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Sleep and Migraines

How migraines and sleep affect each other.
By Eric Metcalf, MPH
WebMD Feature
Reviewed by Laura J. Martin, MD

Migraines and sleep have a complicated relationship. Getting too little slumber -- or in some cases too much -- brings on migraines in people.

Plus, if you've already got a migraine, getting a good night's sleep can be tricky.

Exactly how poor sleep triggers migraines is still a mystery.  

But whichever comes first -- migraines or sleep problems -- there are ways to ease both problems. Here's how to get started.

Migraine-Sleep Connection

Pradeep Sahota, MD, a University of Missouri migraine expert who also studies sleep, knows what it's like. He's had migraines since he was a teen.

During medical school, he found that sleeping only four or five hours at night could trigger a headache. But so could sleeping 10 hours on the rare night when he wasn't working.

Julie Ruminer of Greenwood, Ind., can relate. She gets at least five migraines a month, and sleep seems to affect them.

"Lack of sleep can trigger my migraines, but often it's combined with another thing," she says. "I'm bad about staying up late reading when my favorite author comes out with a new book. If I do that two nights in a row, or I do it and something stressful is going on or a weather system is moving through, I may get a migraine," she says.

But there are solutions. Anne Calhoun, MD, is a headache specialist in Chapel Hill, N.C. She's particularly interested in sleep issues.

In one of her studies, 43 women with chronic migraines were taught how to improve their sleep habits. In the group of women who addressed their bad sleep habits successfully, all but one saw their headache frequency decline until most days were headache-free.

8 Steps to Better Sleep

1. Set a regular sleep schedule. Give yourself eight hours in bed each night, and keep your bedtime and wake-up time consistent all week, Calhoun says. Avoid going to bed extra early if you're just going to use the time to lie awake. These steps help ensure that the sleep you get is deep and steady, and more restful.

2. Calm your mind. Practice a mental exercise that relaxes your mind after you get in bed. Calhoun suggests picking a distant memory -- perhaps walking through your favorite grandmother's house -- and reviewing it as if it were a silent movie playing in your mind. This will help slow down your brain waves, which supports sleep. Avoid watching TV or even reading in bed.

3. Eat and drink earlier. Drink no more than a teacup of fluid before bedtime to cut down on sleep-interrupting trips to the bathroom. For the same reason, avoid eating meals within four hours before bedtime, Calhoun says. (Much of the liquid we take in comes from the food we eat, along with beverages.)

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