Tips for better sleep for cancer patients

Everyone has trouble sleeping now and then. It would not be unusual for someone who has learned they have cancer and are having treatment for cancer, to have problems sleeping. Below are some tips to help you fall asleep easier and hopefully stay asleep.

Before bed

  • A warm bath or shower before sleep can help relax tense muscles and bring on sleep easier. Another way to ease muscle tension is to do gentle stretches each day.
  • Go to bed when you are tired and turn out the lights. If you do not fall asleep in 15 minutes, get up and do something else. Listen to relaxing music, read a book. Go back to bed when you feel sleepy.
  • Keep the clock face turned away so you can not see it if you wake up in the middle of your sleep time.
  • Try using a progressive relaxation CD that is specifically for helping people fall asleep.
  • Try a cup of Chamomile tea. This is a common herbal tea that is safe and helps people relax and sleep.
  • Keep paper and pen on your bedside table to write down any thoughts that pop up while falling asleep.

Sleep environment

  • Use nightlights in hallways so you do not have to turn on lights in the middle of the night should you need to get up.
  • Keep your bedroom slightly cool. It helps the body temperature drop as it does naturally during sleep.
  • Keep the sleeping area quiet. Silence helps you sleep. Use background noise that is constant or soothing, such as a fan, to mask noise that you can not control such as busy streets, trains, airplanes.
  • Use your bedroom only for sleep. Try not to watch TV or read in bed. It may help to move any electronic equipment that gives off light or makes sound out of the bedroom.

Maintain a routine

  • Go to bed and get up at the same time every day. Don’t sleep late on weekends.
  • Create a pre-bedtime routine that you follow each day.

Food and your sleep habits

  • Try to eat your evening meal at least two hours before bedtime. Restrict liquids and use the bathroom before bedtime to avoid waking up for trips to the bathroom. Take any needed medicines for incontinence before bedtime.
  • Avoid fatty and spicy foods at the evening meal. They can cause heartburn which can keep you awake, or wake you up too soon.
  • Do not drink anything with caffeine after lunch. Caffeine is a stimulant which can keep you awake. Nicotine is a powerful stimulant also and can keep you awake.
  • Do not drink alcohol near bedtime. It may make you sleepy but it will wake you up too soon or cause you to wake up often during the night.
  • Foods containing tryptophan help the body make serotonin, which makes the body sleepy. Turkey, bread, cereal and milk all contain tryptophan. A glass of milk or a turkey sandwich may help promote sleep.

Other helpful hints

  • Physical activity can help promote healthy sleep. The best time, for many people, to exercise is 4-6 hours before bedtime.
  • Only sleep in your bed at night time. Take any naps in other locations.
  • Set aside a period of time each day to think over or journal about issues that worry you. After the time is up, try to put those thoughts away and move on to other tasks.
  • Join a support group or seek individual counseling to address anxiety, depression or stress that can affect sleep.

The amount of sleep a person needs varies from person to person. During cancer treatment, the need for sleep may increase some, as the body repairs itself. Most people need from 7-9 hours of sleep. The need for sleep does not decrease as we age, as popular myths proclaim.

It is important for you to talk with your doctor about your sleep concerns. It is especially important to talk to them if your lack of sleep interferes with your daytime activities and ability to function.

Last reviewed: 
August 2016

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