Waking up feeling tired and groggy is bad enough, but even worse is waking up with a painful headache. Unfortunately, this issue affects a significant number of people either sporadically or on a chronic basis.
Waking up with a headache has multiple causes. For one, it can be caused by a general lack of sleep. For example, people who suffer from insomnia may also have issues with migraines or other headaches. Both obstructive sleep apnea (OSA) and central sleep apnea (CSA), which affect breathing during sleep, are known to have a relationship with morning headaches.
It’s not always clear exactly why someone wakes up with morning headaches. More research is needed to better understand the relationships between headaches, sleep, sleep disorders, and other medical conditions. But even though we don't always know specifically why someone wakes up with a headache, taking steps to improve your sleep can be an important part of the process of trying to reduce or eliminate these headaches.
Some specific steps to consider include:
Optimize Your Sleep Environment
It’s easier to fall asleep and stay asleep if your setting is built to promote healthy sleep. This starts with the room temperature (neither too hot nor too cold), limited lighting (including from phones or computers), minimized noise, and pleasant smells. It also includes having a comfortable and supportive mattress, good pillows, and quality bedding. If you have issues with allergens, it also means taking steps to prevent the accumulation of those allergens in your bedroom.
Stick to a Sleep Routine
Experts repeatedly emphasize that consistency in sleep routines can go a long way to normalizing quality sleep. For example, trying to stick with the same bedtime and wake-up time, even on weekends, can help your mind and body become accustomed to a healthy sleep schedule.
Treat Sleep Apnea
Sleep apnea can lead to headaches, and treating sleep apnea may be able to help reduce those headaches. This may involve using a machine like a CPAP or BiPAP to improve your breathing during the night. If you have issues with chronic snoring or lapses in breathing at night, you may have sleep apnea and should talk with a doctor. Read more about sleep apnea in our guides to obstructive sleep apnea and central sleep apnea.
Be Mindful of What You Consume
What you eat, drink, and consume can have a direct effect on your sleep and in many cases on headaches. To improve your sleep and reduce the risk of headaches, some things to consider include:
- Avoid eating too close to bedtime: eating late, especially really heavy meals, can make it harder to fall asleep and may cause stomach discomfort in the night.
- Drink alcohol in moderation and well before bed: alcohol can be disruptive to sleep and can also contribute to problems with chronic snoring. Try to be aware of your overall level of alcohol consumption and whenever possible, avoid drinking too soon before going to bed.
- Go easy on caffeine: excessive caffeine consumption can keep people from falling asleep and can also create a roller coaster of energy and tiredness during the day. This is especially true with caffeine late in the day. Withdrawal from caffeine can also cause headaches.
- Stay away from tobacco: the health risks from tobacco are well established, but nicotine can also be disruptive to your sleep. As with caffeine withdrawal, nicotine withdrawal can cause headaches.
Talk With a Health Professional
As with any medical issue that can cause serious discomfort or that can interfere with your everyday life, morning headaches are something that often can and should be addressed with a health professional.
If you find that you have morning headaches that are chronic or if you find that they are getting worse over time, talk with your doctor or nurse. They can review your symptoms and overall health, order any tests that may be necessary to diagnose or rule out other conditions, and can prescribe any appropriate medications. Your doctor may also ask you to keep a journal of your sleep habits and your experience with morning headaches to help get to the bottom of this problem. In some situations, an overnight sleep study in a specialty clinic may help diagnose sleep disorders (such as sleep apnea).
For some people, it can also be helpful to see a mental health professional. This is especially true for people who have insomnia or lots of anxiety around sleep. A type of talk therapy called cognitive behavioral therapy for insomnia (CBT-I) has been shown to help many patients address underlying mental health issues that can disrupt sleep. If needed, a mental health professional can also prescribe medications that may work to address conditions or disorders that might be harming your sleep or overall wellness.