Migraine sufferers often complain they wake up feeling tired and headachy. Worse still is when a migraine wakes them and they lose an entire night to the pain. It’s easy to think the migraine condition is affecting sleep, but research suggests the way you sleep could be affecting your migraine.
Changing sleeping habits and patterns may help reduce the severity and frequency of migraine headaches. Here are the main points that various studies have found to be most helpful in relieving or preventing pain while sleeping.
Sleep is not the passive state we once believed it was. Scientific research has shown that the brain is often more active during sleep than when awake. No wonder migraines often come on at night.
Getting good quality sleep is vital for migraine prevention, and in the case of sleep, good quality means allowing sleep to follow its natural cycles, alternating between light and deep. We need both REM (rapid eye movement) sleep and non-REM sleep.
Migraine research indicates that it’s during REM sleep (when we dream) that migraines are more likely, and this is linked with serotonin levels. Serotonin receptors outside the brain, in the trigeminal nerves, regulate neurotransmitters known to be important factors in migraine pain development. Triptans, common migraine pain relief medication, are designed to work on certain serotonin receptors.
Following a regular sleeping and waking routine is one of the best ways of making sure your sleep patterns aren’t disrupted. This can be especially helpful if you often find you inexplicably wake with migraine following a weekend lie-in, for instance. It may feel like luxury to have an extra hour in bed, but our brains think otherwise and often protest.
The positions you adopt during sleep can cause tension, which in turn can trigger migraine pain. Even if tension doesn’t cause pain during the night, it can reduce the quality of sleep and leave you feeling tired and weakened when you wake. Battling through the day feeling lethargic and fatigued leaves you more susceptible to migraine.
You may think there’s not much you can do about the ways you toss and turn while you’re asleep, but if your bed is uncomfortable and your body is forced to compensate, this is definitely something you can change.
Your pillow, for instance might be the wrong height or not offer enough support, so tension develops in your neck and shoulders. Try a support pillow or one that molds to the shape of your head without collapsing or flattening. There are many different types of pillows to investigate. These include water-filled pillows that help to evenly distribute the weight of the head, and orthopedic pillows that help to maintain the back’s natural curvature. Another tip is to roll up a small hand towel and place this inside the pillowcase so that it rests under the neck, giving added support.
You could also try sleeping on your side with a pillow between your knees. This helps to align the spine and pelvis so the body can gently relax without strain. The idea is to keep your spine in as neutral a position as possible, meaning not stretched out rigidly, but not tightly curled up either.
Try to avoid sleeping on your stomach as this forces your head to twist into an unnatural position.
Sometimes a simple change in routine can work wonders for sleep quality. Try any of these:
- Cut down on caffeine during the day, and avoid it completely for eight hours before bedtime.
- Avoid alcohol. It may make you feel sleepy when you go to bed, but will then wake you up during the night.
- Turn off the TV, smart phone or tablet a couple of hours before retiring. This is not only because what you see on the screen is stimulating, but also because blue light emitted excites the brain.
- Create a ‘relax and wind down’ period before bed. You could take a long, relaxing bath or just get into your nightclothes and have a cup of herbal tea. The aim is to calm your mind and prepare it for sleep, so avoid action movies or suspense novels.
- Write todo lists for the morning so you’re not constantly mulling over important things you must not forget.
If you’ve tried everything and you’re still plagued by migraine at night or on waking, it may be time to see a sleep specialist or speak to your doctor. He or she can discuss alternative ideas to help you break disruptive sleep habits.