A good night’s sleep is essential to the body’s overall functioning. And since good sleep is also crucial for preventing headache, it’s doubly important for people living with migraine.
It’s a cruel irony, then, that people with migraine tend to have worse sleep than those without it. Having migraine makes you between two and eight times more likely to suffer from a sleep disorder such as insomnia, preventing you from getting the rest you need.
Maybe the pain of migraine is keeping you awake at night. Or perhaps migraine attacks have thrown your sleep patterns into disarray, so that you can’t fall asleep despite your exhaustion. Either way, migraine and sleep have a two-way relationship, which often leads to a negative cycle. A bad night’s sleep begets a migraine; and a migraine begets another bad night’s sleep. But you can break that cycle and turn it into a positive one by adopting healthy sleep habits.
Consistency And The Migraine Brain
Since the migraine brain is hypervigilant and therefore highly sensitive to environmental changes, the best thing for it is consistency. You can help your migraine brain get restful sleep by providing it with the consistent sleep patterns it craves. Create a schedule that’s just right for you, taking these factors into consideration:
Sleep amount. Think back to a time when you felt well-rested. How many hours did you sleep each night? Most people need between seven and nine hours. (Some outliers consistently need a little more, while others require as little as five to six hours; but they are the exception, not the rule.)
Whatever your magic number, aim to get that amount of sleep every night. Consistency is key. If you undersleep one night and try to make it up with extra sleep the next night, your brain doesn’t neatly calculate an average—it simply perceives a disruption and sounds the alarm. So follow the Goldilocks rule: not too much and not too little, because sleep helps migraine when it’s just the right amount.
Sleep and wake times. Aim to be in bed at the same time every night, and to wake up at the same time every day. Yes, even on weekends! Going to bed late and sleeping in on weekends may sound luxurious, but it’s actually like giving yourself jet lag when what your brain really wants is consistency.
Work with your chronotype. Ideally, you’d sleep at the time of night your body is pre-programmed to want to sink into sleep, also known as your chronotype. The body has a 24-hour circadian rhythm, which causes you to crave sleep at a particular time.
Some people feel most wakeful and energetic in the morning, night owls get a burst of energy before bed, and intermediates fall somewhere in between. If you’re able to alter your bedtime and wake up times closer to what your body already wants—a little earlier for early birds, and later for night owls—that’s one more sleep factor working in your favor.
More Health Habits For Good Sleep
Once you’ve attended to the basics, try adding these sleep-healthy habits:
Get natural light. The amount of daylight we perceive is a powerful sleep/wake cycle cue for our daily biological clocks (or circadian rhythm). Specifically, a wavelength of sunlight called “blue light” signals our bodies to stay alert. As it diminishes throughout the day, so does our wakefulness.
If you’re having sleep problems—or if you’ve been spending days in a dark room due to migraine—exposing yourself to natural light will help your body to resync. Try going outside for ten minutes first thing in the morning, at lunchtime, and then again at dusk. Sitting near a window during the day can also help.
No screens before bedtime. Electronic devices like smartphones and laptops emit an artificial version of blue light, saturating us with wakeful signals. Using those devices at night directly interferes with our ability to fall asleep and stay asleep.
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Create a sleep-friendly environment. Set up your bedroom to be as conducive to sleep as possible. Ideally, that would include:
- Darkness. The darker, the better—this signals to your brain that it’s time for sleep. Try light-blocking window shades.
- A comfortable mattress. Getting a mattress that feels right for you can make a big difference to your overall sleep.
- A cool temperature. Our body temperature rises during sleep—especially in deep sleep—so for a comfortable all-night sleep, set the thermostat a little lower. If you’re chilly at first, start the night with layers of blankets that you can cast off later.
- Only use the bedroom for two things. Your brain should associate your bedroom only with sleep and sex. If your bedroom is also where you work, watch television, call your mother, eat, or any number of other activities, those associations can complicate your relationship with sleep.
Get exercise during the day, since this tends to give a burst of waking energy.
Put limits on caffeine and alcohol. Caffeine is a stimulant that keeps you awake, so keep your intake down to one or two cups a day, early in the day. Alcohol is a depressant, so while it may help you fall asleep, it won’t keep you there. As the effects of alcohol wear off, the body becomes more alert, making deep sleep impossible. If you drink alcohol, do so in moderation and not immediately before bed.
All of these healthy sleep habits involve making choices that are within your control. So choose any of these habits and try applying them consistently for the next two weeks. See if you notice a difference in your headache and everyday health. Get started tonight.
Learn some helpful sleep strategies in this article? Find out how to put them to use in your day-to-day life with “The 4-Step Guide to Sleep for Migraine.”