Why A Lack Of Sleep Causes Migraine Pain And How To Fix It

Most of my migraine patients have some type of sleep disorder, generally chronic.  Long-term sleep deprivation leads to a laundry list of problems, including chronic headaches and migraines.  People with headaches are two to eight times more likely to have a sleep disorder than those without a headache condition.

A good indicator that sleep is causing your migraine or headache is if you wake up in the morning with head pain, usually between 4 and 9 a.m.  Does that sound familiar?  How about irritability, appetite changes, and excessive daytime sleepiness? Do any of these burden you?  If so, it’s time to talk about your sleep habits.

Causes of Sleep Disorders

Whether your sleep disorder is caused by your migraines or vice versa, the bottom line is the same – treating the sleep disorder is likely going to help your symptoms.  Before you can figure out how to treat yourself, however, you need to know what may be causing the problems.

The two most common sleep disorders are insomnia and obstructive sleep apnea.  These are pretty easy to identify.  Sleep apnea is characterized by loud snoring, excessive daytime sleepiness, starts and stops in breathing through the night, and frequent awakenings.  Insomnia is accompanied by difficulty falling and staying asleep, cognitive impairment, poor focus, anxiety, depression, and frequently waking up after fewer than 6 hours of sleep.

If these are not the case for you, then there may be another issue, such as:

  • Sleepwalking
  • Nightmares/Night terrors
  • Narcolepsy
  • Body clock disorder
  • Restless leg syndrome
  • Chronic pain


How Serotonin Affects Sleep

Studies link sleep difficulties and headaches to the same region of the brain.  Multiple studies show sleep deprivation can lower your pain threshold, exacerbate your response to pain, and ultimately add to your stress levels.

For the body to restore itself, it needs several cycles of REM (dream state) and deep sleep throughout the night. While science is still looking for direct links between sleep stages and migraines, it is clear there are direct hormonal and chemical changes that result from sleep deprivation.

One of the main hormones affected by a sleep disorder is serotonin.  Serotonin regulates your mood and your sleep/wake cycle.  While we can’t directly link serotonin levels to sleep, we do know that serotonin affects our entire body.

  • Low levels make us feel tired
  • High levels help us feel awake
  • It lowers during the REM cycle, and low levels raise acetylcholine levels, which also inhibits REM
  • Insomniacs are known to have low levels


Sometimes, as doctors, we have to play connect the dots when we’re trying to figure out the origin of a pain condition like migraines.  The good news, however, is once you know sleep is a migraine trigger or vice versa, there are several ways you can address the issue without having to take medications.

Treatments for Sleep Disorders

I don’t completely oppose medications; however, they should only be used on an as-needed basis and for acute conditions.  They should never be used as a permanent treatment for a temporary condition.  The side effects of sleep medications can make you worse. Try some natural methods first.

Here are a few good sleep habits to help you improve sleep:

  • Prioritize your sleep. Schedule your bedtime and wake-up time, and stick to it. Aim for the same time every day.
  • Keep your room cool and dark.
  • Only use your room for sleep or intimacy. Don’t read, watch TV, or play with electronics in bed.
  • Stay away from electronics at least one hour before bed. The blue light from the screens activates the mind and tricks it into thinking it needs to be awake.
  • Create a bedtime ritual that’s relaxing:
    • Take a warm shower or bath
    • Meditate
    • Do light reading under a dim light
    • Get a massage after work
    • Take a walk
    • Drink herbal tea (chamomile)
  • Take supplements like 5-HTP, GABA, magnesium, and melatonin to help with sleep. Sometimes, it takes a mix of supplements.


Keep an eye out for vitamin deficiencies that may be part of the issue.  To avoid vitamin D deficiency, which can play a role in sleep disorders and migraines, get at least 10 minutes of sunlight daily.

Remember, sleep is non-negotiable. It will take some time to figure out what will work for you.  Don’t be afraid to experiment with your options.  Work on getting to the bottom of what’s causing the issues. Your head will thank you.




Headache Help


American Migraine Foundation