Good sleep is an important element of any person’s health. But when you’re living with a chronic illness, sometimes actually getting to sleep is easier said than done.
From pain to itching to acid reflux, it can be hard to get into a truly restful zone. Apart from physical symptoms that might keep you awake, you may also be dealing with stress and anxiety related to your condition, which only makes it harder to get that much-needed shuteye.
So we asked our chronic illness community, along with some advocates in the chronic illness space:
What do you do when you can’t sleep, and what are your strategies for finally drifting off?
We’re happy to report that people have a pretty damn funny attitude about it. Their answers were filled with helpful sleep advice, as well as a few amusing stories.
Find something educational that isn’t too stimulating. That way, you can bore yourself to sleep. Or find ways to be productive with that time spent not sleeping.
“My insomnia is insane sometimes, but I found the trick,” says Ann T., a Healthline community member with ADHD. “I try to learn computer programs when I can’t sleep, and I get bored. Can’t sleep? Try learning Excel. Knocks me right out!”
“I enjoy rearranging a room or the kitchen cupboards in the middle of the night when I can’t sleep,” Sue L., a Healthline community member with COPD says. “It’s hilarious when my husband wakes up and the place looks completely different from the time he went to sleep.
“Some nights when I cannot sleep, I write,” says Anna Renault, who lives with metastatic breast cancer. “I’ve now written several books sharing my journey through illnesses, life, and some total fiction. Releasing what’s on my mind often helps to relax the body, helping me to finally sleep.”
And while getting comfortable can take some time and effort, it’s worth it.
“It looks like I’m building a pillow fort for a kid’s slumber party, but really I’m setting up my pillows to feel comfortable in bed!” says Trevor R., a Healthline community member living with RA.
“After my first wrist replacement, I managed to hit my husband in the face through the night,” says Judith D., a Healthline community member who also lives with RA. “You could see the texture of the plaster cast on his forehead, so for my other replacement, he built me a sling prop to put my cast into. Happy husband, happy wife, happy supported arm!”
For many living with chronic conditions, creating a bedtime routine is key.
Building your own sleep routine: Ideas from fellow spoonies
- bathe with Epsom salts and soothing essential oils
- turn off your devices
- read a book or journal
- listen to relaxing music or a guided meditation
- arrange pillows or foam blankets for comfort
- consider melatonin, magnesium, or medical marijuana
“My regimen would be crazy to the untrained eye, but to fellow spoonies it makes total sense,” says Tyler K., a Healthline community member living with RA. “Take melatonin, hot bath, stretches, CBD oil, and breathing exercises. By the time I’m done with everything, I’m so worn out that I pass out!”
"My regimen would be crazy to the untrained eye, but to fellow spoonies it makes total sense." – Tyler K.
“I would love to say that on nights when I can’t fall asleep I don’t fall victim to watching ‘The Good Place’ on Netflix until it’s 3 a.m. and finally pass out from exhaustion, but I do,” says Stolar, a songwriter and artist who lives with bipolar disorder and depression. “That being said, I have found that taking the time to ‘prepare’ for sleep by turning off my phone and computer, brushing my teeth, and reading a book really helps trigger my sleep cycle. It’s still a work in progress.”
“I treat bedtime like a trip to the spa,” says Cindy C., a Healthline community member living with OA. “First, I take a long, hot bath. Then, I have a foam blanket that I fold up to create many layers that I lay on and put pillows on all sides. I also have a relaxing audiobook that I play on my phone with a timer so it shuts off after an hour. It’s a fabulous way to get me to sleep.”
“I have Hashimoto’s thyroiditis and when I have a flare-up, sleep is the first thing to go out the window,” says Amina AlTai, a nourishment expert. “I have a regular routine I turn to every night to ensure sound sleep. I take melatonin and gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA) each night about 30 minutes before bed for neurotransmitter support. I also regularly take baths with Epsom salts that I mix lavender and chamomile essential oils into.”
One thing that helps a lot of people is meditating or listening to something soothing.
“Because guided meditation or hypnotherapy audio is designed to be very relaxing and to shift your focus from your body to your breath, they’ll often make me super sleepy,” says Erika Ashley, who lives with juvenile RA. “Sometimes, I even fall asleep midway through the meditation because I end up so relaxed!”
“I like to tell people I beat insomnia by traveling to different countries for sleep,” says Cindy L., a Healthline community member who lives with diabetes. “I’ll listen to Native American flute music or Tibetan chimes at a low volume while I fall asleep. Travel and a nap!”
“The first few years after my diagnosis with MS in 2009, I wondered if I’d ever sleep normally again,” says Lisa Doggett, MD, MPH, a family medicine physician. “I felt dizzy — my main MS symptom — all day, and I just couldn’t get a restful sleep at night. Now, I do a short meditation every night just before bed. It’s pretty great, because I usually DO fall asleep.”
Medical marijuana is also a bedtime staple for many people. Although it can take some getting used to and it doesn’t work for everyone…
“An indica-type strain of cannabis is my go-to,” says Nina Fern, founder of The Highly, who lives with chronic neck and jaw pain. “I’ll take cannabis, have a few minutes of journaling to get the unhappy feelings out and welcome the inspirational thoughts in. Before you know it, I’m asleep with a smile on my face.”
“Indica for the win. That’s all I’ll say,” says Vivian V., a Healthline community member who lives with OA.
“A few years ago, I got a script for medical marijuana, but didn’t know there are different kinds,” says Susan T., a Healthline community member who lives with Crohn’s disease. “I told the guy I don’t smoke, so he gave me a bottle of five pills. He said that they’re pretty powerful. I was looking for pain relief. Instead, I became paranoid and sat in the corner of my bedroom with the lights out and my phone in my hand ready to call the police. No idea why… I sat there for at least six hours.”
Other people find pain relief without weed.
“The most useful thing I have used to help me sleep quite soundly is to use a spray-on form of magnesium,” says Linda Furiate, who lives with cervical dystonia. “I apply the spray directly to my skin about 20 to 30 minutes before bedtime.”
In the end, people with chronic illness definitely agree on one thing: “To me, sleep is priceless!” Furiate says.
While getting to sleep can be challenging, the out-there (and sometimes silly) tactics people use to get themselves there are worth it when they finally get some quality sleep.