, as well as mood.  While sleep is still a mystery, we do know that serotonin plays a huge role in our bodies.

  • High levels will keep us awake, and low levels will make us fatigued and lethargic
  • It helps produce melatonin, the essential sleep hormone
  • Levels drop during REM, which suggests it may inhibit REM
  • Low levels raise acetylcholine, which reduces REM
  • Low levels may cause of insomnia
  • Stress may cause low levels
  • You can raise serotonin levels by eating tryptophan-rich foods and getting daily exercise

Treatment Options and Sleep Habits for Migraineurs

Before talking about treatments, let’s go over some of the healthiest sleep habits you can practice in the meantime:

  • Make sleep a priority and schedule your sleep times, keeping the same sleep and wake times every day.
  • Your room should be a cool, dark place where only sleep or sexual encounters take place.
  • Avoid big meals, caffeine, nicotine, and alcohol several hours before bed.
  • Do not watch television or play on electronic devices 30 minutes before bed.
  • Practice relaxing techniques that will wind you down from the day’s activities. This can be anything from meditation to a warm bath and soft music.

Treatment for sleep disorders is more complicated.  For sleep apnea, you will need a sleep study that will help your doctor determine the severity of the condition and the best treatment options.  Treatment generally includes a CPAP (continuous positive airway pressure) machine, which helps keep the airways open and eliminate snoring.

Insomnia is more difficult to treat, but not impossible.  Consider cognitive behavioral sleep therapy or hypnosis.  Some of my patients like using natural supplements, like:

  • Magnesium
  • Melatonin
  • 5-HTP
  • L-tryptophan

About half of my migraine patients have morning symptoms, which indicate sleep deprivation.  This lowers their pain threshold and makes the pain experience worse.  Science has shown us the link in the brain, but treatment is often difficult to determine because every migraineur has different symptoms and sleep problems.

It is imperative that you treat your sleep deprivation sooner rather than later, as it can lead to more complications.  Practice healthy sleep habits and talk to your provider about getting a diagnosis of your sleep disorder so that you can get an effective treatment plan that will improve your sleep and reduce your migraines.


  1. http://www.headache-help.org/sleep-disorders-and-headache
  2. http://www.livestrong.com/article/136959-how-does-serotonin-affect-sleep/
  3. https://americanmigrainefoundation.org/living-with-migraines/life-with-headachemigraine/sleep/


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