Home / Sleep Deprivation / Can a Lack of Sleep Cause Headaches?

Can a Lack of Sleep Cause Headaches?

Danielle Pacheco

Written by

Danielle Pacheco, Staff Writer

Dr. Abhinav Singh

Medically Reviewed by

Dr. Abhinav Singh, Sleep Physician

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A good night’s rest is essential for both our survival and wellbeing. Sleep regulates and restores many of the body’s functions, like our learning, memory, and immune systems. Sleep also affects our mood, as well as our organs like the brain, heart, and lungs. It comes as no surprise, then, that sleep deprivation can negatively impact these systems and lead to mental and physical health problems. In fact, migraines and other types of headaches are among some of the most frustrating illnesses related to sleep deprivation.

What Is Sleep Deprivation?

Unlike insomnia, which is a difficulty falling or staying asleep when one otherwise has the time and environment for sleep, sleep deprivation occurs when one does not have the opportunity to get enough sleep. Reduced sleep opportunities could be the result of several barriers, including occupations with long or irregular work hours, substance abuse, stress and anxiety, medications, or medical conditions that disturb sleep. Some people experience sleep deprivation because these barriers prevent them from devoting enough time for sleep. Others have adequate time to sleep, but find themselves waking up frequently throughout the night, thereby resulting in not enough restful sleep. Sleep deprivation has been linked to reduced cognitive performance and focus, excessive daytime sleepiness, mood changes, and trouble with memory and decision-making. Research has also linked sleep deprivation to a number of headache disorders. Unique among these is the migraine, which most often affects individuals when waking up in the morning.

What Are Migraines?

Migraines occur in about 12% of the U.S. population. They are recurrent headaches characterized by moderate to severe throbbing or pulsing pain, which is most often concentrated on one side of the head. Other common symptoms include nausea, weakness, and sensitivity to light and sound.

Migraines are further categorized by whether or not they include aura. This refers to additional symptoms that may occur before or during a migraine, including muscle weakness, tingling, visual disturbances, loss of vision, and other neurological symptoms. Women are three times more likely than men to suffer from migraines, and those with a family history of migraines are more likely to experience migraines themselves.

Does Sleep Deprivation Cause Migraines?

Research has long established a relationship between sleeping problems and headache disorders, including migraines, tension-type headache, and the less common cluster headache and hypnic headache. However, those who experience migraines in particular are more likely to suffer from insufficient sleep than those with other headache disorders. In addition to increasing the risk for migraines, sleep deprivation has also been shown to increase the severity and frequency of migraine.

How Does Sleep Deprivation Trigger Migraines?

Additional research is needed to fully understand the relationship between sleep deprivation and migraines, however, they do share common brain mechanisms. For example, the hypothalamus — the part of the brain that regulates sleep and arousal — also contains neurons involved in modulating pain. The hypothalamus also contains the suprachiasmatic nucleus (SCN), which receives signals from our eyes and helps us match our sleeping behaviors to the external cycle of light and darkness outside. A damaged SCN may cause erratic daytime sleep and disrupt the sleep-wake cycle.

Another key part of the brain involved in sleep is the pineal gland, which produces melatonin, the hormone that helps us fall asleep when we recognize the change between day and night. Low levels of melatonin have been linked to migraines and cluster headaches, as well as waking up with headaches.

Can Other Sleeping Problems Trigger Migraines?

Research has found that not only too little sleep (sleep deprivation), but also too much sleep (hypersomnia) can trigger migraines. While restful sleep can relieve migraine symptoms while they are ongoing, sleeping extensively may make problems worse. The term “weekend migraine” is often used to refer to migraines that commonly occur in individuals sleeping in on weekends to make up for lost sleep during the week.

The relationship between sleep deprivation and migraines is also bidirectional. This means that sleep disturbances can trigger migraines, but migraines can also negatively impact our sleep. Migraines can leave us feeling exhausted and excessively sleepy, which may disrupt our sleep-wake cycle.


I Woke Up With a Migraine. What Can I Do?

Although there is no cure for migraines, there are steps you can take to alleviate your symptoms. Over-the-counter pain relievers, a glass of water, or a cool, damp cloth on your forehead may bring relief. You can also make sure your surroundings are quiet, dark, and peaceful. If your migraines are persistent or severe, you may want to talk to your physician. A health care provider can work with you to understand your symptoms, discuss your medical history, and perform physical or neurological exams to rule out other conditions that may be influencing your migraines. They might also prescribe other medications to help with your migraines.

How Can I Prevent Future Migraines?

It is clear the interaction between sleep and migraines is both complicated and sensitive. Since both too little and too much sleep have been associated with migraines and other headache disorders, one of the most important ways to combat these problems is to get the right amount of sleep. The National Sleep Foundation guidelines recommends adults sleep between 7-8 hours per night for optimum health, while younger people may need more sleep. Additionally, to make sure you are getting the most restful sleep, it is essential to practice good sleep hygiene. The following are just a few tips that can help you develop and maintain a healthy sleep routine.

  • Stick to a schedule: Try to go to bed and wake up at the same times every day, even on weekends. Keeping your sleeping schedule consistent helps avoid insufficient or excessive sleep that can trigger migraines.
  • Avoid substances before bed: Alcohol, nicotine, and caffeine can interfere with your sleep quality and consistency.
  • Get comfy: Take time to relax before bed by engaging in calming activities like reading, meditating, or listening to music. Make sure your room is kept at a cool and comfortable temperature, and your mattress offers plenty of support.
  • Turn off the lights: In addition to your lamps and overhead lights, the light emitted from mobile phones, tablets, TVs, and other electronic devices can disrupt your circadian rhythm and make falling asleep difficult. It’s best to shut off these devices before bedtime and try not to use them while in bed.
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About Our Editorial Team

Danielle Pacheco

Staff Writer

Danielle writes in-depth articles about sleep solutions and holds a psychology degree from the University of British Columbia.

Dr. Abhinav Singh

Sleep Physician


Dr. Singh is the Medical Director of the Indiana Sleep Center. His research and clinical practice focuses on the entire myriad of sleep disorders.


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