Alaska Sleep Education Center

Headaches and Sleep

Posted by Stefanie Leiter

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on Dec 10, 2020 4:02:00 AM

Portrait of stressed business woman with a headache

We all experience stress and bouts of anxiety that lead to lying awake at night. Counting sheep doesn’t work when we have a million lists in our heads or worries. The positive news? Sometimes lying awake at night doesn’t always relate to problems in life: routines can be changed to help negate headaches. First, let’s identify what could be causing morning headaches and offer tips on how to curb symptoms.

Tension headaches can be triggered by exhaustion, stress, or muscle tension and are normally a dull pain near your forehead. Migraines can induce nausea, vomiting, sensitivity to light or sound, or blurred vision. Triggers can include a change in sleep patterns, hormonal changes including a period or pregnancy, or changes in the weather or barometric pressure. Cluster headaches are more intense and usually occur around your eye. For some, there may be vision issues that occur alongside the cluster.

Within the brain, the hypothalamus gland regulates sleep homeostasis and pain control. A study in the National Library of Science found that the transition from wake to sleep and sleep to wake could be a contributing factor to waking up with a headache.

Insomnia creates not only problems falling asleep, but it affects your staying asleep. Waking up early and not falling back to sleep can also be a factor in insomnia. Tension headaches and migraines, therefore, can stem from interrupted sleep because of the interference with your circadian rhythms.

"Our body contains a circadian clock, which helps to keep time for many biological functions," said Andrew Phillips, associate professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School. "One of the key markers of the circadian clock is melatonin. Usually, at nighttime, our circadian clock sends a signal that tells us to release melatonin overnight."

Chronic insomnia that affects the circadian clock occurs over a month. Over this extended period of time, depression, anxiety, sleep deprivation, and lack of exercise can become an associated factor to frequent headaches. Sleep apnea is another disturbance in our circadian rhythm that disrupts our sleep routine resulting in sleep deprivation, fatigue, and morning headaches.

Although it sounds odd, try taking a whiff of a green apple and eating it slowly. Research from Chicago's Smell and Taste Treatment and Research Foundation found tension headaches lessened in pain with a green apple. The carbohydrates in the apple help you feel less stressed and produce relaxing hormone serotonin.

An ice pack or frozen veggies work on your head to stop the pulsating pain. "Some experts believe that the cold shrinks your blood vessels and reduces blood flow to the brain, dulling discomfort. But it could also simply be that the icy sensation gives you something to focus on besides your head pain."


To stem the issue with morning headaches, try the following tips:

  • Schedule your bedtime to aim for seven to eight hours of sleep. This allows your body to fully rest and recover. A routine helps with consistency.
  • Create an oasis in the bedroom. Purchase blackout curtains, an oil diffuser, color the walls a relaxing light color, and make sure it is cool.
  • Reduce stress and screen time before bedtime. Within your bedtime routine, eliminate cell phones and television. Try meditating or reading.
  • Avoid napping during the day. If you are needing one due to unresolved insomnia, aim for a short nap before 2 p.m.
  • Eat and drink properly throughout the day. Limit your caffeine intake to before dinner and try to consume less a few hours before bedtime. Add more healthy veggies and fruits to your diet and lean proteins.
  • Exercise the body and mind. Journaling, walking, or meditating are good practices to add to your daily routine. You can even add soothing music or stretching exercises prior to bedtime to relax.
  • Journal everything. Write down what time you go to bed and when you wake up. If you are struggling with insomnia, track the last time you ate or drank. These could be contributing factors that are easy to fix.


There are warning signs with headaches that you should not ignore which is why journaling can help you determine why your headaches are increasing or occuring. Healthline suggests you should get immediate help if your headache is accompanied by:

  • “trouble speaking
  • trouble seeing
  • loss of balance
  • confusion
  • fainting
  • high fever
  • an unusually stiff neck
  • numbness or weakness on one side of the body”

With a little work and a fresh routine, you can curb morning headaches with proper tracking. Talk to your doctor so you can come up with an exercise plan and healthy lifestyle changes. As you journal, ask your roommate or partner/spouse to add their thoughts if you are snoring or restless. The Alaska Sleep Clinic offers free consultations if you are in need of a sleep study.

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Topics: sleep habits, headaches

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