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Breaking the cycle of sleepless nights
It is important to get a full, restful night’s sleep. Yet, night after night, many people with MS have trouble sleeping. They might wake up often or have a poor quality of sleep. They may wake up in the morning feeling tired and not rested. If you have trouble sleeping, know that it is a common problem for people with MS. Some sleep disorders, such as restless leg syndrome, insomnia, and sleep apnea are more common in people with MS compared to the general population. In addition, people with MS face unique challenges, such as pain, medications, bladder problems, low levels of physical activity, and muscle spasticity, to getting a good night’s sleep. While you may be frustrated and confused about what to do, there are ways you can help yourself sleep better and feel more rested and energetic.
Sleep and symptoms are linked in MS
Poor sleep is linked to some of the most common MS symptoms; this includes the symptoms that are the focus of My MS Toolkit: Pain, fatigue, and negative mood.
- Pain There may be a back and forth between pain and poor sleep in MS. People with MS report that pain and spasticity can sometimes interfere with sleep. And, on the flip side, poor sleep can make pain feel worse. Over the long term, consistently poor sleep can even contribute to the onset of chronic pain
- Fatigue Fatigue is one of the most common MS symptoms. Approximately 90% of people with MS report significant fatigue that interferes with daily life. Fatigue can be experienced as mental (or cognitive) fatigue, physical fatigue, or emotional fatigue. Although fatigue is different from the sleepiness or tiredness from a lack of sleep, poor sleep can make you feel more fatigued
- Mood The link between mood and sleep in MS is well established. Feeling anxious or depressed can make it harder to get good quality sleep. And, poor sleep can make it harder to maintain a positive mood during the day. Long periods of poor sleep can also cause the onset of depression and anxiety
- Thinking Ability People with MS often have problems with thinking, such as foggy or slow thinking, and problems with memory, concentration, or finding the right words when speaking. While these problems are often chalked up to having MS, sleep has a strong influence on thinking ability, and links between poor sleep and performance on cognitive tests have been shown in MS
What can I do about sleep problems?
Getting enough sleep – and the right kind of sleep – may help you manage the symptoms of MS.
Some barriers to good sleep require that you work together with your healthcare provider. For instance, you should talk to your doctor if things like muscle spasticity, needing to urinate frequently during the night, or your medications are interfering with your sleep.
While some sleep problems require the help of your doctor, the solutions to some of your sleep problems may be in your hands. Changing your sleeping habits may be key to improving your sleep. Use the Sleep Worksheet to help you and your healthcare provider make a plan for improving your sleep habits.
The following tips may help you fall asleep faster, stay asleep longer, and wake up feeling better.
Sleep behavior tips
- Get into or stay in bed only when you are tired. Forcing yourself to stay in bed or fighting with your body to fall asleep may only make things worse
- Get out of bed if you are not asleep after 15 minutes. If you have not fallen asleep in this time, your body isn’t ready to sleep yet. Go into another room and do something quiet, such as reading or listening to music. Go back to bed when you start feeling sleepy
- Reclaim your bed for sleep. Do not do other activities, such as read, eat, or watch TV in bed
- Try not to watch the clock. Watching the time pass and worrying about how much time you have left to sleep may make it more difficult to fall asleep. Turn your clock toward the wall so you can’t focus on the time
- Avoid stimulating activities before going to bed. For example, do not watch action movies or get into conversations or projects that may upset or excite you. Although exercise can help you sleep better, avoid exercising in the hour or two before you intend to go to sleep
It can be hard to change your sleep habits, but there are steps you can take to help your body adopt new habits. To help you start and stick with a sleep routine, try to:
- Follow a schedule, even on weekends
- Go to bed at the same time each night, even if you don’t feel tired yet, so your body gets used to a regular sleep pattern
- Get up at the same time every morning even if you didn’t sleep well the night before. This helps reinforce your regular sleep pattern. Use an alarm clock to help you wake up
