For many people, getting a good night’s sleep is a huge challenge – and if you have a chronic illness, or are confined to bed for long periods of time, it can often seem virtually impossible to sleep well. Illness of any kind can have a big impact on quality of sleep – and pain, discomfort, fatigue and even medication can all have a detrimental effect.
Certain medical conditions related to ageing can also disturb sleep, for example, obstructive sleep apnea, periodic limb movements, acid reflux, arthritis, chronic pain, and other ailments.
However, whatever our health situation, quality sleep is vital for our well-being. We are designed to have a 24-hour cycle, with around six to eight hours needed for sleep although this can vary hugely from person to person. Whatever our individual needs, if we fail to get sufficient sleep, it can cause issues in many areas of our lives.
The process of sleep helps us remember things while we’re awake – so poor sleep can have a very detrimental effect on our memories. Concentration, mental acuity and problem-solving are also affected, as are coordination and balance.
A lack of sleep can weaken our immunity systems, and we’re essentially weaker, which means you might sometimes feel a bit unsteady when sleep deprived. Research has also shown that if you sleep less than five hours a night, you have a higher risk of developing high blood pressure.
However, even people with severe and/or chronic illnesses, shouldn’t assume that a good night’s sleep is unattainable. There are many ways to develop good sleeping habits so you can enjoy a decent amount of shut-eye.
Even if you’re confined to bed for much or all of the time, you can still take steps to improve your sleep:
- Establish a “sleep routine” – prepare for sleep properly and also try to ensure you wake up at the same time each morning.
- If pain is affecting your sleep, then taking steps to get pain under control is a priority – do discuss this with your doctor or even with a pain specialist.
- Try to avoid daytime naps and if you can, keep yourself busy with stimulating activities such as reading, listening to music, doing crosswords or puzzles, or chatting to friends and family.
- Prepare for sleep properly and avoid “tech” gadgets such as computers, tablets, televisions and mobile phones before bedtime. It’s not just because cognitive stimulation keeps your brain alert (and totally in the mood for sleep!), but also because computer screens and phones have a higher concentration of blue light. This kind of light has short wavelengths and affects your levels of the sleep-inducing hormone melatonin.
- Creating an environment that’s prepped for sleeping is also important. Ideally the room you sleep in should be cool, dark and quiet – but if that’s not something you can control because, for example, you’re in a hospital or care home environment, then do try wearing earplugs to cut out noise and a high-quality eye mask to cut out the light. Making sure you are a comfortable temperature is also key – being too hot or too cold can make it very hard to enjoy quality sleep, and so make sure your room is well-ventilated and you have the right amount of blankets for your needs.
- Diet also plays a big part – going to bed hungry or too full can cause discomfort, and fatty foods – which can cause indigestion and bloating – should definitely be avoided. So too should nicotine and caffeine which are both strong stimulants. Alcohol is also another no-no – it may help you fall asleep initially but it’s likely to disrupt your sleep later on. Chocolate also has a caffeine content so that’s another thing to avoid before bedtime. Do steer clear of foods with a high sugar content as this can make your blood sugar spike and then crash again. High fibre food should also be avoided just before bedtime as well. Although high fibre food is generally healthy, it’s harder for your body to digest fibre and that can be tough on your stomach if you’re trying to get to sleep, with gas and cramps some of the possible side effects.
- Naturally the bed itself is critical in making sure you are comfortable and able to sleep well. If you’re concerned about falling out of bed during the night, consider using a bed that’s height adjustable and has safety rails. Similarly, assist rails will make you feel reassured that you can get safely out of bed on your own rather than depending on someone else.
- A good mattress which supports you in comfort is essential – mattress technology has moved on a lot in recent years and there is something for everyone, whether you like a firm or soft mattress.
- A bed with section profiling and non-compression mattress can also help you get into the most comfortable position for sleep, especially if you like to have your head or knees raised.
- Your pillow is also important so do check out what’s available if you’re not happy with your current ones. Different pillows address different problems so try to find one that works for you.
Whatever your health situation, enjoying a restful night is one of the best ways to combat illness and improve your overall well-being. A few small alterations to your night-time habits and sleep environment can have a really positive impact.
It is miserable to be suffering from sleep deprivation and if you already have a chronic or other illness that is affecting your sleep, you might feel as though you have a huge mountain to climb. Our tips above should help you address some of the problems and ensure you feel relaxed and refreshed when you wake in the morning.
Disclaimer: we recommend seeking consultation from a healthcare professional such as an occupational therapist for problems relating to sleep.