Headaches and sleep: How to get better ZZZs

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Headaches and sleep: How to get better ZZZs

Do headaches keep you up at night? Simple tips can help promote sound sleep.

A good night's sleep gives you energy to face the day ahead. But when you have headaches, sleep may be elusive. Headaches may keep you from falling asleep or awaken you at night. And sleeping poorly may only trigger more headaches.

Why is sleep so important?

Sleep helps you fight fatigue and stress. When a headache strikes, sleep may help relieve the pain by changing the levels of serotonin and other chemicals in your brain.

If you don't sleep well, you may feel irritable and cranky. You may lose your patience quickly and find it difficult to concentrate. You may struggle with headaches and other physical signs and symptoms.

Perhaps ironically, sleeping too much can have the same effect. If you're vulnerable to headaches, sleeping longer than usual may only aggravate head pain.

Promoting good sleep

Most adults need seven to nine hours of sleep a night. Easier said than done? These strategies can help.

  • Establish regular sleep hours. Wake up and go to bed at the same time every day — even on weekends and holidays. Getting about the same amount of sleep every night can help keep your headaches at bay.
  • Nap wisely. A nap can be refreshing, but it's not a substitute for a full night's sleep. If you nap during the day, keep it short — 15 to 30 minutes. Longer naps may interfere with nighttime sleep.
  • Exercise regularly. Physical activity — especially aerobic exercise — can help you fall asleep faster and make your sleep more restful. The key is to exercise often. Occasional bursts of activity don't necessarily promote sound sleep. Timing is important, too. Exercising too close to bedtime can make it more difficult to fall asleep.
  • Unwind at the end of the day. Anything that helps you relax can promote better sleep. Listen to soothing music, soak in a warm bath or read a favorite book.
  • Watch what you eat and drink before bedtime. A light snack may help you relax before sleeping, but a heavy meal may cause heartburn. Alcohol can aggravate headaches and make it harder to stay asleep. Caffeine and nicotine can interfere with sleep as well.
  • Minimize distractions. Save your bedroom for sleep and intimacy. Don't watch television or take work materials to bed. Close your bedroom door, and use a fan to muffle distracting noises. Drink less before bed to avoid nighttime trips to the toilet.
  • Keep the temperature comfortable. It may be difficult to sleep in a room that's too warm or too cold.
  • Don't try to sleep. The harder you try to sleep, the more awake you'll feel. If you can't fall asleep within 15 minutes, get up. Read or do another quiet activity until you become drowsy.
  • Check your medications. Medications that contain caffeine or other stimulants — including some headache medications — may interfere with sleep.
  • Use caution with sleeping pills. You can buy over-the-counter sleeping aids without a prescription, but it's a good idea to check with your doctor first. He or she can make sure the sleeping pills won't interact with other medications — and help you understand how to use them safely.

When to consult your doctor

If your best attempts to get a good night's sleep fail or headaches routinely disturb your sleep, ask your doctor for help. Treating any underlying conditions can help you get the sleep you need.

Last Updated: 04/28/2006
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