Skip to main content

Multiple sclerosis and sleep problems

sleep resized2.jpgCan multiple sclerosis (MS) cause sleep problems? The answer is a resounding yes. Research by the charity Shift.ms recently found up to 85% of people with MS have sleep issues, which leads to fatigue, which is also one of the most common symptoms of MS. Fatigue and insomnia go hand in hand with MS, and so good sleep hygiene when you have the condition is important.

Here, nutritionist and author Rob Hobson shares his top tips for getting a decent night’s kip

Lights out!

In 1981, a Harvard Medical School professor, Dr Charles Czeisler, discovered that it is daylight that keeps our circadian rhythm, or body clock, aligned with our surroundings. Any light can suppress the secretion of melatonin, so try and keep your bedroom dark by using blackout blinds or investing in a sleep mask.

If you wake up during the night, then any light creeping through gaps in curtains and blinds can be a distraction preventing you from getting back to sleep. While any light can suppress the secretion of melatonin – the hormone that promotes sleepiness – it is blue light that has the greatest negative effect. ­This light is emitted from electrical equipment such as computers, mobile phones, notebooks and TVs.

If you do need a light on, then research has shown how red light has the least impact on melatonin production making this wavelength of light the most conducive to sleep.

You can buy red or pink bulbs to use in your bedroom and even strings of novelty lights, but these may not be to everyone’s taste. ­The next best thing is to use incandescent bulbs that give out diffused, warm light and can be controlled with a dimmer switch on side lamps. During the day, make sure you expose yourself to plenty of natural light as this can help to boost mood and make you feel more energized. ­It, in turn, can have a positive effect on your ability to sleep at night. But remember, when it’s time to sleep, it’s lights out!

Chill out

If you want to prepare your body for a good night’s sleep, you need to chill out. When we think about the effect of temperature on our body it’s easy to assume that heat can help us to sleep.

Sitting outside in the midday sun or inside a hot study can leave you feeling dozy, but ­the tiredness you feel from high external temperatures during the day is a side-effect of your causes. In contrast, your circadian rhythm is very attuned to body temperature – it’s one of the functions it controls to help you fall asleep or stay awake. During the day, your body temperature rises naturally until late afternoon, at which point it then starts to fall. As you start to fall asleep your body temperature begins to lower by one to two degrees, which helps the body to conserve energy. ­The drop in temperature signals the release of melatonin to help induce relaxation and sleep by slowing the heart rate, breathing and digestion. If your sleep environment is too hot or cold, this can make it more difficult for your body to reach the optimal temperature required for a good quality of sleep.

Take a bath

While it may seem counterintuitive to what we’ve just discussed, many studies have shown that warming your body by bathing can help to promote sleep, but to harness these effects, timing is key. Th­e best time to take a bath is at least one hour before you hit the hay, as this gives your body enough time to cool down to its optimum sleep temperature. Similar effects have been shown when showering or even soaking your feet in warm water to increase your skin and body temperature. Bathing has also been shown to help relieve anxiety and muscle stress, which can help with relaxation and sleep. Epsom salts are a good choice for putting in the bathwater, as they are rich in magnesium which helps to promote muscle.

Oils traditionally used for relaxation include lavender, bergamot and ylang-ylang. You can make bath time even more relaxing by burning candles and turning out the bathroom light. Listening to calming music or using a meditative app on your phone can also make bath time even more relaxing and offer an opportunity to calm a busy mind.

Brain download

Restlessness and a busy mind can easily make falling asleep difficult. As you lie awake your mind can go into overdrive while you focus on the issues and worries impacting on your life, many of which you will unconsciously ruminate on all night. People who write down their thoughts, activities and tasks that need to be completed before they go to bed fall asleep much quicker than those who don’t. Keep a pad of paper and a pen next to your bed so you can jot down your thoughts before you go to sleep each night. As well as writing down your worries and stresses, include any unfinished tasks that need to be completed the following day, or make a to-do list.

If you wake up during the night and your mind starts to wander, read through your diary and to-do list, adding to it if you need to. Sometimes the best ideas can occur in the middle of the night, so be sure to keep plenty of space to jot these down. Don’t spend hours lying in bed trying to fall asleep. Instead, get up and sit somewhere quiet, keeping the lights down low. Use this time to help organize your thoughts by writing them down rather than letting them buzz around on repeat in your head.

Get comfortable ­

The position you choose to sleep in could be a factor in your ability to sleep through the night. ­The most common sleep position – and the one recommended by many sleep experts – is foetal. If you choose to sleep this way you should favour the opposite side to the one of your dominance (in other words, if you’re right-handed, choose your left side). Not all experts agree on this though, with many suggesting that sleeping on your back is better for your health, even though this is the least popular position to sleep in. Establishing the best position for sleep ultimately comes down to comfort, and you can figure this out through trial and error.

Extracted from The Art of Sleeping by Rob Hobson (£9.99, amazon.co.uk)