- Avoid napping a lot during the day. While you may need to nap a little during the day, napping for more than 30 to 60 minutes may disrupt your nighttime sleep pattern. Although it may be difficult to change your napping habits, consider whether your daytime naps are making it harder for you to feel completely rested
Set up your bedroom to help you sleep. Be sure that your bedroom is:
- At a comfortable temperature. Temperatures that are too hot or too cold may disrupt your sleep
- Use shades or drapes to keep out the light. Try sleeping with an eye mask
- Noise, even at low levels, may disturb your sleep. To help block out sounds that may keep you awake, you may want to consider using fans, which generate white noise, or ear plugs
- Comfortable to you. If needed, adjust the padding thickness on your mattress to your liking. If you have pain or soreness, consider adjusting or changing your pillows or mattress to better support those areas
- Free of pets. Consider keeping pets off the bed because they may wake you up or keep you awake when they move or make noise
Body temperature tips
Some research suggests that lowering your body temperature near bedtime may tell your body it is time to go to sleep. You may want to:
- Take a bath before bedtime. Your body temperature will drop naturally after your bath
- Avoid exercise too close to bedtime. Physical activity raises your body temperature and may keep you awake if done within 2 hours of going to bed
Eating, drinking, and other tips
You may find it helpful to:
- Avoid eating a heavy meal or drinking too much before bedtime. A light snack, such as a banana or small glass of warm milk, may help you sleep. But too much food or liquid may make it hard to fall asleep or stay asleep. Limiting fluids before bedtime may cut down on how often you need to go to the bathroom during the night
- Avoid caffeine for 4 to 6 hours before bedtime. The caffeine in coffee, chocolate, some soft drinks, teas (including some green teas), diet medicines, and some pain medicines may keep you from sleeping well. If you take herbal supplements, check to see whether they are known to interfere with sleep
- Avoid alcohol before bedtime. Although alcohol may help you fall asleep, it may also increase the number of times you wake up or need to go to the bathroom during the night
- Do not smoke near bedtime or during the night. Nicotine is a stimulant that can cause shallow sleeping and sleeplessness. For this and other reasons, you may want to strongly consider quitting smoking
To mentally prepare yourself for sleep, try to:
- Do something that is calming to you. Listen to music, read a magazine, or try using a relaxation technique, such as meditation. See the Relaxation module for different techniques you can try
- Write down your thoughts in a “worry book.” Set aside time the next day to think about the problem you wrote down and how to solve it. Problems that cause worry at night often seem smaller in the daytime
Myths about changing your sleep patterns
“I will sleep whenever I get a chance.”
Going to sleep and waking up at the same time every day helps your body learn a pattern of sleep.
You may feel you have too much to do to set enough time aside to sleep each night. This may mean you are overdoing it and need more sleep than you are currently getting.
The skills in the Energy Management module may help you take the first steps toward figuring out the right amount of activity for you each day so you leave yourself enough time to sleep at night.
“I’ll be tired the next day if I change my sleep habits.”
It’s true that when you change your sleep pattern, you may be a bit more tired at first. Changing old habits and learning how to get a good, restful night’s sleep doesn’t happen immediately. Give yourself a few weeks to get used to the new pattern and for your body to adjust.
Getting a good night’s sleep may help
Helping your body get used to a new sleep pattern takes time and effort. Whatever challenges you face in sticking to your new sleep pattern, be sure to:
- Pace yourself to keep symptoms from flaring up. Flare-ups, or periods when your symptoms are more intense, may interfere with sleep. Use the ideas in the Energy Management module to help you get through the day without overdoing it
- Keep track of your progress. Use the ideas in the Getting Started and Goal Setting module to help you see how you are doing
It may take up to several weeks to notice improvements in your sleeping habits. Know that your efforts are not wasted because improving your sleep may help ease the symptoms related to your multiple sclerosis.
A note for family and friends
Making sure YOU get enough sleep
Caring for someone with MS can be stressful, which can make it hard for you to sleep, too. If the person you care for is your spouse or partner, MS can make it hard to sleep in the same bed. When the person you sleep next to has trouble sleeping, you may be kept awake as well. Refer to the “Sleep tips you can try” section or Sleep Worksheet for some helpful tips and advice.