Waking Up With A Headache? This Might Be Why

Waking up to a dull, pulsating pain in your head is hardly the way you want to start your day, yet for many headache and migraine sufferers, it’s an all too common scenario.

When headaches develop in the early morning, it’s common to wake feeling unrested and still fatigued. You may blame this feeling on the fact you have a headache, but in actual fact, it’s likely to be the other way around; sleep problems and poor sleep habits are some of the biggest triggers of a headache or migraine.

Sleep and headaches

A good night’s sleep keeps us healthy and happy, and for headache sufferers, it’s particularly important. Sleep and headaches are controlled by the same region of the brain, therefore it’s only logical that too much or too little sleep could be a trigger.

Most of us go through about six sleep cycles with about four stages of sleep, plus rapid eye movement (REM) sleep. The deepest stages of sleep (stages 3 & 4) are necessary for the production of sufficient serotonin and dopamine – the “feel good” chemical messengers in the brain. Without good sleep, not only do you remove that feel good factor, but you run the risk of waking with a headache.

But the opposite is also true. Too much sleep can trigger headaches as well – particularly migraines and tension-type headaches. Again, it’s believed this could be caused by certain neurotransmitters in the brain.

If you frequently wake with a headache, feel scattered aches and pains throughout your body upon waking, still feel tired after coffee, wake in a low mood often, struggle to find the energy to perform daily tasks, have frequent trouble restoring information or grasping new ideas, and feel yourself getting less sociable, you’re right to suspect that sleep could be the answer.

The good news is, that means your headaches could be an easy fix. The too much or too little concept is a good place to start. If you currently get less than 8.5 hours sleep a night, try going to bed an hour earlier. If you currently get more than 9 hours sleep, try going to bed an hour later. Even slight adjustment times could make a big difference, and could make your headaches less frequent and less intense.

Other possible triggers

If you believe that the amount of sleep you’re getting is not the quick fix you’re looking for, consider some of these other possible headache triggers. By monitoring the mornings you find yourself waking badly, you can discover which could be your trigger and look for ways to avoid it.

Common headache triggers include:

Changes in routine

Some people find that changes in their routine can contribute to headaches and if you’re experiencing “weekend headaches”, routine might just be the cause. Over the weekend, many habits change, from eating times and sleep times to reduced caffeine consumption. Even a lie-in can cause a headache.

You may also notice you experience headaches after a long journey or whilst on holiday. Again, this can be caused by a change in routine. Even pleasant changes, such as sudden relaxation after a stressful week at work can prompt a headache.


Stress is an obvious trigger for headaches. Laying in bed with anxiety, excitement or any form of tension and shock can be enough to cause you to wake with a headache. If your stress is causing you to toss and turn, find ways to unwind before you get into bed – such as reading, taking a bath, or meditating.


If you’re waking regularly with a headache and your partner is complaining that you’re keeping them up with your snoring, that could be your trigger. Snoring occurs when the muscles of the airway relax too much during sleep and vibrate when breathing in and out. Loud snoring can not only be caused by sleep apnea, but also allergies, deformity of the nose, nasal congestion, consumption of alcohol, and being overweight.


Excessive consumption of caffeine could be causing you to wake with a headache, especially if you’re consuming caffeine throughout the day. Those that drink caffeine (be it in tea, coffee or cola) late into the day run the risk of the body withdrawing from caffeine as you sleep. This can cause you to wake with a headache.

Hormonal changes

Migraines are closely associated with female hormones and some women find their morning headaches are linked to their menstrual cycle. This may explain why more women than men experience migraines during their reproductive years and why migraines are a common symptom of menopause. A drop in estrogen just before a period may contribute to headaches, and so too may changes in hormones due to a contraception change or during pregnancy.

The environment

The environment in which you sleep could be causing you to wake with a headache. High altitude, weather changes, high humidity, loud noises, exposure to glare or flickering lights, strong smells – these are all factors that could be causing pressure on your head as you sleep. A good way to monitor environmental factors is with a headache diary that lists factors such as these.

Lack of food

While it’s best to not eat anything too heavy before bed, insufficient food could be a cause of your morning headache, so try eating a small, nutritious snack an hour before bed.


Some food products contain certain chemicals or additives that can trigger a headache or migraine. Frequent culprits include monosodium glutamate (MSG) (naturally found in tomatoes, cheese and other foods), nitrates (found in cured meats and processed foods) and aspartame (a low-calorie sweeteners found in drinks and sweet foods).


You don’t have to be a rocket scientist to know that drinking alcohol before you go to bed can cause a headache when you wake. Alcohol-related headaches are often thought to be the result of “too much” alcohol, but for some migraine sufferers, just half a glass of red wine could be enough to cause a morning headache. It it thought that the cause may be tyramine, which is contained in red wine as well as in aged cheeses and some fermented foods.


Dehydration can have an impact on how you wake, and as well as drinking eight glasses of water per day, you should try to drink a glass of water an hour before bed. This will prevent your body from dehydrating as you sleep.

Grinding teeth

Tooth grinding and clenching are symptomatic of a condition known as bruxism, which can cause temporomandibular joint (TMJ) disorder, and can lead to headaches. You may grind your teeth at night and not be aware you’re doing it. If you are aware of your teeth grinding and suspect it could be causing headaches, your doctor may suggest that you consider wearing occlusal splints to bed, which will reduce teeth grinding and jaw tension.

The wrong pillow

Tension headaches happen when your neck and scalp muscles are strained, especially if they’re held in the same position for a long time (such as when you sleep). Choose a pillow that keeps your head and neck in a neutral position, as if you were standing. Also avoid sleeping in a cold room, which will also cause head and neck tension.

Sleep well

No one likes to wake up feeling less than refreshed, but in our busy world, we might have to take a couple of extra steps to ensure that we are doing the very best by ourselves. Finding the cause of your morning headache is the first step towards preventing it from happening, so take the time to discover what may be the cause and always consult your doctor if you are concerned.

All information presented on the Herron website is meant for general knowledge and never meant as a diagnosis of prescription. Please always contact your doctor for health related matters.