Do you often or occasionally wake up in the morning with a headache? Early morning headaches affect one in every 13 people among the general population. Frequent early morning headaches can set the stage for the rest of the day, but if you can identify the underlying cause, you can take steps to avoid or at least reduce the occurrence of AM headaches.
Frequent early morning headaches are associated with a few common factors. Do you recognize one or more below that applies to you or a loved one? Good, you may be on your way to making these painful headaches go away. Talk to your doctor or other knowledgeable professional who can work with you to find natural solutions to the causes of early morning headache.
Snoring and sleep apnea
According to the American Migraine Foundation, often waking up in the morning with a headache indicates that a sleep problem or disorder is a cause. Snoring is associated with sleep apnea, which in turn has been linked to frequent morning headache. Therefore, people who snore are at increased risk of waking up with a headache. Sleep apnea could be behind your frequent early morning headache if you have any of the following symptoms:
- Daytime sleepiness
- Night sweats
- Waking up frequently during the night
- Snoring every or nearly every night
- Insufficient sleep
Many experts agree that the optimum amount of sleep is 7 to 8 or 9 hours nightly (not everyone agrees on the upper end). In a study of 1,800 adolescents, researchers divided the participants into three groups: those with tension type headache, those with migraines, and those without headaches.
Adolescents with migraines experience the least amount of restful sleep and the most nighttime awakenings. These findings suggest disrupted sleep is more common among people with migraines than those with tension or no headache.
Anxiety and depression
The relationship between anxiety and depression and headache is strong, according to the research. While this may not be surprising, the most common type of headache associated with anxiety and depression appears to be overuse of medication. In a multicenter study that involved about 9,000 adults, experts found that:
- Probable medication overuse headache was the most common type of headache associated with anxiety and depression
- Tension-type headache was the second more frequent type of headache, with migraine coming in third
- Tension-type headache (TTH) was associated with anxiety but not with depression
- In the study, TTH was associated only with anxiety, not with depression.
Natural treatment remedies for early morning headaches associated with anxiety or depression can include relaxation training or cognitive therapy or supplements that can promote sleep, such as L-tryptophan, 5-HTP, or melatonin.
In a study of 18,980 individuals aged 15 years and older from several European countries, researchers found that consuming more than six servings of alcohol daily was associated with frequent early morning headache. The Stanford University study revealed that headache prevalence was 12.1% among heavy alcohol consumers compared with light drinkers (1 or 2 glasses/day, 5.6%) or who did not drink (7.7%).
Prescription drug use
In the same Stanford study, the experts found that people who took certain drugs for anxiety, insomnia, or depression (e.g., Valium, Xanax, Zyprexa) had up to more than a 17 percent higher rate of early morning headaches than those who did not use these medications.
Bruxism, which is the grinding and clenching of the teeth, especially while sleeping, is a tension-related condition in which individuals can experience frequent headaches. People who grind their teeth also are at high risk of sleep apnea and often snore as well.
Because many people who grind their teeth are unaware they are doing so, it's important to recognize some of the signs and symptoms so you can put a stop to this practice. They include:
- Frequent early morning headache
- Aching or fatigued jaw muscles
- Pain or tenderness in the face or jaw
- Unexplained chipped, broke, or flattened teeth
- Sensitive teeth
- Ear pain but no apparent problems with the ear
- Unexplained damage to the inside of the cheek
- Difficulty opening and/or closing the jaw
- Dull headache located around the temple
- Grinding noise that wakens ones sleep partner
Serious health conditions
A variety of serious health conditions that place pressure on certain nerve endings can cause frequent early morning headache. These conditions include brain tumor, severely high blood pressure, stroke, and trauma. If you are experiencing frequent early morning headache and cannot attribute it to any of the options mentioned, you may want to discuss your concerns with a knowledgeable health care professional, especially if you experience two or more such headaches per week; a severe headache is accompanied by a stiff neck, fever, nausea, or vomiting that is not associated with another condition; you have weakness or loss of sensation along with the headache; your vision or cognitive skills are affected; or you have seizures or shortness of breath along with headache.
Numerous factors can be the cause or contribute to frequent early morning headache, and some of them overlap. If you are depressed or anxious, for example, you may also grind your teeth. Consuming alcohol increases the risk of bruxism and insomnia and thus the risk of early morning headache. If you are taking medications associated with headache, look for natural alternatives to these drugs.
Fortunately, lifestyle changes can help with frequent early morning headache. Weight loss can help with sleep apnea; stress management techniques can help relieve anxiety and depression as well as bruxism; establishing healthy sleep habits can reduce insomnia; and reduced alcohol use can help as well.
American Migraine Foundation. Understanding migraine. Sleep
Gupta R et al. Impact of primary headaches on subjective sleep parameters among adolescents. Annuals of Indian Academy of Neurology 2008 Jul-Sep; 11(3): 164-69
Lampi C et al. Headache, depression and anxiety: associations in the Eurolight project. The Journal of Headache and Pain 2016 Jun 1; 17:59
Ohayon MM. Prevalence and risk factors of morning headaches in the general population. Archives of Internal Medicine 2004; 164(1): 97-102