Poor diet, lifestyle and sleeping habits can trigger migraines. This is according to Dr. Noah Rosen, MD, Program Director of Neurology at Northwell Health and an associate professor of neurology and psychiatry at the Zucker School of Medicine in New York.
Additionally, according to the American Migraine Foundation, people living with migraine are between two to eight times more likely to experience sleep disorders compared with the general public. Those with chronic migraine — 15 or more headache days per month — experience twice the rates of insomnia as those with less frequent headaches.
“Poor sleep is a common trigger for migraine headaches,” Dr. Rosen says. “There is good evidence that sleep disruptors, like snoring and sleep apnea, are linked to chronic migraines.”
Snoring and sleep apnea
While your partner’s snoring may disrupt your regular sleeping patterns, your own snoring can also contribute to your chronic daily headache. Sleep apnea, another risk factor, is a serious health issue.
Sleep apnea is a serious sleep disorder in which breathing repeatedly stops and starts. Snoring loudly and feeling tired after a night’s sleep are warning signs of sleep apnea.
“People at risk for obstructive sleep apnea are usually overweight and have a short neck,” Dr. Rosen explains. “Or with central sleep apnea, the brain doesn’t tell the breathing to drive at night. The problems with sleep apnea arise when oxygen levels drop below 90 percent during sleep, which can injure brain cells.”
Right now, it’s not clear whether the length of sleep matters as much as sleep quality when it comes to chronic migraine. This means that it may not matter to get 12 hours of sleep if you still do not feel refreshed when you wake up. Independent of obesity, Dr. Rosen says treating snoring and sleep apnea may help reduce the frequency of chronic migraines, especially for those who wake up with headaches.
Restless legs syndrome
Restless legs syndrome, defined by the American Sleep Association as a sensory disorder causing an almost irresistible urge to move the legs, is another type of sleep disorder that happens in 40 percent of migraine sufferers.
“Treating the restless legs may reduce chronic migraines,” according to Dr. Rosen. “And insomnia, which causes difficulty falling asleep and difficulty staying asleep, may affect sleep quality and duration and trigger migraine.”
How to sleep when you have a migraine
While legitimate sleep disorders like snoring, sleep apnea, restless legs syndrome and insomnia need the attention of a medical professional or sleep specialist, there are practical things that you can do to improve your quality and quantity of sleep to help manage your chronic migraines.
Here are seven tips to try for a better night’s sleep:
Avoid eating too close to bedtime
Dr. Rosen recommends watching your diet and fluids to manage your migraines. To improve sleep, he suggests the following:
- Avoid alcohol if it causes you to wake up after falling asleep.
- Avoid caffeine after a certain hour (this varies from person to person).
- Don’t have a meal too close to bedtime.
- Limit your fluids after a certain hour to avoid having to use the bathroom at night.
Avoid foods that are migraine triggers
Not only does the timing of your meals play an important role in managing migraines, but, according to the American Migraine Foundation, so does avoiding foods that are migraine triggers. Commonly reported migraine triggers include alcohol (especially red wine and beer), chocolate, aged cheese, cured meats, smoked fish, yeast extract, food preservatives that contain nitrates and nitrites, artificial sweeteners and monosodium glutamate (MSG). It’s important to understand your body in order to identify and avoid the foods that affect your migraines.
Many people who have migraines have difficulty falling asleep, according to Dr. Rosen. He tells his patients to build relaxation skills with regular exercise, deep abdominal breathing and biofeedback.
“There are many studies being done now on mindfulness and headaches,” says Dr. Rosen. Practicing yoga positions before bedtime may be just what the doctor ordered to quiet an active mind and manage migraines.
Dr. Rosen also recommends “salon therapy” to help his migraine patients relax. “Spending half an hour in a salon getting a massage or your nails done boosts moods and helps relaxation for sleep.”
No electronics before bed
It’s not just a busy mind that keeps people up while ruminating at bedtime. Dr. Rosen says the blue light from television, smartphones and tablets upsets the circadian rhythm (your body’s natural sleep-wake clock) and causes the brain to wake up, making it difficult to fall asleep. He recommends shutting down all electronics an hour prior to bedtime.
Create the right sleep environment
Dr. Rosen recommends sleeping in a cool, dark and quiet room. “Use humidified air in the bedroom during winter months and weighted blankets or specially designed pillows if these help you to relax.”
Keep your bedroom uncluttered and try blackout curtains if you are light sensitive, the National Sleep Foundation suggests.
Use sleep aids in moderation
Dr. Rosen approves the short-term use of sleep aids, especially if your sleep is fragmented with aging. “The over-the-counter natural supplement melatonin works for sleep training, but you have to find what works for you,” he says. That said, he reiterates “short-term usage” of any sleep aid.
With everything mentioned above, it is important to stick with whatever steps you take to improve sleep and make them part of your routine. Experts say consistency in all lifestyle habits, especially sleep, is essential in managing migraines. Any change in your life — late bedtime, change in hormones, change in eating or sleep habits, change in weather or barometric pressure — will affect your migraines. Stay on a healthy sleep and lifestyle schedule to help keep your migraines well-controlled.
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