Getting enough good quality sleep can help prevent and treat headaches. Various studies have linked a lack of sleep to different types of headaches.

Getting the right amount of sleep is integral to good health. As a person sleeps, their body repairs itself, helping the body and brain function optimally. Without this rest, a person can experience health issues, including headaches.

Keep reading to learn more about the connection between headaches and a lack of sleep. We also discuss the other effects of insufficient sleep and provide some tips on how to get the best possible sleep.

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A lack of sleep can cause headaches as a short-term consequence, but it will not cause chronic headaches in people without this condition. Researchers have linked sleep to headaches in various ways, with the connection seeming to exist in both directions.

REM sleep

Studies suggest that a lack of rapid eye movement (REM) sleep is associated with more painful headaches. The authors of a review article found that a lack of sleep increases proteins in the body that contribute to chronic pain. These proteins can reduce the body’s ability to withstand pain and can trigger migraine headaches.

REM sleep begins within about 90 minutes of falling asleep and causes the eyes to move rapidly from side to side behind the closed eyelids.

During REM sleep, a person’s breathing becomes faster and more regular, and their heart rate and blood pressure increase to levels similar to those during wakefulness. Mixed frequency brain activity also becomes closer to the activity levels that occur when a person is awake.

It is possible that deficits in other stages of the sleep cycle can contribute to headaches and other types of pain too.

Learn more about the stages of sleep here.

Sleep and headache cycle

2017 research found that sleep problems can trigger tension headaches and migraine episodes and that the headaches can, in turn, promote sleep disturbances. The reason for this is that sleep and headaches share common brain structures and mechanisms.

The research also indicates a link between headaches, sleep disturbances, and depression, suggesting that depression lowers a person’s pain threshold.

Learn more about headaches and depression here.

Reduced pain threshold

A lack of sleep may reduce the body’s ability to withstand pain. Research has found that people with insomnia and other sleep problems may have a lower pain threshold than those who do not have trouble sleeping. This lower pain tolerance may result in headaches that are more painful following a lack of sleep.

Snoring and sleep apnea

If a person snores regularly, they may be at higher risk of chronic headaches. Snoring is one of the main symptoms of obstructive sleep apnea, which is a condition that causes temporary pauses in breathing during sleep.

Sleep apnea disrupts sleep and often results in people waking with a headache and feeling unrested. Symptoms of sleep apnea include:

  • pauses in breathing
  • waking up
  • needing to urinate during the night
  • daytime sleepiness
  • sweating during the night

Learn more about sleep apnea here.

However, not all people who snore have obstructive sleep apnea. Snoring that results from other issues, such as allergies or congestion, is also linked to headaches.

Teeth grinding

A person may experience a dull, constant headache and jaw pain from grinding their teeth while they sleep. Frequent teeth grinding is called bruxism, and it can be a symptom of poor sleep and excessive stress. However, bruxism itself does not cause sleep deprivation.

Learn more about bruxism here.

A lack of sleep can be detrimental to a person’s physical and mental health. The effects of not getting enough sleep may include an increased risk of:

  • moodiness
  • poor productivity levels
  • motor vehicle crash
  • brain fog
  • injuries

Over the long term, medical problems can develop, such as:

A person’s sleep needs change as they age. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) note that the American Academy of Sleep Medicine and the Sleep Research Society recommend:

  • 4–12 months of age: 12–16 hours of sleep per 24 hours, including naps
  • 1–2 years of age: 11–14 hours of sleep per 24 hours, including naps
  • 3–5 years of age: 10–13 hours of sleep per 24 hours, including naps
  • 6–12 years of age: 9–12 hours of sleep per 24 hours
  • 13–18 years of age: 8–10 hours of sleep per 24 hours
  • 18–60 years of age: 7 or more hours per night

Research has linked migraines and tension headaches with a lack of sleep. Getting immediate treatment for either type of headache may help reduce the severity and duration of the symptoms.

Migraine headache

A person may be able to treat a migraine headache with over-the-counter (OTC) medicines for pain relief, such as:

Other options include prescription medicines such as triptans. These drugs can help reverse changes in the brain that cause migraine episodes. Types include:

During a migraine episode, it may help a person to lie down or sleep in a darkened room.

Tension headache

A person may experience tension headaches as a mild or moderate pain that feels like tightening or pressure on one or both sides of the head. Tension headaches also often cause aching and a stiff neck and shoulders. Treatment may include:

  • 0TC pain-relieving medication, such as ibuprofen or aspirin
  • tricyclic antidepressants to prevent recurrences of tension headaches
  • prescription medications for pain relief
  • stress management
  • acupuncture
  • massage

According to the CDC, a person can take steps to improve their sleep. These include:

  • going to bed and getting up at the same time each day, including on weekends
  • removing electronic devices, such as televisions, phones, and computers, from the bedroom
  • quitting smoking, if applicable
  • ensuring that the bedroom is dark, at a comfortable temperature, and quiet
  • avoiding caffeine, large meals, and alcohol before bedtime
  • exercising and being physically active during the day

A lack of sleep can cause headaches by disrupting REM or other sleep stages and producing proteins that trigger migraines, lowering a person’s pain threshold to withstand headaches. Other possible causes of headaches include sleep apnea and teeth grinding.

Prolonged limited sleep can have long-term effects, including a higher risk of obesity, high blood pressure, heart disease, and type 2 diabetes, as well as other conditions.

The optimal amount of sleep varies according to age. For most adults, it is 7 hours or more per 24 hours.

A person can treat or prevent headaches relating to a lack of sleep by using OTC medication, prescription medication, acupuncture, and massage. They can also take steps to improve their sleep hygiene.