Sleep & Chronic Illness

Sleep & Chronic illness don’t exactly go hand in hand, do they? Americans living with chronic illness often experience sleep disturbances. Conditions like Insomnia can not only worsen the condition by limiting the body’s ability to heal, but they can also contribute to a host of mental health problems such as depression and even anxiety.

There’s another side of the story that often does not get the attention it deserves. What if you are only diagnosed with a chronic illness recently, but your sleeping patterns and habits have not exactly been stellar? Do you know about a landmark study that analyzed the sleeping patterns of 16000 American adults? It revealed that Americans with chronic illness who are constantly sleeping less than 6-hours a night might be racing towards an early death. That’s not all. The study also shows a connection between poor sleep and an increased risk for cancer.

There are now almost four studies that reveal that less than 6-hours of sleep over a period of time might be a major contributor to cardiac conditions. Some of these include artery disease and even death, in the long run.

We all know that sleep is an integral part of the body’s defense system. It helps your body repair, affects hormone levels, and may also be linked to your mental health.

In this blog post, the caring voice team explores the connection between sleep and chronic illness. Since there are different aspects to this, we have divided this article into four parts.

  • Preventing Chronic Illness with sleep
  • Fixing sleep problems if you have recently been diagnosed with a condition
  • Fixing sleep problems if you have long term chronic illness, or you care for someone who does

Why Poor Sleep might lead you to early disease?

There have been numerous clinical studies that have tried to find the missing link between prolonged poor sleep and disease. A study published in The Journal of the American College of Cardiology measured the progression of disease causing plaque through some of the major arteries in the body that supply blood to the heart, as well as the extremities.

As part of the study, they chose men and women with no external factors that increased their risk for heart disease. The group was divided into two. Men and women who slept for less than 6-hours and the ones who slept for 6-8 hours. It was revealed that the ones who slept for less than 6-hours had 27% more chances of developing serious disease causing plaque. This condition is called atherosclerosis and it is one of the primary contributors towards cardiac disease.

Those who slept for 6-8 hours, on the other hand, had much better lipid numbers with practically zero risk of increased plaque. The risk was nearly equal or even more severe for people who had frequent sleep disturbances or interruptions. The study showed them with 34% more chance of experiencing plaque accumulation in their arteries.

How to fix sleep problems before they aggravate?

Regardless of whether you are at risk for disease or not, it is crucial that you start to take your sleep more seriously. Most of us are guilty of practicing poor sleep hygiene which might be the key towards uninterrupted sleep, as well as sleeping on time.

Believe it or not, you can actually train your body and your mind to shut off on time. It’s exactly like training your body. Just that you need to enforce some hard rules and practice them religiously. Here are some tips.

Create your sleep setup – Sleep depends a lot on the environment or the setting. Do you have a comfortable bed and pillow? Is the temperature conducive for sleep? While this might take some trial and error, research shows that 58-68 degrees might help you sleep like a log without waking up in a pool of sweat or without waking up shivering.

Cut out the gizmos – Gizmos, be it your cell phone or your laptop emit blue light which tricks your brain into believing that it is still daytime. That’s the worst thing you want in your bedroom. Set rules with regards to gizmos. Shut all gizmos out at least two hours before you hit the bed. No reading emails in bed or responding to chat messages on social media.

Cut out the noise – Noise is equally detrimental to sleep. So try and cut out all ambient noise. You can use a white noise machine if that helps. A lot of people just use a ceiling fan as it seems to work equally well for cutting the noise out.

Cut out the caffeine – Limit your caffeinated drinks to pre-afternoon. It is also recommended by the sleep foundation to capping the intake at 400-500mg of caffeine. That equates to 4-5 cups of coffee a day, which is a lot. If you still find yourself awake and tossing around the bed, you can consider reducing it to 3-cups or even lesser.

Fix your dinner plate – Eat foods that are light and easy to digest, especially if you have preexisting digestive conditions. For instance, if you have IBS, then you might want to limit your intake of spicy food for diner. Fatty foods are equally bad because slow digestion can interfere with your sleep patterns.

Start exercising – Did you know that even 10 minutes of physical activity in a day can significantly improve your quality of sleep? Yes, that’s all that’s needed. 10 minutes. You can walk, take the stairs or cycle if need be.

The Sleep Routine – Last but not least, create a sleep routine and adhere to it. Just like you set an alarm to wake up, set one for sleep time. When this rings, you shut down whatever task that you are doing and hit the bed.

