Can a new sleeping pattern reduce your migraines?

migraine awareness week

September 2nd marks the start of Migraine Awareness Week 2018, so we’re going to explore whether sleep can help reduce your symptoms

Migraines aren’t just bad headaches. They occur when blood vessels constrict and expand, due to impulses sent out by hyperactive nerve cells. This is accompanied by the release of chemicals and inflammatory substances which cause the pulsations to be extremely painful.

It is estimated that there are over 190,000 migraine attacks every day in England alone, and there are 6 million people in the UK who suffer with migraines. As one of the most common reasons for illness and sick leave, understanding what causes migraines and how to deal with them is hugely important.

Which is why Migraine Awareness Week is so vital. This is an annual campaign to draw attention to migraines, educate the public about the condition and reduce stigma. Using resources and events, you can discover how to prevent and treat migraines effectively.

Paying attention to your sleep habits could be one such way of alleviating migraine symptoms. This is the message of several studies which reveal that sleep problems such as insomnia could be making migraines more likely.

Let’s take a closer look at the relationship between migraines and sleep.

Sleeping and migraines

So is there a connection between sleep and migraines? Research suggests there is. During one study, published in the journal Headache, researchers conducted a sleep interview with 147 female participants with chronic migraines. When asked whether they felt refreshed or tired when they woke up in the morning, more than 80% said they were tired, and complaints of sleep problems were very common.

In a follow up study published in Headache, researchers explored the link between migraines and sleep habits. The results suggested that a good night’s sleep could reduce both the number and intensity of migraine attacks. 43 women with chronic migraines were subjected to behavioural sleep instructions or placebo instructions, as well as usual medical cover. Participants were then asked to record their migraines.

At the end of the study, the women who received behavioural sleep instructions reported a significant reduction in migraine headaches.

How can sleep problems lead to migraines?

Most of us go through around six sleep cycles every night, each with five stages. The deepest stages of sleep (stages 3 and 4) help our brains produce the neurotransmitters serotonin and dopamine. These are ‘feel good’ chemical messengers in the brain, and both depend on good sleep; a decrease in either neurotransmitter is associated with sleep problems.

Another one of the sleep stages we go through is REM (rapid eye movement) sleep. According to neurologist, psychiatrist and author of the Anti-Alzheimer’s Prescription Vincent Fortanasce, MD, REM sleep can provoke powerful migraines.

This is because REM sleep is most powerful just before waking, and it also shuts off your serotonin supply. Serotonin instability can be a key factor in migraine attacks, as it may cause the blood vessels to narrow. Therefore, sleep problems can cause migraines by cutting off serotonin supply. This is why SSRIs (selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors) are often used as a treatment for both serotonin insufficiency via depression, and migraines.

Do sleep habits cause migraines?

It’s important assess and question your sleep habits on a regular basis. Do you have difficulty falling asleep? Do you spend a lot of the night tossing and turning? Do you feel tired, irritable or even depressed the next day after struggling to get to sleep? Could this be the reason for your migraines? The Sleep Council states that more than a third (35%) of UK adults have suffered with sleep problems for five years, and a fifth (20%) for more than 10. What’s more, 36% of Brits say that their health is most affected by their sleep problems.

Poor sleep habits can wreak havoc on your mood, decision-making skills, concentration, health and even safety, as well as potentially adding to your risk of migraine attacks. According to professor of clinical psychiatry at Columbia Presbyterian Medical Centre Ronald R. Fieve, MD, there are eight signs of poor sleep habits. If two or more of these statements applies to you, you should assess your bedtime routine:

  1. You suffer with headaches in the morning when you get out of bed
  2. You suffer with aches and pains when you wake up
  3. You feel fatigued when you wake up, and this feeling stays throughout the morning
  4. You experience a low mood that does not lift as you get on with your day
  5. You feel impatient and irritable
  6. You struggle to retain new information or grasp new ideas
  7. You struggle to socialise with family and friends
  8. You have felt depressed enough to consider professional help or medication

Will improving your sleep habits stop your migraines?

As well as migraines, REM sleep has been suggested to be a potential causal factor in a variety of health concerns, including posttraumatic stress disorder and depression. Sleep problems are also common in people suffering with fibromyalgia (a condition involving muscle pain, fatigue, anxiety and depression). What’s more, migraines are also common in individuals with fibromyalgia, as 50-75% of fibromyalgia sufferers report regular migraine attacks.

So while it is difficult to determine a direct and specific link between improving your sleep quality and removing migraines for good, there is enough evidence to suggest that practising better sleep health will improve your health overall, and may help tackle the frequency and severity of your migraine attacks.

Start by keeping track of your migraine patterns and sleep habits each morning for four weeks, recording how well you slept and whether you suffered a migraine. After reviewing your results, you may begin to notice a pattern emerging that suggests poor sleep could be a factor in your condition. This will give you the motivation you need to improve your sleep habits in the long term.

How to manage sleep problems with migraines

There are plenty of factors which can impact on your sleep quality, including alcohol, stress and excessive noise. Your lifestyle habits and sleep hygiene are inextricably linked, and the decisions you make throughout the day can all affect your daily body rhythms, mood and sleep.

In order to begin improving your sleep habits, start by giving yourself the best chance of rest at bedtime. This involves turning off the lights and avoiding bright screens for at least an hour before your head hits the pillow. You should also avoid caffeine, especially in the evening.

Try exercising regularly in the morning or afternoon as a way to feel more awake throughout the day, and more ready for rest come bedtime. You should also eat your last meal of the day at least three hours before getting into bed.

By improving your sleep health, you’re improving your health overall. You may also find that you reduce your migraine symptoms in the process.

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