Anyone who suffers from chronic headaches or worse, migraines, knows that lack of sleep can sometimes be the culprit. And anyone whose been victimized by a migraine also knows that losing sleep can be a trigger for these excruciating and often debilitating special types of headaches. I’ve talked about the connection between headaches and sleep—or lack thereof.
Now we have more evidence that shows the link between sleep deprivation and migraines in particular: pain researchers from Missouri State University report that rats deprived of REM sleep showed changes in the expression of key proteins that suppress and trigger chronic pain.
In other words, the quality of sleep was associated with whether or not the rats’ nervous system was aroused (hence leading to a headache) or shut down. At the center of this observation was the existence of specific proteins that orchestrate the nervous system’s arousal or suppression.
In the study, the researchers deprived one group of rats of REM sleep for three consecutive nights while allowing another group to sleep normally.
They found that the sleep deprivation caused increased expression of proteins p38 and PKA, which help regulate sensory response in facial nerves thought to play a key role in migraines, known as the trigeminal nerves.
Lack of REM sleep also triggered increased expression of the P2X3 protein, which is linked to the initiation of chronic pain.
About 12 percent of the population, or 36 million Americans, suffer from migraine headaches. Migraines still elude scientists; sleep disruption is one of the most important migraine triggers, yet very little is known about the molecular pathways that link sleep to headache pain.
So for now the best we can do is try to control them through medications when they strike and to take preventive measures that target potential triggers. People who suffer from routine migraines typically have powerful drugs on hand to aid in enduring a migraine when they occur, but often preventing the throbbing pain from even starting is the best medicine. It can become a catch-22 once the migraine takes hold: it becomes hard to sleep due to the pain, which then fuels the cascade of events that keeps the migraine pulsing.
Making sure you get enough sleep if you’re prone to headaches or migraines won’t always stave off pain, though. What’s more important is keeping the same sleep schedule. Ever gotten a headache or migraine on a day you slept in? Well, yes: you can get too much sleep! If your body is used to rising at 6 am during the workweek and you suddenly switch to 9 am on the weekend, guess what: you’ve just given your nervous system a reason to summon pain. The body likes routines. And it especially likes consistent sleep routines.
What I love about studies like this is that they have longitudinal implications across other areas of medicine. If we can learn how to prevent and treat a migraine, we can probably learn a lot about pain in general. And if sleep is a key to that treatment and prevention, then getting restful sleep is once again proven to be as much a part of health as any other vital sign of life.
Michael J. Breus, PhD
The Sleep Doctor™