“The main facts in human life are five: birth, food, sleep, love and death.”
― E.M. Forster
“I wonder why I don't go to bed and go to sleep. But then it would be tomorrow, so I decide that no matter how tired, no matter how incoherent I am, I can skip on hour more of sleep and live.”
― Sylvia Plath, The Unabridged Journals of Sylvia Plath
Why do we so often forget how to sleep, as we grow older? Even without a chronic disease like Multiple Sclerosis our lifestyles and the changes to our body with aging conspire to interfere with restful sleep. Ask any woman going through menopause about their sleep and you will hear frustrating tales of awakenings for a variety of reasons many unexplained.
Even well before the onslaught of middle age, our lifestyles become a hazard to sleep; we find ourselves with too little time between work and family responsibilities to take proper care of themselves. We stop exercising regularly, eat poorly, worry excessively and consume various drugs, some prescribed and others like alcohol and nicotine used to melt away our stresses and the burdens of feeling overwhelmed. Bad habits are formed early and persist.
As the quote by Sylvia Plath (by the way she is not a good person from whom you should take advice regarding sleep) implies, from a young age we learn to burn the midnight candle too often and attempt to emulate those who never seem to require sleep. As people grow older they often develop strange beliefs or habits that actually worsen their sleep; some come to believe that they cannot fall asleep without the TV on or without a sleep aid and never attempt to adjust their sleep behavior. Often the problem is simply a result of a chronically disrupted circadian rhythm, yet the person insists it is simply impossible for them to fall asleep before 2 or 3 am. For people with MS, the problems with sleep are all too often blamed on the disease and simple measures are not attempted to control the insomnia before resorting to sleep aides or treatment of MS related symptoms perceived to be interfering with sleep.
The cure for insomnia in MS patients and the excessive daytime sleepiness that it creates begins with the doctor taking a good history and patient being receptive to changing their current sleep behaviors. First, without excessive daytime sleepiness there is rarely a problem that requires treatment. Some people just require less sleep as they grow older; fewer still never require much sleep, yet never experience problems with feeling excessive sleepy during the day.
With this caveat in mind it is often useful to separate sleep problems into three categories: those associated with sleep onset insomnia, those associated with nocturnal awakenings and those without perceived insomnia or awakenings but clearly creating excessive daytime sleepiness.
Sleep onset insomnia (failure to get to sleep initially) is most often due to acute stressors, anxiety, depression (unipolar or bipolar), drugs (e.g. alcohol, stimulants including nicotine), eating large meals too late, pain, spasms when lying supine, restless legs syndrome or a disrupted circadian rhythm. These problems tend to be easy to identify and solve although they often require a willingness to change sleep behaviors (see list below). Medication to help with sleep onset insomnia is sometimes needed but only for short-term use. Long term use of medications to help with sleep should only be used after a complete evaluation.
The same problems associated with sleep onset insomnia may also be responsible for awakenings during sleep, although the list becomes even longer with the inclusion of nocturnal awakenings to urinate because of bladder dysfunction, the co-existence of other medical conditions that interfere with sleep (Diabetes, lung disease, congestive heart failure etc.) and nocturnal hypoventilation in more severely disabled MS patients.
The third category, excessive daytime sleepiness without perceived awakening, is often the result of a primary or secondary sleep disorder (obstructive sleep apnea, narcolepsy, nocturnal myoclonus, periodic limb movements of sleep) although your sleep partner is often able to provide the key history of snoring, suddenly disrupted breathing or leg movements that interfere with their sleep! Nocturnal hypoventilation can also present with feeling un-refreshed, confused and anxious on awakening because of not getting enough oxygen during sleep.
As you have probably guessed by now, there is rarely one cause for your interrupted sleep and excessive daytime sleepiness. MS itself is often associated with daytime fatigue, a similar concept, but patients rarely describe this “fatigue” as the kind of daytime sleepiness one experiences after a bad night of sleep. Instead, MS fatigue is usually described as malaise, lassitude or an inability to move or think further without rest, more often without the craving to sleep during the day. The difficulty in diagnosis arises when a person experiences both daytime primary MS related fatigue and excessive sleepiness from disrupted sleep.
So how should you manage your disrupted sleep? First, determine if your circadian rhythm is disrupted. This is usually obvious if you chronically find yourself unable to sleep until the middle of the night and then feel exhausted during the day because of the need to get up sooner than you would like. You will need to follow the advice listed below to improve your sleep hygiene but you may also need help in resetting your body’s clock; some people find success in resetting their clock by taking 3 mg of melatonin (an over the counter medication available at almost any pharmacy or supplement store) 2 hours before you would like to go to sleep. If this does not work after a week discuss the problem further with your physician. Rarely, a sleep specialist is needed to help people with chronic idiopathic (meaning unknown cause) insomnia. Next, you will need to adhere to the following steps to improve your sleep hygiene. This can be surprisingly difficult since many of us break these rules with regularity.
Lastly, if your problem with sleep or excessive daytime sleepiness is not easily managed with these adjustments or you are unable to follow through with these suggestions because of your MS or other medical problems, you will need to discuss these problems further with your primary care doctor or MS specialist. Common additional solutions may require treatment of depression, treatments of bladder problems to limit nocturnal awakening to urinate and treatment of pain and nocturnal spasms. A good sleep history should be obtained; it is often advisable to obtain a polysomnogram (also called a sleep study) and possibly an MSLT (multiple sleep latency test) if there is any suggestion of a sleep disorder or if attempts at treatment the insomnia fail to cure your excessive daytime sleepiness.
“Suenos con los angeles”
-Rip Kinkel, MD
The medical information and opinions on this site are provided as an information resource only, and are not to be used or relied on for any diagnostic or treatment purposes. The information and opinions expressed do not create any patient-physician relationship, and should not be used as a substitute for professional diagnosis and treatment. Please consult your health care provider before making any healthcare decisions or for guidance about a specific medical condition.