Sleep Deprivation Headache: Prevention Strategies and Solutions

About half of the people in the world have headaches every day. Furthermore, they hurt and make it impossible to carry on normal activities. Headaches often pop up due to a lack of sleep or poor sleep habits. This article explains the connection between headaches and lack of sleep and how to fix this issue.

Key takeaways:

Lack of sleep: can it cause headaches?

A good night’s sleep is essential for your health and well-being. This is because sleep regulates many crucial bodily functions, such as metabolism, immunity, learning and memory, growth and development, cell and tissue repair, mood, and brain functioning.

When you don’t get enough sleep on a daily basis, all of these systems can be damaged. One of the potential consequences is headaches.

How many hours of sleep we need

To keep your body functioning properly, experts recommend you get at least seven hours of sleep per night.

Getting less sleep than recommended is associated with several health problems, such as obesity, diabetes, high blood pressure, depression, heart disease, and an increased risk of death. This is concerning as one in three adults says they’re not getting enough sleep.

How does a headache from a lack of sleep feel like?

Headache disorders are conditions that affect the nervous system. They can cause a significant amount of pain and prevent you from living a normal life. Lack of sleep has been linked to many headache disorders, such as:

  • Migraine. Migraine is a headache disorder characterized by recurring and often life-long attacks. Migraine attacks typically include headaches of moderate to severe intensity on one side of the head that are pulsatile and last for two to three days. Some people may also feel nausea.
  • Tension-type headache (TTH). TTH is the most common primary headache disorder. It can be episodic when it occurs for less than 15 days per month or chronic when it occurs for more than 15 days per month. Those who have TTH feel pressure or tightness; they often describe it as having a band around the head.
  • Cluster headache (CH). This headache disorder is characterized by recurrent, brief, but extremely severe headaches. It’s typically focused in or around one eye, and it causes redness of the eye and nose runs or blockage.

How does a lack of sleep cause headaches

Lack of sleep increases the risk of experiencing headache disorders. For example, if you’re not getting enough sleep, you’re more likely to have migraine than those who have sufficient sleep. Insufficient sleep is also a common issue among people dealing with tension-type headaches. Besides increasing the risk of having headache disorders, sleep deprivation also increases the frequency and severity of the episodes.

The reasons why a lack of sleep can contribute to headaches are poorly understood. What we do know is that sleep and headaches share some common brain mechanisms.

  • The hypothalamus is the part of the brain that helps regulate when you feel sleepy and awake. That same brain region also contains nerve cells responsible for modulating pain.
  • The pineal gland is another crucial brain part as it produces melatonin, which helps control when you feel sleepy. It turns out melatonin levels are usually lower in those with headaches.

Some types of headaches may have something to do with brain waves. For instance, many studies suggest that cluster headaches might be triggered by REM sleep.

Studies suggest that obesity and obstructive sleep apnea (OSA) may play a role in the occurrence of migraines. In a study, individuals with both migraines and OSA who underwent bariatric surgery experienced a greater reduction in migraine frequency than those treated with CPAP.

Other factors that cause headaches

Many people associate headaches with a lack of sleep, but it turns out that sleeping too much can also cause headaches. If you're depriving yourself of sleep during the week and trying to catch up on the weekend, you might find yourself dealing with the so-called weekend migraine.

Other factors that may trigger headaches include:

  • Stress. Being under too much stress can trigger headaches.
  • Bright lights. Bright lights can induce migraines because they boost the levels of chemicals in the brain that activate the migraine center.
  • Grinding teeth. This habit makes the jaw muscles contract, causing headaches.
  • Weather changes. High humidity, rising temperatures, storms, or pressure changes can trigger chemical and electrical changes in the brain and trigger headaches.
  • Poor posture. It causes tension in your upper back, neck, and shoulders, leading to headaches.
  • Certain foods. Turkey, cheese, chocolate, and diet drinks contain chemicals that may trigger headaches in some people.
  • Strong smells. Household cleaners, perfumes, and other products with fragrances contain chemicals that can cause headaches.

How can I prevent my headaches?

You should talk to your healthcare provider about the choice of prevention strategy. But it typically involves lifestyle changes, medications, supplements, vitamins, and minerals.

Both too little and too much sleep can cause you headaches. So, your prevention strategy should include seven to eight hours of good-quality sleep per night.

Other things that may help:

  • Avoid certain foods and drinks like aged cheese, chocolate, processed meat, caffeine-rich drinks, and red wine.
  • Don’t skip meals and eat a healthy diet.
  • Practice regular physical activity.
  • Go to sleep and wake up at the same time every day.
  • Try limiting stress.
  • Avoid potential triggers such as perfumes, exposure to weather extremes, or over-exertion.

Treatment options

Each person experiences headaches differently. There is no single treatment that works for everyone. Headache treatment can include medications like pain relievers (aspirin, ibuprofen, acetaminophen), triptans (sumatriptan, zolmitriptan), and medicines that help prevent migraine (topiramate, metoprolol, propranolol, amitriptyline). Magnesium supplements may also be effective against headaches.

Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) is widely used in the treatment of headaches. It focuses on eliminating negative thoughts and feelings, which may help relieve the headache pain. Alternative treatments that can also be helpful include acupuncture, biofeedback, and relaxation training.

The doctor may also suggest you tweak your lifestyle habits a bit. This may include making exercise a part of your routine, keeping yourself hydrated, eating regular meals, avoiding foods that could potentially trigger attacks, and practicing stress-management techniques.

It's also crucial that you maintain good sleep habits. This includes keeping regular bedtime and wake-up schedules, avoiding alcohol and caffeine before bedtime, avoiding smartphone use and heavy meals before sleep, and having a relaxing bedtime routine.

Having headaches can make your life hard. Getting enough or bad sleep is probably what is giving you headaches. You need to fix this. You might want to change your routine to get enough good sleep. Good sleep habits could keep you from having painful days and nights when you can not sleep.


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