Your Sleep-Wake Cycle – How It Can Affect Migraines

For individuals who experience migraines, it’s essential to learn about the connection between migraines and the sleep-wake cycle. Your sleep-wake cycle is a combination of brain areas that control alertness and brain areas that control the 24 hour circadian rhythm. When the sleep-wake cycle is disturbed, it may influence your body in many ways.

It’s possible for too much or too little sleep to trigger migraines. According to a study published in the journal Cephalgia, nearly half of migraine sufferers surveyed noted that sleep disturbances were triggers for their migraines.

Unfortunately, the link between migraines and the sleep-wake cycle often turns into a vicious cycle. Disturbances in the sleep-wake cycle may lead to migraines, while migraines can disrupt your sleep-wake cycle. Here’s a closer look at the link between sleep and migraines, as well as some practical tips for managing migraines symptoms with better sleep hygiene.

Circadian Rhythms and How They Work

Circadian rhythms refer to 24-hour cycles that are part of your body’s internal clock, basically running in the background of the body to coordinate essential processes and functions at the right times. Probably the most well-known and important circadian cycle is your sleep-wake cycle. When most people speak of the circadian rhythm, they usually do so in the context of sleep, since it’s one of the most obvious examples of our circadian rhythms.

During the daytime, exposure to light causes the body to send signals generating alertness, which helps keep us active and awake. As it gets dark, the body begins producing melatonin – a hormone promoting sleep – and continues to send signals that help you stay asleep at night. This aligns the sleep and wake times with day and night, creating a cycle of restorative rest for the body.

Connecting the Sleep-Wake Cycle and Migraines

As researchers take a closer look at the connection between the sleep-wake cycle and migraines, they’ve made many fascinating observations. Just as migraines may impact sleep quality, the quality and amount of sleep we have at night may influence the occurrence and intensity of migraines, too. Here’s a closer look at why.

  • Sleep Quality and Migraines – According to data published in a 2018 Korean Headache Sleep Study, migraine suffers are far more likely to report poor quality of sleep. Those who reported poor sleep quality reported more headaches. Remember, quality doesn’t refer to how long you sleep, but how well you sleep at night.
  • Sleeping Poorly May Make Migraines Worse – Poor quality sleep is characterized by difficulty falling asleep, problems staying asleep, waking up early, or feeling restless. Sleeping poorly may make migraines worse, too, since studies show that lack of sleep can result in more severe pain. This means that the less sleep you’re getting, the more painful migraines may be for you.
  • Lack of REM Sleep May Trigger Migraines – REM sleep is where most people spend the majority of their sleep cycle and failing to get enough REM sleep may result in higher levels of proteins that can trigger headaches, according to researchers. This is a way that migraines may begin when you’re resting. If your body isn’t getting enough time in REM sleep, it can result in migraine symptoms while you’re asleep, so you’re hit with migraine pain when you awake.
  • Too Much Sleep May Also Raise Migraine Risk – On the other hand, sleeping too much may also raise migraine risk because it disrupts your normal sleep-wake cycle. Researchers believe this may result in changes to the level of neurotransmitters within your brain that leads to headaches.

Tips for Better Sleep Hygiene

While there are many connections between the sleep-wake cycle and migraines, you can take steps to improve sleep hygiene to help stop the cycle. Practicing good sleep hygiene, which aims to keep the sleep-wake cycle balanced, may help. Essential tips for better sleep hygiene include:

  • Wake up and go to bed around the same time each day.
  • Get time outdoors in natural light while it’s daylight to help the body stay in its correct sleep-wake cycle.
  • Know what you need to get a good night of rest. Every person’s sleep-wake cycle is a bit different. Know how much sleep you need and the best times for waking up and going to sleep are for your body.
  • Avoid exercising too close to bedtime, since it can elevate your heart rate and keep your body alert.
  • Create an environment that encourages sleep. This means you need a quiet dark room, and the temperature shouldn’t be too hot or cold. Keep devices that emit blue light, such as a smartphone or laptop, away from your bed.
  • Avoid alcohol before bedtime. It can disrupt your sleep-wake cycle.
  • Skip stimulants like caffeine later in the day.

Getting enough quality sleep each night is essential for combatting migraines. By learning the connection between your sleep-wake cycle and migraines, as well as how to improve sleep hygiene, you can help prevent the vicious cycle that often occurs between sleep and migraines.

Currently, there’s no cure for migraines, but The Will Erwin Headache Research Center is fighting to find a cure for migraines and cluster headaches. Donate today to help us find a cure at