Sleep is a sacred bond between us and our beds.
When that bond gets broken, we suffer.
Learning what causes hypnic headaches can keep us from ending up with those 3 am head pain wake up calls.
In this article, I will be talking about what hypnic headaches are, what causes them, and what studies have found works really well for them.
What is a hypnic headache?
A hypnic headache is known as the “alarm clock headache” because it wakes you up at night with head pain. Even though it will usually wake you up at the same time each night, it commonly happens between 1-3am or 4-6am. It can be one-sided or on both sides of the head, is sometimes throbbing and lasts between a few minutes and 6 hours.
Watch this video to learn more about hypnic headaches.
It's #migraine and #headache awareness month— Stephanie Nahas (@stephanieJnahas) June 24, 2018
Did you know:#Hypnic headache is relatively rare but important to recognize
Like an ill-timed #AlarmClock blaring in the middle of the night
Mostly affects #older folks
Must exclude other causes#MHAM2018 #MHAMhttps://t.co/UhGYKzpjUp
7 Vital hypnic headache causes
Before we begin, we need to understand the clock that our cells live by.
This clock is similar to the clock that we use, but different in that it synchronizes itself based on the amount of light our skin and eyes are perceiving.
It is called our circadian rhythm and functions off of 2 main sources of light.
The bluish hue of the morning light that stimulates our body’s stress hormone cortisol to wake us up…
And the orangish hue of evening light that stimulates our body to drop the stress hormone cortisol and raise melatonin, our sleep hormone.
So cortisol wakes us up out of sleep and gives us energy and focus.
Melatonin is the opposite in that it makes our body wind down, prepare to rest, digest and repair our brains and bodies.
Here is an image showing our circadian clock and how it functions in a normal healthy person.
The black line is cortisol and the white line is melatonin. In the morning, cortisol spikes with the sunrise, and in the evening it drops with the sunset allowing melatonin to spike.
But our stress hormone cortisol may also go up any time we stimulate our body or mind.
- If we work out, cortisol goes up.
- If we go through a traumatic event, cortisol goes way up.
- If we have caffeine, cortisol goes up.
- If we are staring at sources of blue light like screens, cortisol goes up.
- If we are stimulated by an action movie or another event that makes our heart pump, cortisol goes up.
But these aren’t bad, in fact, they are fairly normal. What matters is when this happens and how we respond to it.
It’s normal for cortisol to go up in the morning so we want to maximize our mornings for everything that requires lots of energy and stress.
This allows us to leave our relaxing and winding down activities for the evening, preventing us from raising cortisol.
It is easy to drop cortisol if we are consciously trying to do it(as long as it’s not artificially stimulated).
Only a few minutes of specific breathing can halve our cortisol levels after a stressful event.
See the video below to learn about how circadian rhythms work.
1. Optimize circadian rhythm sleep-wake
Our circadian rhythms are the most important cycle in our body because they regulate every single cell and bacteria we have.
There are a few keys to making sure they stay synchronized so that our hormones and cellular metabolism like our brain cells detox and repair properly.
Get direct sunlight every day for at least 15-20 minutes
Avoiding sleeping in late as once light is coming into your room, your melatonin drops
Sleep in blackout conditions with no light, street lights, lights from electronics and minimal stimuli like sounds and odors
Have room temperature be cool but not cold and warm your hands and feet before bed which has been shown to improve sleep cycle quality
Melatonin is our sleep hormone and has been shown in studies to help some hypnic headache sufferers.
But be careful with melatonin supplements…
1-3 mg taken sublingually(under the tongue) has been found to be effective whereas some supplements can have hundreds of mg of melatonin and this may cause drowsiness during the day.
3. Sleep foods
When we think of sleep, we have to understand that blood sugar and food quality plays a very large role.
Melatonin, our sleep hormone, is made from tryptophan which is an amino acid that comes from proteins.
The best food sources of tryptophan are:
- Dark chocolate
- Red meat
- Pumpkin seeds
- Squash seeds
For blood sugar, we need to know if we have blood sugar handling problems and most of us do.
Do you get irritable when you haven’t eaten for a few hours?
Do you get headaches if you miss a meal?
Do you get severe cravings or other symptoms if you miss a meal or don’t keep your blood sugar up?
These need to be handled through a nutritional protocol to rebuild your body’s ability to use food.
When blood sugar drops, we can actually go into a coma and die so our body regulates this very closely.
To compensate it uses cortisol because cortisol, as a stress hormone, puts sugar into our blood.
Throughout evolution whenever we entered fight or flight mode, our body would need lots of resources so that it could fight or run whatever was causing danger. It uses cortisol, our stress hormone to release sugar into our blood and make it available as fuel.
But this causes more problems if we suffer from head pain and have bad circadian rhythms because when blood sugar drops, cortisol goes up and this causes sleep quality to go down.
