SLEEP EXPERTS SUGGEST that most adults over 18 get anywhere from seven to nine hours of sleep each night for optimal health. But with so many demands on caregivers’ time, getting a good night’s sleep can be a struggle. I’ve spent a lot of nights tossing and turning, even when my partner, Jackie, who has multiple myeloma, sleeps peacefully beside me.
Sleepless nights can add up and reduce the ability to think clearly and cope with the emotional ups and downs that come with caregiving. In addition, chronic sleep loss in healthy individuals has been associated with obesity and weight gain, high blood pressure and a decrease in immune system function.
When I started getting sick with the flu and other viruses, I figured my health was being affected by poor sleep. By making simple lifestyle changes to promote better habits, I noticed a marked improvement in my caregiving abilities, overall health and ability to take care of my own responsibilities.
Exercise. Being physically active during the day helps me fall asleep more easily at night. It’s not always possible to get in a full workout, but I try to do something that makes me sweat at least a little every day, such as taking my dog for a short, quick walk or pulling weeds from the garden. Getting as little as 10 minutes of aerobic exercise seems to make a difference in my quality of sleep.
Limit your caffeine. I’m a coffee addict, but I’m strict about cutting myself off by 2 p.m., even on long days at the hospital. If you have similar cravings, opt for decaffeinated varieties of coffee or soda.
Create a relaxing bedtime routine. Sticking to a routine will help your body recognize that it’s time to go to sleep. Each night before bed, I take a hot shower and have a cup of caffeine-free herbal tea. Then Jackie and I will read or listen to a lighthearted podcast and snuggle with our dogs.
Reserve difficult conversations for the day. Try to avoid having discussions about upsetting topics, such as money or politics, before you go to sleep. Most of the time, these conversations can wait until morning.
Make a list. If you are feeling stressed about the next day or the week ahead, clear your mind before bedtime by creating a list of your concerns—whether upcoming appointments, household tasks or work-related stresses.
Build your sleep “nest.” Make sure your pillows and mattress are comfortable and your room is dark and quiet. I’ve also used background noise machines or apps that play soothing sounds, such as rain and waterfalls.
Go solo. It’s not easy to do so and may not be possible for everyone, but I’ve found it rejuvenating to sleep in our guest room at times when I’m especially sleep-deprived.
Limit screen time before bedtime. Turn off devices that emit light, such as TVs, computers, tablets and smart phones, at least 30 minutes before going to sleep. Light affects our circadian rhythm, the internal clock that tells our bodies when to sleep and when to wake up.
Get help. Depression and anxiety, which are common among caregivers, can also cause sleep disturbances. If you’re not getting enough sleep using simple lifestyle adjustments, talk to your doctor, who may be able to prescribe medicine to help or refer you to a sleep specialist.
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