Anyone who lives with an autoimmune knows how challenging it can be. In fact, one in five Americans lives with at least one of the more than 100 known autoimmune diseases caused by the body’s immune system “turning against” one of its organs or systems.
Not only is it challenging to manage an autoimmune disease, but this wide range of conditions can seriously impact sleep. This article will delve into the relationship between sleep and autoimmune disease and offer tips for sleeping better if you have an autoimmune disorder.
Sleep and autoimmune disease
There’s increasing evidence that sleep and the immune system mutually affect each other. While the immune system affects sleep, sleep itself is believed to have a restorative effect on immune processes.
On the other hand, the lack of high-quality sleep is believed to negatively impact the immune system and may even contribute to the development of autoimmune disease.
Here’s what you need to know about the relationship between autoimmune disease and fatigue, insomnia, and sleep apnea.
Sleep and autoimmune disease are deeply connected. One of the most common symptoms of various autoimmune diseases is fatigue—typically defined as debilitating periods of exhaustion that interfere with normal activities.
Fatigue can interfere with simple tasks like climbing stairs or crossing the room. Inflammation is known to affect the physiological processes that contribute to fatigue, including oxygen/nutrient supply, metabolism, mood, motivation, and sleepiness.
The central nervous system also contributes to fatigue as it’s affected either directly or indirectly by numerous autoimmune and related disorders.
Chronic pain is a frequent feature of autoimmune disease because of the body’s tendency to attack joints and connective tissue. Inflammation itself, as well as the targeted tissue’s response to it, is painful.
Chronic pain can severely disrupt sleep and cause insomnia. Autoimmune diseases that target the central nervous system can be particularly painful.
A 2020 study found that untreated sleep apnea can increase the risk of developing certain autoimmune diseases, including rheumatoid arthritis and psoriasis.
The study showed patients with untreated sleep apnea had abnormal levels of cytokines, proteins that play a key role in regulating physiological functions such as mood, cognition, and sleep.
How to treat autoimmune disease sleep problems
Here are a few tips to help improve your sleep if you have an autoimmune disorder:
- Get enough sleep: Someone with an autoimmune disease doesn’t need more sleep than the average person, per se. “But they need a better quality of sleep than they typically get, in addition to a good quantity of sleep,” says Tracey O’Shea, a licensed family nurse practitioner with the California Center for Functional Medicine.
- Eat a healthy diet: Anyone with an autoimmune disease may benefit from eating a healthy diet. Some autoimmune conditions (like celiac disease) may require you to follow certain dietary restrictions or special diets.
- Plan ahead: If your energy is limited, use it for the most important activities of the day. If you face a busy day, plan it out ahead to make it go easier.
- Create a relaxing bedtime routine: “This can involve taking a warm bath, reading a book, or doing some light stretching,” says Katherine Hall, a sleep psychologist at Somnus Therapy. “The goal is to make the bedroom a calm and peaceful space that is conducive to sleep.”
- Avoid caffeine and alcohol before bed: “Caffeine and alcohol are stimulants that can make it difficult to fall asleep,” says Hall. “It is best to avoid them in the evening hours.”
- Exercise regularly: Hall says exercise can improve sleep by reducing fatigue and promoting relaxation. “However,” she adds, “it is important to avoid exercise within three hours of bedtime as this can actually interfere with sleep.”
- Manage pain: “If pain is interfering with sleep,” says Hall, “be sure to discuss treatment options with a healthcare provider. There are many ways to manage pain, including medication and physical therapy.” (Learn how to sleep better with MS and how to sleep better with endometriosis.)
Can lack of sleep cause autoimmune disease?
Chronic sleep deprivation has been observed in a number of chronic inflammatory conditions, such as systemic lupus. Increasing evidence suggests that sleep and the immune system mutually affect each other. Just as it’s been hypothesized that sleep has a restorative function on the immune system, it is likewise believed that decreased sleep is linked to increased illness and death.
Do autoimmune diseases affect sleep?
“The reason why autoimmune diseases affect sleep is not fully understood,” says Lawrence Barnier, a mental health officer at Women’s Resources e-Information. “However, there are several possible explanations. One is that the brain is trying to conserve energy when someone has an autoimmune disease and, as a result, sleep is disrupted. Another possibility is that the immune system is active during sleep and can interfere with the quality of sleep.”
How much sleep do you need with autoimmune disease?
“Regardless of autoimmune disease, the optimal amount of sleep for proper rest and recovery is between eight and nine hours,” says Nancy Mitchell, a registered nurse with more than 37 years of experience as a director of care on wards, including treating patients with autoimmune diseases, and contributor to Assisted Living. “This allows for ample time for the cells to rejuvenate themselves. The problem is that people with autoimmune diseases seldom receive a full night’s rest. They commonly suffer from disturbed sleep patterns.”
Do people with autoimmune diseases need more sleep?
“The average person with an autoimmune disease does not need more than the recommended hours of sleep,” says Hall. “Problems arise when they cannot complete these hours because of their symptoms.”
Could IBS be ruining your sleep? Learn about the connection between IBS and sleep and how to get better shuteye when you have this condition.