Does Lack of Sleep Cause Headaches?

After a long day, a good night’s sleep is crucial for a healthy and well functioning lifestyle. Irregular sleeping patterns or a lack of sleep may contribute to an increased risk of sleeping disorders and other conditions like migraines, headaches, high blood pressures and even death in extreme cases. Getting the right amount of sleep should be a top priority. While asleep, the body repairs itself and upon waking up we feel recovered and energized. 

Sleep deprivation can trigger headaches, fatigue, irritability, and cognitive impairment and in turn lead to poor memory and a lack of concentration. Headaches and migraines are the most common symptoms of sleep deprivation. It is a sort of signal to the body alerting you that it’s too tired. In a study of migraine sufferers, it was revealed that individuals who slept 6 hours a night on average had more frequent headaches than those who slept longer. However, longer sleeping periods can also trigger headaches. Getting good quality sleep effectively helps treat severe headaches and fatigue, that are usually the result of not getting the right amount of sleep.

According to countless research projects, the relationship between headaches and sleep is rather complex and it is not fully understood. Headaches associated with sleep deprivation can be described in simpler words as stemming from an irregular sleeping pattern or an imbalance in sleep and wakefulness in the body. 

How Much Sleep Do You Need?

The amount of sleep an individual needs depends on several factors like age, health, genetics, lifestyle, and current sleeping patterns. The following are the recommended number of hours often used as a thumb rule for people of different age groups: 

  1. Infants: (3-11 months) – 12 – 15 hours of sleep
  2. Toddlers: (12 to 35 months) – 11 to 14 hours
  3. Adults (18- 64 years) – 7 to 9 hours
Types of Sleep Deprivation Headaches:

Understanding and categorizing the types of headaches a person can experience is important as these can stem from different reasons. Likewise, their treatment may also be different based on the type. However, all these headaches are in one way or another a result of sleep deprivation.

Usually this boils down to 4 types of headaches a person may experience that are linked to lack of sleep or sleep deprivation:

Migraines are one of the most common types of headaches that you may experience, usually in the early morning. Migraines don’t arise from illness or trauma. They’re considered primary headache disorders. Their symptoms include: vomiting, sensitivity to sound and light, muscle weakness, visual disturbances, nausea.

Triggers: A lack of sleep as well as excessive sleep. 

  • Tension Headaches: 

Stress is a major contributor to headaches and a poor quality of sleep.  Tension headaches are the result of too much stress. This common type of headache is generally described as a dull tightening or pressure on both sides of the head. They may start at the forehead and circle around to the back of the head.  (

Studies show lack of sleep triggers tension headaches.

  • Cluster and Hypnic Headaches: 

These are extremely painful headaches that usually occur in the evening or early morning. You may feel severe pain around the eye area which is usually shorter in duration (5 minutes to 2 hours, depending on severity). Research shows that transitioning out of the rapid eye movement stage of sleep may play a role in causing these severe headaches.

  • Hypnic Headaches: 

These are sometimes described as the alarm clock headache because of how they wake a person up when one experiences them. These are also shorter in duration and may come and go. Researchers speculate that these headaches may be linked to a disturbance with the body’s production of melatonin – a hormone that makes you feel tired and sleepy.

Other Causes of Sleep Headaches:
  • Hangovers and Alcohol:

Heavy drinking hinders your sleeping patterns and may instigate early morning headaches. Hangovers as a result of too much alcohol consumption, can be frustrating and are usually accompanied by severe headaches, nausea, and lack of motivation to do anything. The amount of alcohol that will cause a hangover varies from person to person depending on several factors like tolerance, weight, etc. Its severity depends on the amount of alcohol consumed.

The NIAAA states that time is the best cure for a hangover. The following popular measures aren’t as effective as they may think:

  • drinking coffee
  • taking a shower
  • having an alcoholic beverage, the next morning

Researchers from Missouri state university in 2011 conducted a study suggesting that a lack of REM (rapid eye movement) sleep is linked to more painful headaches. REM sleep is a stage which generally occurs in 90 – 120-minute intervals throughout the night. The name suggests the rapid eye movements that occur during this phase of sleep. This stage of sleep is necessary for storing memories, learning, and regulating mood. 

This study concluded that a lack of sleep increases the creation of proteins in the body which may cause chronic pain. This reduces the pain threshold of the body during certain hours of your sleep when intense migraine headaches may be triggered. 

This reduction in your pain threshold may also explain why we have trouble getting up in the morning and become so sensitive to our surroundings like light, temperature, headaches etc.

Preventing Headaches: How to Sleep Better

Tension and migraine headaches are very common symptoms of sleep deprivation or the lack of sleep. There are some ways you can prevent these or help reduce their duration and severity. 

  • Take medication: There are various over-the-counter medicines that can help alleviate acute or even chronic headaches one may experience. Pain relievers like aspirin and ibuprofen are great choices to get the job done.
  • Exercise: Exercise keeps the body fit, relaxes the muscles, and reduces stress. However, be sure to work out a minimum of 3 hours before sleeping so as to relax and calm down before you go to bed.
  • Minimize stress: Most of the time, headaches are triggered from stress which is very common. You should consciously omit certain activities from your daily routine that may cause you additional stress. Stress-relieving techniques are also a healthy option to add to your daily routine.
  • Consider sleep supplements: There are several natural sleeping aids and sleep supplements designed to give you a peaceful night’s sleep. They induce drowsiness to help you fall asleep quicker and help you stay asleep throughout the night. It should be noted that many sleep aids can lead to daytime drowsiness as well as brain fog in some cases too. However, this is usually a cause of excessive use of these supplements.

In addition, you can also try:

    • Eating lightly at night: This can help you avoid indigestion or an unexpected energy rush that keeps you energetic and up all night.
    • Sleeping on a schedule/ Regular sleeping pattern: Going to bed and waking up at the same time every day helps your body get the right amount of sleep and feel more rested. 
    • Avoid alcohol before sleeping.

Sleep deprivation can make you feel tired and can cause severe negative consequences for the brain and body. These include memory impairment, mood disorders, poor concentration, altered body pressure and hallucinations, just to name a few. As annoying and disruptive as headaches can be, it is important to know what to do when they happen and to seek professional help if the problem persists. At Can-i Wellness, we support your health and wellness journey. 

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