Sleep

“Why do I keep getting headaches?” A sleep expert answers your questions

Welcome to Stylist’s Sleep Diaries, where we’re taking a deep-dive into one of the most important (and elusive) factors in our day-to-day lives: sleep. To help us understand more about it, we’re inviting women to track their bedtime routines over a five-day period – and presenting these diaries to sleep expert Dr Nerina Ramlakhan for analysis.  

In this week’s Sleep Diaries, a 29-year-old veterinary care assistant wonders what she can do to stop her headaches in their tracks. Please note that this Sleep Diary was written shortly before Christmas and the subsequent nationwide lockdown.

A little about me:

Age: 29

Occupation: veterinary care assistant

Number of hours sleep I get each night: 6-7 (and I often have very realistic nightmares, so much so that it’s hard to tell them apart from real life!)

Number of hours sleep I wish I got each night: 8

How much water I drink on average per day: At least 2 litres a day

How much exercise I do on average per week: Hourly dog walks every day

Day 1

I pulled a weekend shift at the vets, so I’m off work today. It’s not exactly restful, though: I spend the day redecorating and don’t finish until around 8ish, feeling drained and sore! 

Dinner ends up being a takeaway burger as cooking seems like far too much effort after all that, and I eat it while watching TV. Then, feeling a bit sick from the greasy food, I head up to bed around 10. It’s only now that I suddenly realise just how little I’ve drunk, and I can’t help but wonder if this is why my head feels so rough?

I lie in bed and try to drift off, which should be easy as I’m so tired. Instead, though, I end up worrying about how much I need to get done the following day and end up on my phone for an hour and a half.

Once I switch the lights off I can’t seem to get comfortable or switch off my brain, so I don’t fall asleep until well after midnight. Then, I wake up at 2am for no reason, and again at 4:30am. Ugh.

Sleep Diaries: Cheeseburger and french fries in take-out container - stock photo
Sleep Diaries: “Dinner ends up being a takeaway burger, and I eat it while watching TV.”

Day 2

I wake up at 6:30am thanks to the cat, and I find I cannot get back to sleep, so I force myself to get up.

Feeling a bit guilty about last night’s unhealthy dinner, I eat fruit for breakfast and wash it down with two coffees to prepare myself for another busy day of painting.

Again, I work through the day, but I make sure to cook myself a dinner of chicken and vegetables at around 7pm. Then, I spend two hours drawing and doodling to help myself relax (although I still have the TV on in the background).

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As I have an early start tomorrow, I head to bed around 9:30pm. I have those back-to-work blues all of a sudden, and can’t help feeling anxious as I try to remember if there’s anything I need to do before I go in.

Once again, I find myself on my phone scrolling work emails and checking my rota, and I eventually fall asleep holding it in my hand at around 10:30.

I have at least one vivid dream about work, which sees me perform a very ordinary day-to-day task completely wrong. It’s so vivid and seems so real that, when it wakes me at around 2.30, I have to remind myself it can’t have happened as I have been at home!

Thankfully, I fall back to sleep surprisingly easily and sleep through the rest of the night.

Sleep Diaries: “I fell asleep with my phone in my hand.”
Sleep Diaries: “I fall asleep with my phone in my hand.”

Day 3

I wake up to my alarm at 5.30am, still feeling tired, but I jump straight in the shower and get ready for work.

After a quick breakfast of toast, I head off for my 7:30 shift (although you better believe I grab a large Starbucks coffee on the way to keep me going!).

Despite my fears, it’s an easy day, and I even get home early enough for a long dog walk and time to make a proper dinner (an aubergine bake). I also find I remember to drink more water when I’m working, so I feel less sluggish, too.

It’s a chilled evening; I do some drawing and online shopping, then head to bed around 10:30. As usual, though, it takes me a while to fall asleep, which means I turn to my phone for distraction. I don’t switch it off until 11.30, but fall asleep soon after.

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Day 4

My alarm goes off at 8am today and I feel refreshed, like I’ve had a good sleep. I don’t recall any vivid dreams or waking up in the night either, which is a nice change.

It’s a slow start to the morning as I’m preparing for a late shift at work, so treat myself to a proper cooked breakfast and a coffee. Then, I head to the clinic, but it’s busier than yesterday and I don’t drink much water at all.

When I finish work at 8pm, I head home and whip myself up a rice dish for dinner before relaxing in front of the TV. I am tired, but knowing I have no work or alarm to set tomorrow spurs me on to stay up and watch a film. I stick to drinking water as I feel a little dehydrated from earlier.

I go to bed at around 11pm and fall asleep sometime after 12 (you can blame my phone again).

Sleep Diaries: Midsection Of Woman Drawing At Home - stock photo
Sleep Diaries: “I get so distracted by my drawing project that I don’t have dinner until 9pm!”

Day 5

My plans of a lie-in are ruined by the cat and dog waking me up at 7am, and I wake with yet another nasty headache. This seems to happen regularly, at least three times a week, and I have no clue why.

I get up, take some painkillers and end up falling back asleep on the sofa until half 9 and wake up feeling a lot more refreshed but hungry. Breakfast is toast with an iced coffee.

Then, as it’s a Saturday, I spend the day doing chores and some sewing. In the evening, though, I get so distracted by my drawing project that I don’t have dinner until 9pm (just cheese on toast).

I eat it, then spend two hours watching TV and doing a couple of crossword puzzles (I know, right? i’m very cool!). Bedtime is around 11:30pm and, as I don’t have work or any big plans or pressure tomorrow, I fall asleep pretty quickly. And I must sleep through the night, as I wake up without an alarm the next day around half 8 feeling relaxed and well rested. 

So, what does it all mean? A sleep expert offers her thoughts

Dr Nerina Ramlakhan, sleep expert and professional physiologist, says: “You have some really good lifestyle habits – I particularly love the drawing – but a bit of fine tuning here would really help, such as forward-planning your meals so you don’t end up relying on energy-sapping takeaways.

“I would strongly suggest you get your phone out of the bedroom and maybe take your drawing into bed with you as a pre-sleep wind down routine, too.”

The NHS has said that, as the tension of the week subsides, our levels of stress hormones drop, which causes a rapid release of neurotransmitters (the brain’s chemical messengers).

These send out impulses to blood vessels to constrict and then dilate, which causes a headache.

“I suspect your headaches, however, could be related to your bedtime scrolling habit, which won’t be good for your posture, vision, breathing and sleep hormone production – the blue light suppresses melatonin.”

Dr Nerina Ramlakhan
Sleep expert Dr Nerina Ramlakhan

Dr Nerina continues: “I also suggest you stop checking the time when you wake during the night, because, while it’s completely normal (we all do it), it really isn’t helpful to register the time, worry about how much sleep you are or aren’t getting, and then lie there worrying and ruminating.

“Please buy an old-fashioned alarm clock, but do stop the clock watching! This will make it so much easier for you to get back to sleep when you wake up during the night.”

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If you would like to take part in Stylist’s Sleep Diaries, please email us at digital.commissions@stylist.co.uk with ‘SLEEP DIARIES’ as the subject. We look forward to hearing from you.

Lead image design: Ami O’Callaghan

Images: Getty/Unsplash

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