How Circadian Rhythm Affects Migraines and Cluster Headaches

Circadian rhythm affects more than just how much sleep you get every night and how rested (or exhausted) you feel in the morning.

In fact, your sleeping patterns may be affecting the number and intensity of headaches you experience. Research has shown that changes or disruption in circadian rhythm could be causing both migraines and cluster headaches.

What Is Circadian Rhythm?

Circadian rhythms are 24-hour (or roughly 24-hour) biological cycles. These cycles occur in all lifeforms — including humans, animals, and plants.

The best example of a circadian rhythm is the 24-hour sleep-wake cycle. Throughout this cycle, humans feel either tired, well-rested, or energetic at various times. Other examples are hormonal cycles (in which certain hormones are secreted at certain times of the day), the body temperature cycle, and cell growth cycles.

The region of the brain that directs these cycles is the hypothalamus, which uses light signals to stay in tune with the 24-hour cycle and keep all processes on track.

What Does Circadian Rhythm Have to Do with Migraines and Cluster Headaches?

The sleep-wake circadian rhythm works best on every level when you go to sleep regularly every night and wake up at about the same time every morning. This practice helps you wake up easier in the morning and stay more alert throughout the day. It can also help you fall asleep faster and stay asleep longer.

Cluster headaches, in particular, have been closely associated with disruptions in circadian rhythm. If you suffer from these types of headaches, you may have noticed that they often occur at specific times of the 24-hour cycle and specific times of the year. Most sufferers note them occurring at night and in January or July. While migraines aren’t as closely associated with circadian rhythm, there is still some evidence to suggest that they may be linked as well, occurring more often in the morning or midday than at other times of day.

Many biomarkers for the circadian cycle are also altered in cluster headaches, including corticosteroids (a daytime hormone), melatonin (a nighttime hormone), and others. Biomarkers are also affected in migraines – melatonin is altered in some migraine patients, as is a circadian gene in a rare subset of migraine patients.

How to use the Circadian Cycle to Help your Headaches.

Nail down your sleeping routine.

Your sleep-wake circadian rhythm can be good or bad. If you go to bed and wake up consistently every night and day, you’ll have a consistent circadian rhythm that your body can depend upon, and you may experience fewer headaches.

On the other hand, if you stay up till 1am one night and go to bed at 9 pm the next, or wake up at different times every morning, you may struggle with headaches more often. Both under sleeping and oversleeping have been associated with increased migraines.

Don’t use screens right before bed.

Because your circadian rhythm uses light cues to influence your alertness or fatigue, using screens at night may confuse your brain. As a result, you may have trouble getting to sleep. Avoid using screens at least one hour before your set bedtime, and instead, dim the lights and read a book or meditate. There is also a nighttime feature on most smartphones to dim the screen lighting on your device at sunset to get your body acclimated for bed time.

Get some sunshine.

Spending time in the morning in sunlight is beneficial to your sleep cycle. Going for a morning walk, reading your newspaper on the patio, or enjoying your coffee outdoors, are great ways to get some early morning rays and signal to your body that it is time to start the day.

Prepare for time changes (spring and fall) and jet lag.

Time changes and traveling can mean trouble for your circadian rhythm. As daylight saving time approaches in the spring or fall, try easing your sleep schedule into the transition instead of adding or subtracting an hour from your bedtime all at once. Adopt the same strategy if you plan on traveling to a new time zone to avoid jet lag. As mentioned above, spending time in the morning sunlight is also great strategy to transition your body into a different time zone or time change.

Most treatments work better for migraines than for cluster headaches. No one should have to struggle through chronic migraines and cluster headaches with no end in sight. There are numerous possible underlying causes to these debilitating events, and a disrupted circadian rhythm is just one.