Can the quality of your sleep influence the severity and frequency of your migraines?
With Migraine Awareness Week taking place this September, now is as good a time as any to highlight the prevalence and potential seriousness of this condition.
Migraines are far more than just a bad headache. As well as causing intense pain, migraines can also lead to nausea, sensitivity to light and sound, and even vomiting. Migraines affect around one in every five women and one in every 15 men.
In the UK, it is estimated that around six million people suffer from regular migraine attacks. In fact, in England alone, there are 190,000 migraine attacks every day.
We’re going to take a closer look at this debilitating health condition, as well as exploring any potential relationship between migraines and our sleep habits.
Understanding migraines and sleep disturbances
Despite their prevalence in the general population, there is still a lot of mystery about what specifically causes migraines. They begin when hyperactive nerve cells send out impulses to blood vessels, causing them to constrict and expand. This results in a release of inflammatory substances that cause painful pulsations.
And studies have shown that there may be links to the chances of developing migraines. One study – published in the journal Headache – conducted a detailed sleep interview with 147 women who suffered with migraines. When asked if they felt refreshed or tired on waking, more than 80% said they felt tired and no one reported feeling refreshed. Complaints of sleep problems were extremely common among the women.
Another study – also published in Headache – offered behavioural sleep instructions to 43 women with migraines. At the end of the study, participants who followed these instructions reported a significant reduction in headache frequency and intensity.
Can sleep problems cause migraines?
During a good night’s sleep, the average person will go through around six sleep cycles, each with four key stages of sleep – as well as rapid eye movement (REM) sleep. The deepest stages of this sleep cycle (stages three and four) are responsible for producing sufficient levels of serotonin and dopamine.
These neurotransmitters are known as ‘feel good’ chemicals. Both of them depend on adequate sleep and vice versa. A drop in serotonin levels is linked to mental health concerns like anxiety and depression, as well as sleep problems.
Meanwhile, REM sleep is most powerful just before waking. Sleep problems can trigger migraines by causing instability of serotonin and dopamine levels. These kinds of chemical imbalances are widely associated with both poor sleep and regular migraines.
Can improving your sleep habits stop your migraines?
There are key signs associated with chronic sleep problems, which include: having a headache when you wake up; feeling scattered aches and pains; feeling fatigued and tired; having a low mood; feeling irritable and impatient; struggling to concentrate and remember things; and struggling to maintain social harmony with family and friends.
Because there is still a lot of mystery surrounding migraines, no one can say for sure whether better sleep habits will result in fewer migraines. However, the research suggests that it could, and positive sleep habits are vital for maintaining your overall health and wellbeing. This is because many of the triggers associated with migraines – such as anxiety and stress – can be eased through restorative sleep.
If you are a migraine sufferer and want to dedicate efforts towards improving sleep, there are some popular techniques you can utilise. Try keeping track of your sleep habits and migraine patterns each morning for at least four weeks by using a sleep diary, writing down how you slept and how you feel. When you review these entries, you may notice a pattern emerging which will give you an idea of what is triggering your migraines, and whether sleep has anything to do with it. If so, you can start making positive changes to improve your symptoms.
How to achieve better sleep
Evaluating your lifestyle and sleep habits can help you promote a better night’s sleep for your own health and wellbeing. Give yourself a fighting chance at a good night’s sleep by avoiding bright screens in the run-up to bedtime, including your smartphone. Instead, try reading or meditating, and be sure to keep your bedroom cool and dark.
What and when you eat can also play a role in your sleep. Cut down your caffeine intake, particularly in the evening, and try to eat dinner at least three hours before you get into bed. You should also begin exercising regularly, ideally in the morning or afternoon rather than in the evening.
By putting these simple changes into practice, you can enjoy better sleep quality in the long run. This will help to improve your health overall, and may even work to reduce the severity and frequency of your migraine attacks.