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Health and Wellbeing

Why Does Sleep Help With Headaches

Dr Nerina Ramlakhan

Dr Nerina Ramlakhan

16th November, 2023

Woman in a deep sleep.

Getting enough sleep is absolutely essential for your health and wellbeing, but getting good sleep can also help to combat headaches. Before we get into the subject of how sleep can help to alleviate them, it is important to understand more about the different types of headaches.

Research suggests that there are two main types of headaches:

-   Migraines

-   Tension headaches

Migraines tend to be more severe and debilitating than headaches and as well as including headache pain, there might also be nausea and vomiting, pain that is localised over the eyes or on one side of the head, and sensitivity to sound and light.

Tension headaches tend to cause mild to moderate pain across the top, sides, and back of the head, and aren’t usually worsened by light or sound.

Image of woman with hands pressed against her head, due to a headache.

Sleep-related triggers for headaches and migraines

Not getting enough or too much sleep can trigger migraines. Additionally, not getting enough of the right type of sleep can be a risk. Research suggests that not getting enough rapid eye movement (REM) sleep can trigger painful headaches. REM sleep is the stage of sleep in which we dream, consolidate information that we’ve taken in during the day, process emotions and memories. During REM sleep, we also move more. The muscles around the eyes twitch (which is why this phase of sleep is so named) and our heart and breathing rates increase. Ideally, REM sleep occurs for 10 to 15 minutes every 90 to 120 minutes. Like deep sleep, it is important that we get the right amount of REM sleep and not doing so can lead to more sensitivity to pain and even mood imbalances. 

Treatment for headaches and migraines

There are various over the counter and prescription medications available for headaches and migraines, and it is important if you suffer from chronic symptoms to discuss an appropriate treatment plan with your doctor. However, to minimise risk of symptoms, it is important to also ensure that you are optimising your sleep by following good sleep hygiene routines. Here are some short and long-term strategies that we hope will help to reduce the frequency and intensity of your headaches.

In the short term:

When you are having an attack, you can alleviate pain by applying a hot or cold compress to your head for 5 to 10 minutes at a time. This can help ease pain. It is a good idea to always keep ice packs and cold flannels in the freezer so that you can use them as compresses as soon as you feel symptoms coming on. 

Massages can help to alleviate symptoms as can relaxation and breathing techniques. Keeping your room cool, dark, quiet and using essential oils such as peppermint, eucalyptus and lavender on your temple when you are having an attack can also be helpful.

Essential Oil

In the long term:

Stress and pain management techniques and natural remedies such as talking therapy, cognitive behavioural therapy, hypnotherapy, acupuncture, yoga, relaxation and meditation techniques might also be helpful. 

One of the easiest ways to prevent headaches is to ensure you are getting good sleep. Here are some tips to help you do this:

  1. Maintain a good sleep schedule. Going to bed and waking up at the same time every day can help your body get enough sleep and wake up feeling more rested. Aim to be in bed around 9:30 to 10PM most nights and avoid scrolling on electronic devices before bedtime.
  2. Regular exercise can help you get a good night’s sleep. But exercising too close to bedtime can keep you up at night. Try to exercise at least three hours before bed and avoid strenuous exercise if you feel a migraine coming on.
  3. Blood sugar control is key, and many migraine sufferers find that they are more likely to experience symptoms if they don’t eat regularly and healthily. Try to do this and to eat lightly at night. This can help you avoid indigestion or an unexpected blood sugar spike that will keep you up.
  4. Make sure you get enough light during the day. Lack of natural daylight can make you feel more tired and can interrupt your wake-sleep cycle. If you are unable to get enough light exposure, using an infra-red lamp can be helpful.
  5. Avoid stimulants such as alcohol, nicotine, and caffeine four to six hours before bedtime.
  6. Create a bedtime routine. Getting into a good pre-sleep routine can help relax you for a good night’s sleep. Read an uplifting book, journal, meditate, or take an Epsom salts bath.
  7. Stay well hydrated throughout the day and try not to drink too much before bed. Try to taper off your fluid intake in the evening so you’re not disturbed by the urge to visit the bathroom during the middle of the night. If however, you do need to get up for the bathroom, don’t fret about it and avoid checking the time or looking at your phone which will just wake you up further.
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