When health conditions affect sleep

Waking refreshed after a night of quality and unbroken sleep, bright eyed and bushy tailed sounds good right? There’s a number of factors that can thwart our quest for sleep, health conditions being one of them.   

Often health conditions can have a knock on effect on your sleep. We know this is challenging, be kind to yourself as you find a way to reclaim sleep that works for you. 

Building  healthy sleep habits  can make going to bed a more pleasant experience and enable a consistent routine to enhance sleep. The term for our practices surrounding sleep is ‘sleep hygiene’. Good sleep hygiene encompasses: 

  • Maintaining a regular sleep and wake schedule.  
  • Establishing a regular bedtime routine to unwind and relax. 
  • Eliminating screen time in the hours before bed. 
  • Creating a sleep environment that is cool, dark, and comfortable.  
  • Avoiding alcohol, caffeine and heavy meals in the hours before sleep. 
  • Using meditation, cognitive behaviour therapy, and deep breathing exercises to promote sleep.  

Chronic pain. Patients suffering from chronic pain often find their problems are intensified by insomnia and other sleep disorders. Disrupted sleep will, in turn, exacerbate chronic pain. A lack of sleep also hampers the body’s immune response. A vicious cycle develops in which pain disrupts sleep, and difficulty sleeping makes pain worse. This in turn makes sleeping more difficult, and so on.  

Some conditions may flare up at night or be provoked by certain sleeping positions. Others may cause persistent pain that doesn’t ease at night.  Top tips to help yourself: 

  • Treat the pain as directed by your medical team. 
  • Try using a hot water bottle or heated wheat bag on the painful area to aid relaxation. 

Anxiety. Lack of sleep is known to  affect mood and emotional health, which may aggravate the challenges posed by anxiety disorders. This is another example of a negative cycle: worrying causes poor sleep, contributing to greater anxiety and further sleep difficulties. Depression, which is also known to negatively affect sleep, can  further complicate the situation, creating  additional barriers to quality sleep in people who have both depression and anxiety.  

People with sleep apnoea, a sleep disorder that causes repeated lapses in breathing and interrupted sleep, have been found to have  higher rates of mental health problems, including depression, anxiety, and  panic disorder.  

There’s treatments that can help. Any person who has persistent or significant anxiety and/or sleeping problems should talk with a doctor who can best assess their situation and discuss potential treatment options. Top tips to help yourself: 

  • Weighted blankets can be a great tool to calm the nervous system and aid sleep. 
  • Cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT)  is a common treatment for anxiety disorders. It’s a talking therapy that works to reorient negative thinking, and it has had  success in decreasing anxiety.   
  • Several different types of medications are approved to treat anxiety disorders including anti-anxiety drugs, antidepressants, and beta-blockers.  
  • Relaxation techniques can help get rid of anxiety and make it easier to  fall asleep quickly and peacefully.  Try out these relaxation techniques that can help put your mind at ease before bed or if you wake during the night:  
  • Scheduling times to actively worry may eliminate worrying time as you lay down for sleep.   
  • Deep breathing. 
  • Mindfulness.   
  • Meditation. 

Asthma and/or Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD). Night-time awakenings and daytime sleepiness are common complaints from these conditions. This may worsen symptoms of asthma or COPD. Top tips to help yourself: 

  • The first step is to make sure that your asthma and/or COPD is under good control. Talk to your healthcare provider to see that you are getting the right medical treatment.  
  • Keeping your sleeping environment clean and dust free will avoid triggers. 
  • Some people find sleeping with their upper body elevated helps, a wedge pillow is useful for this. 
  • If you smoke, stopping smoking will not only help your asthma or COPD control, but also improve the quality of your sleep.  

Restless legs syndrome (RLS) causes uncomfortable feelings in the legs, such as itching, prickling, pulling, or crawling sensations creating an overwhelming urge to move the legs. To overcome these sensations people may walk, stretch, or shake their legs to achieve relief. Symptoms tend to be worse when inactive, including when relaxing or lying down so the symptoms of RLS often disrupts sleep.  Alcohol, caffeine and nicotine can make symptoms worse as can medications used to treat nausea, colds, allergies and mental health conditions.  

Top tips to help yourself: 

  • Exercise. Inactivity often triggers RLS symptoms so movement is helpful.   
  • Massage and hot baths stimulate the legs and can provide relief. 

Sleep is vital for our bodies and minds to rest and rejuvenate. If you’re experiencing sleeping difficulties, go easy on yourself. It’s draining and frustrating. Make sure you’re fueling your body with nutritious food and taking regular exercise too. Try non-medical interventions  before seeking medicine to help induce sleep.  


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