We want to avoid this.
Which means we need to balance blood sugar before bed by giving our body foods that support long-lasting energy.
Think of our metabolism as a fire. We want to put logs on it, not twigs, so that it lasts us throughout the night.
Good foods for this are:
Nuts and seeds
Dark leafy greens like spinach and collard greens
Vegetables with complex carbohydrates like yams, carrots and beets (not potatoes or grains)
Fatty pastured meats
See our article on blood sugar stabilizing foods here.
4. Kill blue light
Blue light is a 21st-century problem and has contributed to a massive amount of sleep dysfunction.
It is normal in the morning to have lots of natural blue light from the sun.
But in the evening and at night, blue light confuses the body into thinking it is still daytime.
This pushes back circadian cycles and keeps our body from being able to repair and detox when we fall asleep because it still has to raise sleep hormones and drop stress hormones enough to do it.
The best option here is to avoid all screens at least 2-3 hours before bed but it is unrealistic since we are culturally glued to our “smart” phones.
Instead, use these tips:
Get apps like twilight or night shift on your phone which drop the amount of blue light coming from your screen
Use apps like fl.ux on your laptop and desktop to prevent blue light from them
Use physical blue light filters on your screens
Sacrifice looks, for health, with these blue light blocking glasses
5. Liver, lung and large intestine
When we want to understand what thousands of years of medicine can do for us we need to understand traditional Chinese medicine. This is one of the areas I use to interpret my client’s symptoms and it is very effective for dealing with root cause issues.
Our entire body goes by the circadian clock and our organs have specific times they go through their detoxification phases.
Between 1am and 7 am our body is going through liver, lung and large intestine detoxification and if these organs are having any trouble, we are going to get symptoms when it’s their time to clean themselves up.
This means we want to pinpoint which one is having issues and support them.
Do we feel congestion in the right side of our abdomen under our ribs?
Do we have loose stools, gas, diarrhea, constipation or unfinished feelings after bowel movements?
Do we have a cough, weak lungs, phlegm or live in an environment with poor air quality?
We want to take these systems into account and look deeper into them to understand if the issues they are having are overflowing into other systems like the brain, creating stress in the body and waking us up with pain.
According to this study,
“Caffeine taken as a cup of strong coffee seems to be the best acute and prophylactic treatment option.”
Caffeine can be amazing for hypnic headaches both before bed and on waking up with pain.
But this begs the question, is it because our body needs the boost in stress hormones? Is it because we are withdrawing from caffeine? Is it because our cycles are lopsided and need tuning?
Either way, coffee has been found to work well for hypnic headaches as acute and prophylactic solutions…
But this can be bad and cause more problems for those who are already exhausted.
If our body is so depleted in stress hormones that we have to squeeze even more out of it with caffeine, it is not a solution.
Remember, caffeine doesn’t give us more resources, it just attaches to our stress receptors and releases more of the resources we either do or do not have.
It is not a nutrient, just an empty stimulus.
But we can improve that with some tweaks.
Coffee is the most common way to get caffeine into your system so:
Use a high-quality organic coffee as coffee is highly sprayed with brain-damaging chemicals
Add some grass-fed butter, coconut oil or MCT oil to your cup to add a ton of nutrition and slow down the “burn”
Use a nutrient-filled sweetener like raw honey or real maple syrup instead of sugar
Add cinnamon or cacao for an extra boost
Avoid coffee after 2 pm if possible and not using it as a before bed prophylactic
Figure out if you are becoming dependant on caffeine
7. Sleep is brain detox time
In one study, 50% of hypnic headache patients had a previous history of migraine and 40% had underlying sleep abnormalities.
This means we need to figure out what caused our migraines because it could be causing our hypnic headaches and we need to fix our sleep abnormalities.
Migraines are often a protective mechanism used by the brain to make us stop what we are doing and increase the number of resources going to our brain to heal whatever is causing the damage to our brain cells.
Sleep abnormalities are a huge issue and obviously connected to hypnic headaches so having a sleep study, fixing circadian rhythms, creating a wind-down routine before bed and reducing stress on the brain may all help.
When we sleep, our brain cells can shrink up to 20% so that they can rest, repair and “squeeze” out any waste products created during the day.
We want to make sure we support this process by taking the burden off our brain, lowering inflammation in our bodies, supporting our lymphatic system to remove waste and providing the nutrients our brain cells need to repair, grow and create stronger pain-free connections.
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Share this post with others who need help with their sleep and let me know:
Have you ever experienced a hypnic headache?
In the comments below.
Holistic Health Practitioner
Mark Canadic is a writer, speaker, holistic health practitioner and migraine community leader. Read Mark’s inspiring comeback story, “My Burnout and Brain Fires that Lead me to the Root.” Feel free to send Mark a message here.