Unrefreshing Sleep and Chronic Illness

You spend plenty of time in bed—maybe too much time. But when you wake up, you don’t feel refreshed. You’re still tired, have no energy, and feel like you didn’t sleep at all. And maybe you didn’t! People who live with chronic illnesses and sleep disturbances may be spending much more than 8 hours in bed but still not getting 7-8 hours of uninterrupted sleep.

Sleep disturbances are a common symptom in people with chronic illnesses such as myalgic encephalomyelitis/chronic fatigue syndrome (ME/CFS), Lyme disease, multiple sclerosis (MS), and/or fibromyalgia. When people suffering from these diseases go in for sleep studies and get results back, often something unusual shows up—they never get into the deep sleep stage that their body needs to heal. They can spend as much time trying to sleep as possible but actually get less restorative sleep than the average person.

In a Harvard Business Review article called “Why Sleep is So Important,” Dr. James O’Brien says “Sleep is not a luxury. It’s a necessity for optimal functioning.” Your brain needs 7-8 hours of sleep each night to work its way through the necessary sleep cycles so it can function correctly. If you’re getting less sleep than that, your concentration, creativity, hormone production, and mood regulation are all negatively affected.

Many other chronic illnesses are associated with sleep problems. Diabetes, chronic heart issues, obesity, depression, thyroid issues such as Hashimoto’s disease, and high blood pressure are just a few of the issues that can become worse from lack of sleep. Many experts believe these diseases create a “chicken-and-egg” scenario—does depression cause lack of sleep? Or does lack of sleep cause depression? Either way, without restorative sleep, the body and brain can’t heal or function well, leading to mental, emotional, and physical symptoms becoming worse and worse, and continuing the downward spiral of chronic illness.

Many alternative or complementary modalities can help you get more restorative sleep. Herbs such as valerian, hops, chamomile, or passionflower can help you relax. Melatonin and GABA have been shown to help regulate sleep cycles. Homeopathics such as pulsatilla, which helps with racing thoughts, can promote good sleep. Bach flower remedies such as White Chestnut, used to relieve stress and suppress unwanted thoughts, can also improve sleep quality.

In the third video in her series of patient education videos, Dr. Lucinda Bateman discusses the various problems that can occur when people just can’t sleep effectively. She discusses the mechanics of good sleep and gives some strategies on how to improve them. She discusses the “tired but wired” phenomenon, where people are simply too wound up to sleep, and how you really can be too tired to sleep. She discusses several ways that you can investigate your own sleep issues and improve your overall quality of sleep. She says “Don’t give up, because achieving restorative sleep is a constant battle. But more restorative sleep improves fatigue, cognition, pain, and mood.”

Watch Dr. Bateman’s series of patient education videos (they are free!) to understand how to improve your chances of getting refreshing sleep when you have a chronic illness. In addition to this video, she also discusses getting the right diagnosis, activity intolerance or post-exertional malaise, pain, mental fog, and orthostatic intolerance.

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