Sleep Is Good Medicine
When it comes to maintaining a healthy lifestyle, medical experts usually emphasize the importance of diet and exercise. However, in my personal experience, I have found that sleep plays a crucial role in overall well-being. When I get a good night's sleep, I am less prone to illness, my cognitive function improves, and I have increased energy levels. Research has shown that insomnia is a common issue among individuals with multiple sclerosis (MS) and is closely linked to one of its most debilitating symptoms, fatigue.
Sleep is Good Medicine
I have frequently written about the impact of sleep on blood sugar control in diabetes publications. Inadequate sleep has been found to worsen blood sugar management, and I have personally observed that a night of poor sleep can leave me feeling slightly depressed and anxious, which is a common pattern in individuals with MS.
According to medical professionals, MS is caused by issues in our immune systems, and sleep is vital for optimal immune function. During sleep, our immune system can focus on its tasks without the distractions of daily life. Individuals with insomnia often have elevated levels of inflammatory proteins in their immune system, such as tumor necrosis factor, and inflammation plays a significant role in MS. Therefore, most of us can benefit from prioritizing sleep. However, MS can interfere with sleep, as individuals with the condition tend to be less physically active than healthy individuals, leading to less fatigue in the body even if the brain is tired. Additionally, other MS symptoms such as pain, muscle spasms, and bladder problems can further disrupt sleep.
When we find ourselves unable to sleep or waking up throughout the night, simply lying in bed and thinking or tossing and turning is not helpful. If you have valuable thoughts that are preventing you from falling asleep, jot them down so that you don't forget them. However, if your goal is to actually fall asleep, give it no more than 15 to 20 minutes. If you are still awake after that time, get out of bed and engage in a productive activity or stay in bed and do something incredibly boring. Personally, reading a dull book or solving a mindless puzzle often leads me to sleep faster. However, doing chores or gentle exercises seems to result in better rest.
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Vigorous exercise right before bedtime may hinder sleep for some people, but vigorous exercise is usually not a concern for many individuals with MS. Engaging in gentle exercise, such as seated qi gong or light upper-arm exercises with 2 lb. weights, helps me relax and fall asleep. On the other hand, sitting at a computer and scrolling through social media makes falling asleep more difficult.
Sleep experts often recommend establishing a bedtime ritual, which involves adopting a consistent pattern of behavior that signals to your body that it is time to unwind. This ritual may include dimming the lights, reflecting on positive events from the day, making a to-do list for the next day, engaging in gentle stretching, drinking herbal tea or warm milk, listening to calming music or relaxation sounds, or having a light snack (without caffeine). Personally, I find it helpful to think of my loved ones and express gratitude for the blessings in my life. If possible, it is important to resolve any minor conflicts or misunderstandings before going to bed in order to avoid worrying and sleep disruptions. As marriage counselors often advise, going to bed angry is not beneficial. Having a quiet, dark, and comfortable sleeping environment is also crucial for quality sleep. Unfortunately, not everyone has access to such an environment, but if it is within your control, creating such a space will likely result in improved sleep and overall well-being.
Maintaining a sleep schedule can also be advantageous. In the past, when I worked night shifts as a nurse, I often wondered if this contributed to my MS. Some studies have found that shift work can negatively impact the immune systems of many individuals. Now, I try to establish a consistent sleep pattern, going to bed at the same time each night and turning off the lights after 30 or 60 minutes of reading. Getting outside every day, especially on sunny days, is beneficial because exposure to natural light during the day helps regulate sleep.
My sleep schedule has generally worked well for me, except for the fact that I have to wake up to use the bathroom (self-cath) once during the night. Afterward, I lie down again, but if sleep doesn't come quickly (within 5 minutes), I get up, stretch, write, or do some household chores.
What about napping? Napping is a common practice in many cultures and may be unavoidable for individuals with MS. Short power naps are beneficial, and you may even be able to fit them into your lunch break at work. I personally enjoy longer naps as well, although some scientists argue that they can interfere with nighttime sleep. Personally, I haven't encountered this issue, but it may vary for different individuals.
I advise against relying on sleep medications. They are not commonly prescribed anymore due to the fact that they can leave individuals feeling as tired as if they hadn't slept at all, and they pose safety risks. In particular, older individuals with MS are at greater risk of falls when they wake up while still under the influence of sleep medications. This caution also applies to cannabis and prescription drugs.
At this stage of my life, sleep has become one of my favorite activities. It provides a respite from stress and pain. I envision my cells diligently repairing damage and preparing my body for the coming day. I also look forward to dreaming, as they take me on adventures to other worlds or play out like scenes from a great movie. Sometimes in my dreams, I regain all my abilities, while other times, I do not. However, they are always intriguing and often impart important lessons.
Our society tends to devalue sleep, emphasizing constant productivity. However, I urge you not to buy into this mindset. Sleep is a powerful form of medicine. To connect with others living with multiple sclerosis, join our MS Facebook Support Group.