It’s easier than you’d think to throw your whole sleep schedule off. One late night of binging the newest docuseries to hit Netflix—Cheer, anyone?—can lead to not being able to fall asleep for nights to come and leave you with that feeling of a headache coming on when your alarm hits in the morning.
Associations between poor sleep and higher migraine risk have been established in several previous studies, and new research suggests even just one night of fragmented sleep could boost migraine risk in the coming days.
Published in the journal Neurology, the study looked at 98 adults who reported episodic migraines in the past. They wore sleep-tracking devices for six weeks, as well as provided daily information on sleep, headaches, caffeine and alcohol intake, physical activity, stress, and headache frequency.
Researchers found that short sleep duration wasn’t significantly associated with migraine, but sleep fragmentation increased their odds of having a migraine two days later. This is the kind of sleep where you’re still in bed but wide awake, according to lead study author Suzanne Bertisch, M.D., clinical director of behavioral sleep medicine at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston.
“Sleep duration was not associated with higher risk of headaches, but time awake in bed was,” she told Runner’s World, adding that the higher the percentage of time of you’re awake versus asleep, the higher your risk of migraine—not the next day, but the day after that.
This held true even when researchers adjusted for other factors like stress, activity, caffeine, and alcohol, she said.
In terms of why a delayed-onset migraine might occur, that’s still a bit of a mystery, and warrants more research to investigate, Bertisch added. However, she and fellow researchers speculated that fragmented sleep may cause changes in control of the hypothalamus, the area of the brain associated with functions like hormone release and body temperature regulation—which can both play a role with migraines.
There’s also a chicken-and-egg question here, as to which comes first: migraine risk or fragmented sleep? In other words, poor sleep may not be a cause for more migraines, but instead, an early indicator that a migraine could be on the way.
This study is similar to others that have looked at blood flow in the brain, said W. Christopher Winter, M.D., president of Charlottesville Neurology and Sleep Medicine and author of The Sleep Solution. Although he wasn’t involved in this recent study, Winter has participated in past research on fragmented sleep.
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“Interestingly, we found that blood flow was enhanced during a sleep-deprived night, but that it significantly worsened during the fragmented night,” he told Runner’s World. “Migraines are clearly related to brain blood flow, so it’s not surprising they would go hand in hand with sleep quality.”
As we’ve previously reported, most experts advise getting more than six hours of sleep each night—any less can put you at risk for other health issues, too, such as obesity, high blood pressure, diabetes, heart attack, heart failure, or stroke.
The takeaway here and with other similar studies, he added, is that if treatments such as medications, hot or cold compresses, relaxing in a dark and quiet room, or even Botox aren’t working to alleviate migraine frequency and intensity, you may want to consider a sleep study.
Lowering the chances of a racing brain in the wee hours could yield benefits even days later.