COPD and Sleep

If you suffer from breathing problems as a result of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), getting good quality sleep can be difficult. Some COPD patients have insomnia and difficulty falling asleep or staying asleep, leaving them feeling tired and unrested the next day. Sleep issues may even be worse if you have health conditions on top of that, such as acid reflux or sleep apnea. Getting enough quality sleep is important for health. Although COPD cannot be cured, it is treatable, so there are things you can do to get better rest.

COPD is a chronic lung disease that causes obstruction of the airways, making it difficult or uncomfortable to breathe. Two main types of COPD are chronic bronchitis and emphysema, which are most frequently caused by smoking. Damage is permanent and may worsen over time.

Symptoms of COPD include difficulty breathing, chronic cough with sputum production, chest tightening, fatigue, daytime sleepiness, wheezing, and weight loss. Sleep problems are common in COPD sufferers because of these symptoms and also some medications. It can be hard to sleep when you suffer from a cough and wheezing. Also, lying flat reduces lung capacity and makes it even more difficult to breathe, and changes in breathing patterns can affect sleep due to decreased blood oxygen levels. Some medications cause frequent nighttime urination and difficulty sleeping as well.

Some people with COPD also suffer from sleep apnea. These two conditions together are called “overlap syndrome,” and this can worsen already low blood oxygen levels during sleep. The result can be daytime fatigue and other health problems, such as memory problems, depression, heart arrhythmias, hypertension, and heart attack from the stress it puts on the heart.

Many COPD patients also suffer from acid reflux. Acid reflux can lead to heartburn along with other symptoms, causing restless sleep and more frequent nighttime awakenings.

COPD can be treated, and it is possible to alleviate symptoms and get some sleep. First of all, if you are still smoking, quit. Avoid second-hand smoke and any environmental factors that may worsen symptoms. Stick to a healthy diet full of vegetables and fruits. Many people with COPD have decreased levels of antioxidants and certain minerals, and this can play a part in poor lung function. Exercise regularly and avoid naps so you are tired at bedtime. Keep a regular bedtime routine and stay on the same sleep-wake cycle as much as possible. Use your bed for sleep only, and keep your bedroom comfortable, cool, and dark. Avoid caffeine before bed. Also, since lying flat decreases lung capacity, elevating your head while you sleep can make it easier to breathe.

If you suffer from acid reflux as well, avoid alcohol, smoking, and caffeine before bed and don’t eat heavy meals at night. Keep your meals small and eat frequently instead of having large meals.

Those with overlap syndrome or think they may have it should see a doctor to find treatment for sleep apnea. Many people with sleep apnea need a CPAP machine to hold their airways open and keep blood-oxygen levels up during sleep.

If you’re having sleep trouble and you have COPD, it is important to see your doctor. Some COPD patients are prescribed home oxygen, and when worn at night it can help with sleep. Medications may also be prescribed. If you are already on COPD medications and are having difficulty sleeping, your doctor may be able to adjust them for you. There are also airway clearance techniques you can practice to help you sleep better, and you can learn these from your doctor or respiratory therapist.

Kristina Diaz, RRT  is a Registered Respiratory Therapist and a health and wellness enthusiast and writer.

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