Sleep Headaches: What Are They and Why Do They Happen?

Sleep Headaches: What Are They and Why Do They Happen?

Sleep is usually recognised as the body’s vital rest period, a time when its batteries can recharge and rebalance just in time for you to wake up feeling fresh. And it’s important that your morning is greeted with this serene sensation, as it very much sets the agenda for the rest of your day. 

There are lots of things that disrupt the body’s natural rising, like unexpected phone calls, escaped streaks of light and snoring sleeping buddies.

But perhaps the most disruptive of them all is sleep headaches. But what are sleep headaches, how do they happen and why do they keep disturbing your sleep?

These are all questions we’re going to explore in our blog today, but first, we must address the three main types of headaches you’re likely to be inflicted by.

The Three Terrors

Wake-Up Headaches

The characteristics of wake-up headaches cover a range of symptoms, from a dull, numbing ache at the front of the head to a sudden, sharp and striking pain. They’re usually felt immediately upon waking or shortly after.

Cluster Headaches

Possibly the worst of the three, cluster headaches strike the area directly behind the eyes and along the sinus passages, and although they can occur at any point throughout the night, it’s common to wake up to the intense, throbbing pain an hour or so after going to sleep.

Hypnic Headaches

Sometimes called ‘alarm clock’ headaches, like a nightmare, hypnic headaches leverage their effects exclusively during sleep, and are known to generate intense pain, nausea, hypersensitivity to light and/or a runny nose.

Fortunately, hypnic headaches are pretty rare, with studies suggesting that only about one per cent of the world’s population suffers from this type of headache. 

Naturally, there are many different factors that cause many different types of headaches, but for the purpose of our own investigation, these are the terrible three to be most closely associated with sleep health. 

Taking this in hand, now we’re going to swing over to the catalysts of sleep headaches, where we’ll discover the real reason behind the painful wake-ups. What’s causing sleep headaches?

Sleep Positions

As we mentioned here at the very beginning, there are a lot of very important things going on inside the body when you’re asleep. Important connections between the heart and the brain, and between the brain and the lymph nodes.

And in order for the body to perform these tasks correctly and effectively, the corridors inside the body must all be freely accessible.  It’s an odd one and not something that you would immediately pick out as a cause for sleep headaches, but the position you sleep in is a crucial element of why the sensation occurs. 

How the weight of the head is supported is everything when it comes to sleep, as any compromise will cause excessive tension to build up in the shoulder and neck muscles, which co-exists with tension headaches. Find the best sleeping position for you, by heading over to our recent blog here. 


Although it's super tempting to hit snooze and enjoy an extra few minutes wrapped in the comfort of your bed sheets, sleeping in might actually be pressing play on early-morning headaches, and the reason why all starts with the biology of the sleep cycle itself. 

The body’s sleep runs like clockwork and likes to follow the same pattern on a regular basis. When regulating this behaviour, the body deploys the hormone serotonin to begin both the process of going to sleep and waking up in the morning.

So your usual wake-up time comes calling, and the serotonin is all in place to trigger your early morning wake-up, but you sleep over. Doing so will throw a major spanner in the works, as the body will be expecting nourishment and hydration, something that will be drawn out even further as the minutes and hours pass.

Tardy wake-up calls and the absence of early-morning hormones are major drivers of the familiar morning headache, and although we all enjoy a lie-in, rising to a headache is never quite as fun.

Sleep Apnea

As one of the stranger sleep disorders, sleep apnea is characterised by when the body stops breathing for a split second during sleep.

Almost impossible to self-diagnose, unless you’re sharing a bed with a diligent other, sleep apnea can generate strange side effects that are a little more noticeable; especially headaches. 

The body doesn’t respond well to suffocation of any kind, and these intermittent pauses in its fresh oxygen supply can raise blood pressure, disrupt the flow of hormones and cause neural shock inside the brain; coming together within the sensation of headaches, which with sleep apnea, may often feel like the pressure is pressing on all corners of the head. 


Headaches can be offset by periods of good, restful sleep, a time when the body has a chance to recover and restore its resources. However, a lack of sleep can very much turn things the other way.

Insomnia, along with more general sleep disturbances, shares the same pathogenic mechanisms and brain structures as headache disorders, which is why it’s common for the two to occur together. 

In addition to this, a tired and sleep-deprived body typically offsets its lack of energy by decreasing the number of amino acids it produces.

These acids are very important, as they usually help to increase the body’s threshold for pain.

As a result, even the slightest headaches and migraines can be perceived as extremely painful when sleep-deprived. 


We’ve continuously advocated the importance of good hydration; being hydrated is cooler than ever. When the body’s asleep for eight long hours during the night, it’s using its stores of water to perform important nightly tasks; like clearing waste and repairing damaged muscle tissue. 

But while it’s asleep, the body’s unable to replenish the stores it's delving into, which leads it to become increasingly dehydrated as the sleep cycle draws on.

Because of this, the brain compensates for its reduced water sources by shrinking in size. It’s the brain tissue retracting from the inside of the skull that causes the sensation of headaches, which is also why headaches are so closely interlinked with dehydration. 

It’s a mystery - Despite the depth of our conversation above, the exact cause of all sleep headaches, especially in regards to hypnic headaches, is still not fully understood.

As with many elements connected to the spellbinding practice of sleep, it’s a phenomenon that remains to be fully developed by industry leaders such as ourselves.

Although the common catalysts for more general headaches have been widely determined, there remains this grey area that still needs to be explored by science.

Overall, sleep headaches commonly share mutual catalysts in environmental, physical and emotional factors; albeit still not yet fully understood. The time you sleep, your run-up to it, and even the position you sleep in all act as deciding factors in whether your time in bed is going to be disturbed by a sleep headache or not. 

For those of you who have sleep headaches commonly, we would highly recommend beginning with good sleep hygiene. This could include scheduled bedtimes and regular exercise, accompanied by a nutrient-rich diet and, of course, plenty of water! 

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