Living With Migraines

8 Tips for Good Sleep to Keep Migraine Away

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8 Tips for Good Sleep to Keep Migraine Away

Waking up refreshed after a good night’s sleep is one of the simple joys of life…yet at the same time so basic to your well-being. Sleep helps regulate and restore your metabolic and immunological functions — essentially recharging your mind and body. 

So, not surprisingly, a regular disturbance in sleep patterns may begin to affect your health, including the prevalence of migraine. 

Cycles and Stages of Sleep

Our sleep patterns are determined by our 24-hour, sleep-wake cycle, part of the circadian rhythm which regulates when we feel alert or sleepy.

During daytime, exposure to natural light limits the production of melatonin (sleep hormone) and stimulates alertness, encouraging us to stay awake. As evening falls, the body increases melatonin production, causing us to become drowsy. Each day, this cycle helps our bodies to harmonize and synchronize critical processes and functions.

Most adults need between 7 to 9 hours of sleep per night; children and teenagers require even more. At night, we experience 4 to 6 sleep cycles, each an average 90 to 120 minutes in length. Within each of these cycles come 4 stages of sleep:

  • Stage 1 - Non-rapid eye movement (NREM) 1 [1-5 minutes]: This first stage is the transition between wakefulness and sleep, characterized by light sleep that we can easily awaken from. Muscles start to relax. Heart rate and breathing slow down.
  • Stage 2 - NREM 2 [10-60 minutes]: In this subdued state, eye movement ceases and body temperature drops. Our bodies further relax, as sleep deepens.
  • Stage 3 - NREM 3 [20-40 minutes]: This is characterized as deep sleep, when heart rate, breathing and brain waves reach their lowest level of activity. This stage is believed to have restorative properties that allow our bodies to recover and grow, bolstering the immune system and other key bodily functions.
  • Stage 4 - Rapid eye movement (REM) [10-60 minutes]: In this stage, eyes move quickly beneath eyelids and dreams are most likely to occur, causing the body to undergo temporary muscle paralysis. Breathing, heart rate and blood pressure begin to increase. Studies have linked REM sleep with memory consolidation and cognitive enhancement. 

How Sleep And Migraine are Connected

Research has long established a link between sleep and headaches. Migraine is more likely to occur between 4am-9am (during sleep and early morning) and can be triggered by changes to sleep patterns such as shift work or jet lag.

Poor quality of sleep (difficulty in falling and staying asleep, waking up early and/or feeling restless at bedtime) is prevalent in people with migraine and probable migraine. People with migraines who get poor sleep quality also tend to report more frequent head pain than those who get a good night’s sleep. 

Many people with migraine experience wake-up headaches. Too little REM sleep may result in higher levels of proteins that can trigger head pain, especially in the mornings. A study of the sleep patterns of 1283 U.S. migraine patients showed that 71% experience awakening headaches, with 50% reporting sleep disturbances as triggers.

Sleep issues are more common in people with chronic migraine, and people who sleep for an average of 6 hours (less than the recommended amount) have more frequent, more severe headaches. 

Overall, research suggests that lack of sleep and poor sleep quality can make migraine headaches more frequent and more intense. And sleep deprivation is also linked to reduced focus and cognitive performance, mood swings, and trouble with memory and decision-making.

Conversely, the risk of migraine may also increase with too much sleep. Oversleeping or other disruptions of the normal sleep-wake cycle may affect neurotransmitter levels in the brain that cause headaches — although exactly how is not known. 

Sleep issues are more common in people with chronic migraine, and people who sleep for an average of 6 hours (less than the recommended amount) have more frequent, more severe headaches. 

The migraine/sleep relationship is quite complex, and the underlying mechanisms aren’t well understood yet. One study proposed that poor sleep may be responsible for increased pain sensation, resulting in more severe headaches. 

And in recent imaging studies, migraine and sleep disorders appeared to share anatomical pathways, which suggests that onset of one may trigger the other. If this is the case, improving sleep quality may very well help to decrease how often and how frequently migraine headaches occur.

Sleep Disorders And Migraine 

People with migraine are 2 to 8 times more likely to have a sleep disorder such as insomnia, sleep apnea, or bruxism. 

The most common in people with migraine is insomnia — trouble falling or staying asleep. People with chronic migraine report twice the rate of insomnia than those with less frequent headaches. This may be related to migraine comorbidities (like anxiety and depression), as well as migraine-related lifestyle factors that result in poor sleep.

Sleep apnea — when breathing actually stops for short periods during sleep — is also common in people with migraine, as is teeth grinding (bruxism).

Sleep Disorders and Other Types of Headache 

Irregular sleep patterns can provoke headache disorders other than migraine as well:

  • Wake-up headaches are mostly triggered in the early hours just before or after dawn, although they can also occur in the middle of the night. They’re usually caused by sleep disruptions, dehydration, hunger and/or pain medication wearing off during sleep.
  • Hypnic (or alarm clock) headache is a rare disorder characterized by frequent head pain that occurs only during sleep, usually awakening the individual. It typically lasts 15 minutes to 4 hours with no other symptoms (although migraine-like symptoms are sometimes reported).
  • Cluster headaches tend to develop within an hour of falling asleep. Pain tends to be more severe than regular headaches, concentrated behind one eye, and lasts 20 minutes to 3 hours. 

8 Tips For Good “Sleep Hygiene”

Although sleep disturbances can affect anyone, people with migraine remain more likely to experience insufficient sleep than people with other headache disorders. 

The connection between migraine and sleep often creates a vicious cycle. Lack of sleep and poor sleep quality can cause and intensify migraines…then, migraine pain itself may interrupt sleep or force the individual to sleep more in an effort to feel better. 

For these reasons, good sleep hygiene is critical if you experience migraine. Follow these 8 tips to improve your sleeping environment and sleep-related habits:

  1. Wake up and go to bed around the same time each day, even on weekends.
  2. Resist the urge to nap during the day.
  3. Get outdoors for a bit during the day, to absorb natural light and improve your sleep-wake cycle.
  4. Avoid exercise too close to bedtime — it can elevate your heart rate and increase alertness when you should be winding down.
  5. Create an environment that encourages sleep — a darkened room with well-controlled temperature and comfortable bedding.
  6. Stay away from screens before bedtime. Smartphones, laptops, and TVs emit blue light that may trick the circadian rhythm into believing it’s daytime, increasing alertness.
  7. Avoid alcohol, coffee, smoking (nicotine), and large meals later in the day — they can disrupt your sleep cycle. 
  8. Know what you need for a good night’s sleep. Every person's sleep-wake cycle is slightly different. Knowing how much sleep you need — and the best times to go to bed and wake up — can be beneficial to your health and well-being.

If you experience migraine — and are sleepy in the daytime or struggling to sleep at night — it’s a good idea to consult a medical professional. 

If your migraines are frequent or severe, you may be ready to take control of your symptoms with Mable — migraine management individualized to you based on your DNA. Take the Mable quiz to see if it’s a good fit for you.

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  4. Sleep Foundation. Stages of Sleep: What Happens in a Sleep Cycle.
  5. Science Direct. Memory Consolidation.
  6. American Migraine Foundation. Sleep Disorders and Headache.
  7. Eurasia Diary. A brain short on sleep dials up pain intensity.
  8. The Migraine Trust. Migraine and sleep.
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  12. Tiseo, C., Vacca, A., Felbush, A. et al. Migraine and sleep disorders: a systematic review. Journal of Headache Pain (2020) 21, 126. doi: 10.1186/s10194-020-01192-50073
  13. Mable website.
  14. Mable DNA quiz.

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Updated on
October 6, 2022
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