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The Importance of Sleep in Chronic Health Conditions

Have you ever noticed that when you get a good night’s sleep, you feel better physically and emotionally? Or when you are having a flare of your Health Condition, sleep tends to be particularly difficult? You are not imagining things. A poor night’s sleep may be a symptom of IBD and has also been linked to an increase the risk of relapses and flares. It can sometimes feel that trying to get a good night’s sleep is like living between a rock and a hard place!

Problems with sleep can reduce quality of life and the ability to cope with symptoms of Chronic Health Conditions, including; pain, fatigue, and other symptoms. Unfortunately, it is very common for people with a health condition to have poor sleep. Research estimates that over 75% of patients with active disease report sleep disturbances. According to previous studies, patients say that sleep disturbance is one of the most important factors driving poor quality of life and that they believe that poor sleep contributes to gastrointestinal symptoms the following day.

As well as medication and nutrition, sleep should be a top priority when managing your physical and mental health in Chronic Health Conditions. Read on to learn more about the close relationship between health and sleep, and how to manage sleep difficulties when living with a health condition.

How Sleep Works, and Why it is Important

Sleep is an essential function that allows your body and mind to recharge, leaving you refreshed and alert when you wake up. Healthy sleep also helps the body remain healthy and stave off illness. Without enough sleep, the brain cannot function properly. This can impair your abilities to concentrate, think clearly, and process memories.

Sleep plays a vital role in good health and well-being throughout your life. Our sleep cycle can be very sensitive to ups and downs, and the way you feel while you are awake often depends in part on what happens while you are sleeping. Also, if you have lots of worries while you are awake – as is common in patients – you are more likely to have difficulty sleeping.

Most adults require between seven and nine hours sleep, this can vary from person to person. Children and teenagers need substantially more sleep, as their bodies are doing a great deal more growing and processing than adults. Work schedules, day-to-day stressors, a disruptive bedroom environment, and medical conditions can all prevent us from receiving enough sleep.

A Brief Science of Sleep

An internal “body clock” regulates your sleep cycle, controlling when you feel tired and ready for bed or refreshed and alert. This clock operates on a 24-hour cycle known as the Circadian Rhythm. After waking up from sleep, you’ll become increasingly tired throughout the day. These feelings will peak in the evening leading up to bedtime. This cycle is controlled by hormones and natural light.

In the morning, daylight activates the brain, release the hormone cortisol, which sends signals to the body “wake up” and start the day. As natural light disappears in the evening, the body will release melatonin, a hormone that induces drowsiness, alerting the body that it is time to get to bed for sleep.

Sleep Problems are Common in Chronic Health Conditions

It is a safe bet to say that it comes as no surprise for people with an chronic health condition to learn that the condition impacts sleep. Sleep could be affected by symptoms of fever, pain, discomfort, or even frequent trips to the bathroom. Lack of sleep also negatively effects the experience of these symptoms.

Doctors do not yet fully understand the reasons why poor sleep affects health. Some think poor sleep causes changes in body inflammation or leads to more immune attack cells. Sleep deprivation is also linked to an increase in cytokines which are proteins involved in the immune system's inflammation response, seen in some health conditions, particularly those such as IBD, autoimmune conditions and diabetes.

Flares in disease are especially linked to a lack of sleep, as inflammation in the body upsets our natural sleep cycle. Research has also shown that getting poor quality sleep can be a predictor of a coming flare-up. A person might feel fine but start having problems with sleep and then the next thing that happens is that their symptoms start to become an issue again.

Experts agree that sleep should be a priority, especially during a flare-up or when at risk for a flare-up. A research study which looked at poor sleep in chronic health conditions found that participants who were most likely to report unsatisfying sleep also reported higher levels of:

  • Anxiety

  • Depression

  • Lower quality of life

Getting Better Sleep with a Chronic Condition

As we now know, sleep is a critical component of better overall health. However, when you live with a Chronic Condition, having a good night’s sleep may feel like an elusive dream (pun intended!)

Although it may take a little time to get things back om track, you can take small steps each day to improve your sleep.

Some well – researched tips for sleep management include;

  • Establish a realistic bedtime and stick to it every night, even on the weekends.

  • Maintain comfortable temperature settings and low light levels in your bedroom.

  • Keep a comfortable sleep environment by ensuring you have the best mattress, best pillows, and best sheets for your sleep preferences and body type.

  • Consider a “screen ban” on televisions, computers and tablets, cell phones, and other electronic devices in your bedroom – no screens one hour before bed

  • Abstain from caffeine, alcohol, nicotine and large meals 3 hours leading up to bedtime.

  • Exercise during the day; this can help you wind down in the evening and prepare for sleep.

If you are having difficulty managing sleep, or you notice that your sleep quality impacts your health, there is help and support available. It may be beneficial to talk your specialist team, or GP for sleep management support.

As a Health Psychologist passionate about body processes, I can provide expert advice in managing sleep and how to cope with the worries that may be impacting your ability to get to or stay asleep. If you would like to explore your sleep in a therapy space, please reach out via the contact details on this website.

As the Old Irish Proverb says – “A good laugh and a long sleep are the two best cures for anything!”

Take care,

Aideen Stack

Health Psychologist

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