The Impact of Autoimmune Disorders on Sleep

The Impact of Autoimmune Disorders on Sleep

As an autoimmune patient, you have likely seen numerous doctors and specialists, but you may not have considered the benefits of a sleep specialist. Often, people in pain have trouble sleeping but cannot pinpoint whether the pain is contributing to a lack of sleep or vice versa. A specialist can help determine the reason for troubles sleeping and may contribute to an overall improvement in well-being. Insufficient sleep can be harmful to one’s immune system and a reduction in sleep disturbance is often followed by improvement in health and diminished pain symptoms.

How Your Autoimmune Condition Impact Your Sleep

It is unclear why so many autoimmune patients struggle with sleep. It may be that the precise cause differs from patient to patients. There are a few factors to consider in each case.

  • Pain: A common symptom in autoimmune conditions, pain can reduce the quality of one’s sleep by making it difficult to find a comfortable position.
  • Neurological Function: Cells involved in the process of sleep may themselves be attacked by an incorrectly functioning immune system.
  • Mental Health: Secondary symptoms involved with mental health are often associated with autoimmune conditions. Depression, stress, and anxiety occur with higher frequency in autoimmune patients and have well established negative effects on sleep.
  • Physical Health: Disordered sleeping is associated with a number of medical conditions that may be unrelated to autoimmune conditions.

Managing Your Sleep Problems

On the Home Front

The first steps in improving your sleep can be easily taken at home. Establish a regular routine that allows enough time for sleep, both during the week and on weekends. Without a routine it can be difficult to regulate your internal clock. Your sleep preparations can start much earlier in the day, getting out early can help to stimulate the production of melatonin, a hormone that helps to regulate the sleep-wake cycle. Incorporate a relaxation ritual that you do an hour before you would like to fall asleep such as taking a bath, reading or meditating. Create an environment that is conducive to sleep. Make sure your bedroom is at a comfortable ambient temperature. Keep light and sound levels low. Make sure your mattress and pillows are properly supportive and designed to ease pressure on stiff and sore joints. Cut down on caffeine and alcohol consumption, especially later in the day. Ensure you are physically active and have good nutrition as both can be key to having an improved night’s sleep. If screen time late in the afternoon or early evening is unavoidable, consider investing in a pair of glasses that eliminates blue light, newer devices often have a setting that can assist with this as well. Try introducing aromatherapy into this routine, add it to your bath or put oil on your pillow. Studies have shown a decrease in anxiety and depression among people who use lavender oil. Massage therapy or acupuncture may also be administered and can help to sooth stress and anxiety.

Doctors’ Orders

If you are still struggling with sleep despite changes to your routine and environment, it may be necessary to discuss the problem with your treating physician. Try keeping a sleep log, track when you fall asleep, instances of repeatedly waking up or when you wake up before you have slept for sufficient time. Your doctor may ask you to participate in a sleep study. This usually involves staying over at a sleep centre where electrodes will be strategically placed on your body to record brainwaves as they relate to your sleep cycle, giving your doctor important neurophysiological information.  There are a number of recommendations that may be made by your doctor to improve the amount and quality of your sleep, ranging from cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) to altering the medications used to treat your autoimmune condition.

CBT involves re-educating yourself with regards to your sleep and sleep habits. Treatment can include techniques like journaling to ameliorate stress or stimulus control to increase the conscious association between one’s bed and falling asleep. It may be difficult to find a psychologist that specialises in these techniques if you live outside of large metropolitan areas, but advancements in technology are helping to bridge this void. Online communication and app-based tools can also be used to complement or enhance other therapeutic approaches.

Reviewing your medication with both your primary physician and a sleep expert can be a key part to overcoming difficulty sleeping. Many analgesics, particularly over the counter products, contain caffeine. Your doctor can help you to choose alternative non-prescription pain medication. Furthermore, many medications used to treat arthritis such as cortisone can actively disrupt sleep and taking them in the morning instead of the evening may be beneficial. Your doctor may also want to look into other health-related causes of poor sleep like restless leg syndrome or sleep apnea which can be treated with new medications or medical devices.

Autoimmune patients often cope with numerous symptoms and disordered sleeping may be easily overlooked – but it shouldn’t be. Put your sleep problems to bed by bringing them up with doctor and developing an effective sleep plan.


Article Author
Arthritis National Research Foundation

The Arthritis National Research Foundation's mission is to provide initial research funding to brilliant, investigative scientists with new ideas to cure arthritis and related autoimmune diseases. There are several ways to support research through the ANRF. Find out more and donate today.

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