woman sitting on bed with headache
Sleep Health

Why Do I Wake Up With A Headache?

    Last Updated
    April 4, 2022
    min read

    If you’ve ever experienced waking up with a headache, don’t worry, you’re not alone. About 1 in 13 people experience morning headaches.

    Morning headaches are not usually indicative of serious health problems, but that doesn’t take away from the fact that they can be annoying and, for some, even debilitating. Here, we highlight the possible causes of your morning headaches and how you can avoid them.

    What Are Morning Headaches?

    “Morning headache” is a catch-all for any type of headache you feel after waking up in the morning. There are over 150 different types of headaches, but some of the most common types of morning headaches include:

    Tension Headaches

    People who suffer from tension headaches often describe the feeling as having a tight band around one’s head. The pain is usually dull and can range from mild to moderate.

    Tension-type headaches are believed to be caused by stress, sleep deprivation, and bad posture. They tend to feel worse in the mornings than any other time of the day because, during the early morning hours, our bodies also produce more adrenaline. This affects blood flow and blood pressure and can constrict blood vessels – all of which can contribute to an early morning headache.

    Cluster Headaches

    Cluster headaches are a rare type of headache that causes severe pain in clusters. Attacks can last for about one to three hours, happening multiple times a day or every other day. Cluster headaches can cause sufferers to wake up in the middle of the night or early hours of the morning from the pain.

    Hypnic Headaches

    Hypnic headaches are a type of primary headache disorder that happens when the sufferer is asleep. Because hypnic headaches usually happen at around the same time each day, they are sometimes referred to as “alarm clock headaches”.

    Migraine Headaches

    Migraines are a common condition affecting one in five women and one in 16 men worldwide. They are characterized by a throbbing or pulsing pain, usually felt on one side of the head.

    This type of headache can be quite severe and is exacerbated by stress, exposure to bright lights, and changes in sleep. In fact, the American Migraine Foundation says that people living with migraine are two to eight times more likely to experience sleep disorders.

    What Can Cause Morning Headaches?

    Morning headaches are caused by a variety of things, but poor sleep quality is up there as one of the top reasons. Unfortunately, there are a lot of habits and health conditions that lead to poor sleep and, eventually, head pain in the morning, including:

    1. Hangovers

    Most of us have over-indulged at some point, but drinkers be wary: an extra cocktail or two can sometimes be a risk factor for a morning headache.

    Alcohol is a diuretic, meaning that it can leave you dehydrated in the morning. Unfortunately, headaches are a symptom of dehydration. Aside from this, alcoholic beverages can make your blood vessels expand, which can stimulate your brain nerves and cause hangover headaches.

    2. Sleep Apnea And Snoring

    Morning headaches are believed to be a common symptom of obstructive sleep apnea (OSA), a medical condition that causes your throat muscles to partially collapse, interrupting your breathing during sleeping. Without a consistent supply of oxygen and increased pressure in the head, people with sleep apnea can experience frequent headaches.

    While snoring doesn’t necessarily mean that one has OSA, excessive snoring is one of the most common symptoms of sleep apnea – particularly if you wake up with a morning headache. One study found that 23.5% of frequent snorers regularly woke up with headaches, and 69% reported OSA along with snoring.

    3. Dehydration

    As mentioned, headaches are a common symptom of dehydration. This is because the brain temporarily shrinks from the lack of fluids. A dehydration headache often feels similar to a tension headache, with the same sensation of a tightening band around your head.

    4. Sleep Bruxism Or Teeth Grinding

    If you grind your teeth at night, a condition also known as bruxism, you may have that to blame for your chronic morning headaches. Bruxism overworks the tendons and joints in your head, particularly the temporomandibular joint (TMJ) which connects your skull to your jaw.

    The tension from teeth grinding creates jaw pain and spreads to your head and neck, resulting in a tension-type headache. Some people with sleep bruxism are prescribed to wear a night guard by their headache specialist or dentist.

    5. Insomnia

    Insomnia is a common sleep disorder that affects one in three American adults. It’s characterized by an inability to fall asleep or stay asleep, and an inability to get back to sleep after sleep disturbances. Insufficient REM sleep is linked to more painful headaches, and thus insomnia is one of the leading causes of morning headaches.

    6. Oversleeping

    Though it isn’t clear yet how getting too much sleep can be a headache trigger, scientists believe there is a link between the two. There is also a theory that oversleeping is merely a symptom of an underlying health condition, such as stress, diabetes, thyroid issues, and sleep disorders, which are all known to cause or worsen headache pain.

    7. Depression And Anxiety

    Some studies show that people suffering from depression often also face insomnia or have other sleep issues, which can lead to early morning headaches. Effectively managing depression through medications and therapy can help improve REM sleep and reduce the likelihood of insomnia and morning headaches. Most headache sufferers who also battle depression deal with tension headaches as well.

    8. A Bad Pillow or Mattress

    Sometimes, morning headaches are caused by strained neck muscles. If your pillow or mattress isn’t supporting your neck in the right way, your unhealthy sleep posture can make your head throb.

    The best mattress and pillow should support your head and neck in a neutral position – similar to when you’re standing. If your pillow is too soft or too firm, it can fail to support your head and neck properly.

    How To Avoid Waking Up With A Headache

    If you want to reduce the likelihood of waking up with a pounding head, consider the following tips:

    Get Regular Exercise

    Exercise triggers the release of endorphins, your body’s natural painkillers. It is also known to reduce stress, which is one of the biggest causes of headaches in general.

    Reduce Your Screen Time

    Prolonged screen time can result in eye strain, which can cause people to squint, which, in turn, can put stress on the muscles and trigger a tension headache.

    Reducing screen time also helps people fall asleep faster, as the blue light from screens can actually cause your body to suppress the release of melatonin – a hormone that signals the body when it’s time to sleep.

    Watch Your Diet

    For people who suffer from migraines, certain foods are believed to trigger an attack, such as alcohol, chocolate, aged cheeses, and processed meat. Then there are foods that can keep you up at night, like coffee, tea, spicy and fatty foods, which can lead to insufficient sleep and, later, a wake-up headache.

    There are foods that can help you sleep better, though. This includes bananas, nuts, kiwifruit, and chickpeas.

    Practice Good Sleep Hygiene

    Sleep hygiene is defined as the routine or habits you do to prepare yourself for a good night’s sleep. To practice good sleep hygiene, you should set and follow a consistent sleep schedule, create a relaxing, sleep-inducing environment, and follow the three previously mentioned tips.

    Choose A Good Pillow And Mattress

    Finally, you can’t get comfy in bed without a good pillow and mattress.

    You might need some trial and error to find a pillow with the right firmness, but it’s worth the effort. As a first step, why not try the Purple Pillow? It features a Hyper-Elastic Polymer molded into a smart-comfort grid that supports your neck’s natural curvature. In fact, it’s specifically designed for ideal head and neck support and may be your best pillow for neck pain and headaches.

    The Purple® Pillow is also highly breathable. It allows for plenty of airflow and doesn’t absorb heat, so it remains a neutral temperature throughout the night – you’ll be super comfortable and get overall better sleep.

    The Bottom Line

    Morning headaches can be frustrating and debilitating. While it’s not always possible to avoid them, there are some things you can do to lessen the chances of waking up with a headache. If you suffer from morning headaches, try implementing some of the tips we’ve outlined in this post and see if they make a difference for you.


    About the authors

    Cecilia Gillen

    Cecilia brings over five years of writing experience primarily centered around lifestyle and health topics. She has a Bachelor’s degree in Media and Journalism from the University of South Dakota. She’s both an advocate for sleep and a night owl at heart.