Sleeping with a Chronic Illness

Now that you know how poor sleep increases your risk of chronic illness, let’s look at the other, more challenging aspect that we spoke about initially. Sleeping when you or someone you care for, has a chronic illness.

Sleep might be a luxury for someone with a chronic condition. They might experience any of the symptoms depending on what condition it is. From pain to itchiness to dizziness and even severe seizures, there are many symptoms that can make it difficult and even impossible to get some much needed sleep.

The question is, how do you deal with a situation like this? Here’s some help.

Try to fix the symptom – This is the first solution to try. What is the symptom that is limiting you from sleeping? Is it pain? Is it GERD? Is it itching? Try to find a solution for this, so that the short term problem is addressed and it allows your body some quality sleep, which will further help your recovery. If you are experiencing pain, you might want to discuss ways to control pain before bedtime, with your healthcare provider.

Pain Relief

A lot of chronic illnesses can cause pain that does not respond to conventional pain killer medications. For instance, some types of cancers are immune to NSAIDs and require a combination of opioids to control. But opioids pose their own risks, including the potential for addiction. So, you may want to consider alternatives like medical marijuana if it works for you.

If your condition stops you from using painkiller medications, speak to your doctor about using alternative therapies. There is a range of therapies that can be useful in reducing pain without using painkillers. Some of these are massages, acupuncture, and occupational therapy. You can also consider using herbal alternatives that naturally reduce pain and inflammation. Willow bark is a popular herbal extract that contains the active ingredient Salicin. This is pretty similar to the anti-inflammatory aspirin.

Turmeric is very effective at reducing inflammation in the body and may also promote healing. A warm glass of milk with turmeric and honey has been used as a sleep aid in traditional medication. Cloves or clove oil can provide relief from localized pain if applied topically.

Lastly, there’s the tried and tested heat and ice combination. No, you don’t use them at the same time. You have to choose the right one depending on the condition. If you have a breaking headache, you can use a cold pack to reduce the pain. Ditto with sprains and swelling, which can quickly be relieved with a cold pack. But if you have stiffness after, heat packs are your friend.

Fixing GERD for sleep

If you are experiencing GERD or severe acid reflux as a symptom or a secondary condition to your chronic illness, it can make it impossible to sleep due to heartburn. In extreme cases, the food can regurgitate its way back into your esophagus.

The first reaction is always to pop a pill. While an OTC medication or a Proton Pump Inhibitor might provide relief, these drugs also pose some serious risks, especially when you are speaking about chronic conditions and long-term use.

Keeping pills as a last resort might make more sense. Here are some other, safer techniques to try.

Eat 3-4 hours before you hit the bed – Ideally, your dinner and sleep time must be separated by at least 3-4 hours. That allows your body enough time to digest the food you ate, which makes it less likely that it will regurgitate into your esophagus.

Eat a small meal – Don’t stuff yourself for dinner. Eat smaller meals with foods that are lighter on your tummy, and easier to digest. Ideally, you should have a GERD diet in place which helps you prevent acid reflux. If you don’t already, then speak to your healthcare provider about one.

Keep the head in an elevated position – Why pop pills when you can let gravity do the heavy lifting? Use a tall pillow to elevate your head at least 4-6 inches when you sleep. This is an easy way to prevent food from rushing back.

Sleeping on the left side – If you prefer sleeping sideways, do it on the left side. Research reveals that you are less likely to experience reflux in this position. When you sleep on the right side the other hand, your lower esophageal sphincter gets relaxed instantly. This is like the guard that’s supposed to prevent acid from rushing back.

Avoid sleeping on your back – If you are overweight then avoid sleeping on your back (check our reviews on LeanBean a supplement that helps you lose your body fats ). It creates a lot of pressure on your stomach, which in turn increases the risk of acid reflux greatly.

If nothing works, try using OTC medications for controlling GERD.

Can you use sleeping pills?

Most doctors will try every other method before recommending sleeping pills for obvious reasons. You can build up a tolerance quickly and they may also cause psychological dependence. But in some extreme chronic conditions, such as Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, and some types of cancer, there may be no other option except for sleeping pills.

If you are experiencing mental health conditions such as anxiety or depression, the doctor may prescribe antidepressants instead of sleeping pills.

Closing thoughts

Getting quality, restful sleep is critical to a variety of body functions. The need for this gets amplified when your body is already battling a chronic condition. So you must prioritize sleep. Speak to your healthcare provider about creating a sleep routine.

If you find it difficult to fall asleep, look for alternative therapies for insomnia. White noise and music are said to be effective options.

If your sleep is disturbed frequently, you might want to read this story.