Headache after nap: causes, treatments, prevention

In recent years, “power naps” have undergone a renaissance, receiving praise as one of the best things for physical and mental health. But what if you get a headache after nap time?

Headache after nap: causes, treatments, prevention

Nothing is more frustrating than carving out time for a nap only to wake up feeling worse than you did before.

You doze to clear your head. You rest up for a tough afternoon at work. You count on renewed energy and focus. When you wake up, though, a blinding headache and grogginess make you wonder if the nap was worth it.

The “nap hangover” can be avoided. There’s a lot of reliable science to recommend when and for how long you should rest.

Why Nap In the First Place?

Studies all over the world have shown that daytime sleep:

  • Improves memory, mental function, alertness and productivity
  • Puts you in a better mood
  • Makes you more receptive to learning new things
  • Sharpens coordination and motor skills
  • Reduces the risk of cardiovascular disease, diabetes and unhealthy weight gain
  • Is as effective against heart disease as statin drugs

Research shows that people who nap for 30 minutes at least three times a week are 37 percent less likely to die of heart disease. Even occasional nappers have significantly lower risk of heart attack or stroke.

A German study in 2008 concluded that even the briefest naps have benefit. Merely falling asleep, even if you’re soon interrupted, can trigger the brain’s memory processes. The results of a British experiment were even more astonishing: Just planning a nap lowered the subjects’ blood pressure.

How Does Napping Increase Brainpower?

Not so long ago, taking naps was an indication of weakness, laziness or getting old. People were “caught” napping as though it were something shameful.

Today, the evidence can’t be ignored; napping makes you smarter and physically healthier. The phrase “falling asleep at the switch” has been amended to the much sexier “taking a power nap”.

Synapses – or brain signals and receptors – are more numerous and intense during waking hours. You can only absorb so many stimuli before the brain senses the overload and complains of too much information.

When you’re sleeping, the brain gets busy clearing out your inbox and sorting your mail, so to speak. It reduces the number of synapses. It relocates less urgent facts to your long-term memory. This frees up space for you to concentrate better or learn something new when you wake up.

What Causes the Horrendous Headache Following a Nap?

Your headache is probably caused by being awakened at the wrong time.

Human sleep cycles through five stages: onset, light sleep, two periods of deep sleep and REM sleep. REM is when dreaming occurs. The entire cycle lasts around 1½ hours and repeats throughout the night.

Sleep inertia is a natural occurrence upon waking after any length of sleep. It’s marked by grogginess and somewhat reduced capacity. It usually lasts from 15-30 minutes, the length of time it takes most folks to grope for the alarm, stumble to the bathroom, brush their teeth and start a pot of coffee. It’s no surprise that people show reduced mathematical ability during this period of waking up.

For daytime resting, experts recommend a nap of 20-45 minutes. If you sleep longer than that, it’s hard to keep from slipping into deep, slow-wave sleep. The headache and confusion of sleep inertia are at their most pronounced when you wake from that stage of sleep.

Also, various regions of the brain wake up and become active at different speeds. Blood flow reaches wide-awake levels in some areas sooner than others. This imbalance of a few minutes’ time contributes to headache and nap hangover.

Treating the Nap Headache

  • Drink lots of water. – At any time of day, dehydration causes all types of headaches. Have fresh water on hand for when you wake up. There are foods, too, that help keep you hydrated all day, like celery, cucumbers, watermelon and tomatoes.
  • Eat a banana. – Potassium is crucial for healthy sleeping, and it’s also good for headaches. Always keep bananas on hand. They work faster and are better for you than most pain relievers. Other potassium-rich foods are squash, carrots, green beans, yogurt and orange juice.
  • Become active gradually. – Remember that blood flow is still adjusting to the condition of wakefulness. You could make the headache worse by becoming physically active too soon. Take your time sitting, standing and going about your day. Water will also speed the process of waking up.

Sleep inertia is usually mild and short-term. When a person suddenly wakes from a deep sleep, however, it can be severe, longer-lasting and potentially dangerous. Judgment and motor skills are not at their best.

Always give yourself a chance to fully rouse before driving or performing other complex activities.

Preventing the Headache

  1. Pick the best nap time for your own body.

    If you had no obligations and could plan your own routine over 24 hours, when would you go to bed and wake up? The answer determines your chronotype.

    If you’re a “lark” who prefers rising at 6:00 a.m. or earlier and going to bed between 9:00-10:00 p.m., you should try to nap at around 1:30 p.m.

    “Night owls” get the most from their naps between about 2:30 and 3:00 p.m.

  2. Keep the light level high.
    Humans also have natural circadian rhythms. These are physical, mental and behavioral changes that follow a 24-hour cycle in response to light and dark. A midday nap might disrupt circadian rhythms and worsen sleep inertia.

    Sleep experts advise keeping the light level in the room fairly high during naps.

  3. Make sure your diet provides enough nutrition and fiber.

    A poorly planned diet can cause problems that no power nap can surmount. Eating too many carbohydrates and sugars, especially at lunch, will cause your blood sugar levels to plunge in the afternoon. You’ll feel weak and fatigued for the rest of the day.

  4. Drink a little coffee about 15 minutes before resting.

    Too much coffee might keep you up at night, but the effects of a half cup or so will kick in just about when you’re waking from your nap. The caffeine will help get you over the hump of sleep inertia and ward off a headache.

Daytime naps are highly beneficial as a complement to a good night’s sleep. They should never be counted on to make up for too little sleep at night. A catnap of 20-45 minutes is ideal. Longer daytime sleeping will allow you to drift into a full sleep cycle, and you’ll have a harder time waking up.

For a sharper mind, improved motor skills, greater creativity and better memory—without the headache—learn to nap well. Scientists and power-nappers all over the world can’t be wrong.

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