Sleep Deficiency and Migraines

Migraines affect approximately 28 million people in the United States. They throb, they ache, and they can rob sufferers from their quality of life. There is a lot of research looking into how to help migraineurs—and sleep is turning out to be a major factor.

"Poor sleep is a major trigger for migraines," says Dr. Steven Y. Park, clinical assistant professor of Otolaryngology at the New York Medical College. "Most people who suffer from migraines are unable to sleep efficiently," he says. 

Migraineurs report a host of sleep disturbances, most notably, increased trouble falling asleep. Other complaints include: waking up during the night, fears or anxiety when falling asleep, falling asleep sweating, lack of refreshing sleep, feeling tired upon awakening, snoring and restless movements while asleep.

A study by a University of North Carolina sleep specialist, Anne Calhoun, MD, provides some evidence that good sleep habits can reduce the number of headaches and their severity. In her pilot study, she tested 43 women who suffer from migraines and found that "a targeted behavioral sleep invention was associated with improvement in headache frequency, headache index, and with reversion to episodic migraine."

Another study, published by Academia Brasileira de Neurologia in Sao Paulo, Brazil, interviewed two hundred consecutive migraine patients about possible trigger factors for their migraine attacks. Eighty-one percent of the patients related some sleep problem as a trigger factor.

"As a long time sufferer of intense, debilitating migraines that couldn't be helped through any medication, I'll tell you my number one method of prevention and cure is sleep," says migraineur Leigh Shulman.

In an interview with Dr. Elizabeth Lombardo, a clinical psychologist and physical therapist in Pennsylvania, she emphasized the importance of sleep for those who suffer from migraines and revealed some specific strategies to improve sleep quality.

Tips for a Better Night's Sleep    

Use bed for sleeping and intimacy only. That means, reading, TV watching and phone discussions are best done outside of the bedroom.  This primes your body to equate sleep with your bed, just like Pavlov's dog equated the bell with food.)

Don't spend time in front of a screen (TV, computer) right before bed. The lights from the screen can make you more awake by exciting your nervous system.  The content can enhance your stress.  And we often lose track of time when we are watching TV or on Facebook--so that keeps us from getting the amount of sleep we need. 

Go to bed and wake up at the same time each day.  It can be a drag to get up early on weekends if you do not need to, but give it a try at least until you are having trouble getting a consistent sleep pattern.

Follow a 'wind-down' routine to help you relax before bedtime. Take a warm shower, listen to relaxing music with the lights dimmed, or meditate.  Relaxing the mind before getting into bed can help decrease stressful thoughts, which can help with the next suggestion. 

Keep your thoughts in check.  Thoughts such as, I have to get sleep tonight or else I will not be able to function tomorrow, will only serve to stress you out.  Do something to relax and distract your mind.  Go with the mindset of, I allow my mind and body to relax, rather than, I must get to sleep now! 

If you have not fallen asleep within 20 minutes, get out of bed and leave the bedroom. Go do a relaxing activity elsewhere such as read a book (that is not too good) on the couch, or listen to a relaxation CD.  

Watch what you eat and drink. Caffeine, nicotine, and alcohol can all disrupt good sleep. 

Make your bedroom sleep friendly. This means a dark room, comfy bedding, and no unexpected sounds. If you have no control over loud and unexpected outside sounds, such as traffic, a sound machine can be great for you.

Keep a migraine journal. This last tip comes from migraineur, Michael Cowden. He has found great benefit from tracking the impact of his sleep patterns on his migraines. He recommends a site called to help with the tracking.

Following some of these suggestions to change your sleep habits may not only reduce the number and severity of your migraines, but improve the overall quality of your life.


Angeliki, V., Cui, L., Merikangas, K.R.. Are Sleep Difficulties Associated With Migraine Attributable to Anxiety and Depression? Headache. 2008; 48(10):1451-1459

Bruni, o. Russo, P., Ferri, R. Novelli, L., Galli, F. Guidetti, V. Relationships Between Headache and Sleep in a Non-Clinical Population of Children and Adolescents. Sleep Medicine, Volume 9, Issue 5, Pages 542-548.


Calhoun, A. H. and Ford, S. Behavioral Sleep Modification May Revert Transformed Migraine to Episodic Migraine. Headache. 2007;47:1178-1183.

Davis, J.L. Improve Sleep Habits to Cut Migraines. Reviewed by Louise Chang, MD. WebMD Health News. Website:

Timy Fukui, P. Tranquillini; R.T.G, Giunchetti; C.S. Fernandes; M.N.L, et. al. Trigger Factors in Migraine Patients. Arquivos de Neuro-Psiquiatria. Academia Brasileira de Neurologia, Sao Paulo, Bresil. 2008, vol. 66, no3a, pp. 494-499.