Can Too Much Sleep Cause Headaches?
With so much being said these days about the impact of too little sleep on the public health and safety, it seems a bit odd that there could be such a thing as too much sleep. Surely this is one instance in life where there can never be too much of a good thing?
Not so fast! Sleeping too much can have some negative effects, as strange as that may seem. One of the most frequently reported is headache from too much sleep.
It seems incomprehensible–how can too much sleep cause headaches? For those people already prone to headaches, oversleeping can result in head pain not unlike that more commonly associated with alcohol hangovers. The exact mechanism of this phenomenon is not entirely understood, but experts believe that the tendency is related to fluctuations of the neurotransmitter serotonin among other brain chemicals, that can occur during periods of sleeping. Also not well understood but seeming to be key is the amount of REM cycle restfulness that a sleeper experiences. Changes in the amount of REM activity have been linked to the frequency and severity of cluster headaches and migraines as well as too much sleep headaches.
A headache from too much sleep may also be linked to sleep apnea, a condition in which breathing becomes very shallow or stops during sleep. These pauses or shallow periods can last anywhere from a few seconds to minutes and often occur between five to 30 times -and more–in the span of an hour. When normal breathing resumes, it is often with a loud snort or choke which can sometimes rouse the sleeper awake, and even if this does not happen, this physical response to resumption of normal breathing patterns results in disruption to the depth of rest being attained. Sleep apnea is often a chronic condition and it is believed that the lower oxygen level characterized by the compromised breathing patterns may be responsible sleeping longer to compensate for a lack of depth of sleep, and that the headache too much sleep can cause may be related to this. It stands to reason that the body might express distress from lower oxygen levels by head pain.
There can be a number of medical causes for oversleeping that must be addressed before treatment for excessive sleep headache can be undertaken.
Depression is often the leading cause of oversleeping. While everyone experiences period of “low mood”, depression is characterized by extended, sometimes chronic feeling of sadness despair, and discouragement. Depression often physically expresses itself with a general feeling of low energy, which leads to lowered physical activity. Often a person who is depressed will seek sleep as an escape from the torment of their waking hours—from the unrelenting waves of hopelessness characteristic of the disorder. Depression often also physically expresses itself as pain—joint, back and headache are common depression related discomforts.
As stated above, sleep apnea is another medical condition that can relate to oversleeping due to a lack of good quality rest. Sleep apnea is often caused or at least aggravated by conditions such as obesity, and low thyroid function.
Less common causes for excessive sleeping can be viral infections such as encephalitis—once commonly known as “sleeping sickness”. Another rare cause can be brain tumor. Other uncommon but possible medical conditions such as restless leg syndrome, multiple sclerosis and epilepsy are also known to be causes of the need for excessive sleep, which in turn can result in headaches from too much sleep.
Any prolonged pattern of sleep disturbance should be brought to the attention of your physician, and any symptoms such as excessive sleep headache must be reported at the same time. Sometimes a sleep study is prescribed as a diagnostic aide to getting to the root cause of sleep disorders. Sleep studies allow doctors to measure how much and how well you sleep and may require spending a night under careful monitoring in a sleep center.
There are also things we can do to foster what is referred to as good “sleep hygiene”–i.e. correct sleeping habits. Among these are:
Stay with a fixed bedtime
Endeavor to wake up at a consistent time on a daily basis–which includes weekends
Avoid taking daytime naps
Avoid alcohol and caffeine for 4-6 hours before bedtime
Avoid sugary or excessively spicy foods before bedtime
Avoid aerobic exercise immediately before bedtime, but DO get adequate exercise during waking hours.
Use comfortable bedding and a comfortable mattress on your bed
Keep the bed for sleep and sex–not as a workspace, an alternative dining room or computer station
Block out light and noise. Turn off TVs and radios, draw the curtains, avoid the use of nightlights wherever possible
Keep the bedroom to a level that best accommodates sleep–generally between 68-80 degrees Fahrenheit.
Practice relaxation techniques such as deep breathing and meditation
Leave your worries at the bedroom door.
Indulge in whatever pre-sleep ritual work best for you: a warm bath, or curling up with a good book.
A light snack—with foods high in levels of tryptophan (milk, bananas) may help induce sleepiness
The consensus seems to be yes—it does, and that the best way to avoid what may be the least necessary of head pain is to practice the best sleep hygiene possible. Following the suggestions outline above may help–if not, consult with your healthcare professional.