10 Ways to Sleep Better - Despite Cancer

Patient Expert

Cancer has a way of blowing your life apart.

Your mortality is no longer a topic for philosophical discussion; it’s reality, front and center. Will you be able to keep your job (and your house, and car)? Will surgery leave you feeling deformed? How much will treatment hurt?

Will you be alive for your next birthday?

With questions like these ricocheting around in your head, it’s no wonder the sleep that used to come so easily is now elusive.

Doctors and researchers have been carrying out sleep studies for years; in fact, I took part in one. The following tips are a summary of what I learned about how to get to sleep – and hopefully stay there.

1. Your bed is only for sleeping (and sex).

While it’s tempting to snuggle into bed with your tablet, or to lie back and watch TV or read – don’t do it. You need to let your body and mind know, in no uncertain terms, that bed means one thing: sleep. (Though it’s OK to throw a little love-making in there, too)

Don’t take any mobile device – phone, tablet, or laptop – into bed with you. Ditto reading materials. If you typically read or watch TV to fall asleep, instead position a comfortable chair as close to the bed as possible. Once you’re sleepy, roll right into bed.

2. Avoid napping during the day.

If you’re undergoing active cancer treatment, of course you’re going to want to nap during the day; your body needs the extra rest. But once you’re through treatment, try not to lie down for 30 minutes of shut-eye after lunch. The more you sleep during the day, the harder it is to sleep soundly at night.

3. Find your natural schedule.

Morning person or a night owl? You know which one you are. Don’t force your body into an unnatural rhythm based on what others say is good for you.

If you’re naturally an early riser, go to bed sooner. Like to stay up late? Do so, then plan your morning so that you can get ready for work as quickly and efficiently as possible. Better to get a bit more deep sleep than to hit the snooze button three times and finally drag out of bed in a slow-motion start to the day.

4. Embrace darkness

Melatonin is your body’s sleep hormone. The greater your level of circulating melatonin, the more likely you are to fall asleep. Your body produces more melatonin when it’s dark, less when it’s light – so it follows that the darker the room, the more chance you have of sleeping.

Practically speaking, this means sleeping in as dark a room as possible – even wearing eyeshades, if necessary. Make sure your path out of the bedroom is free of clutter, so you don’t trip. Keep lights as dim as safely possible in the hall and bathroom.

And start dimming lights gradually several hours before bedtime. Instead of going around and shutting off all the lights in the house just before bed, do it earlier; then settle down in your favorite comfortable chair, turn on a small reading lamp, and relax.

5. Exercise!

Exercise helps tire your body and relax your mind, both key to a good night’s sleep. That said, exercise just before bed can make you wakeful. Try to get your workout in at least three hours before bedtime. The exception: gentle yoga and stretching, both of which calm and relax.

6. Avoid caffeine after lunch.

Caffeine can keep your brain alert (and your eyes wide open) up to 12 hours after you’ve ingested it. If you’re particularly sensitive, limit caffeinated coffee, tea, hot cocoa, energy drinks, or soft drinks to the morning hours, preferably no later than mid-morning.

FYI, an 8-ounce cup of brewed coffee has about 200mg of caffeine. A typical energy drink (e.g., a can of Red Bull) offer about 80mg caffeine; tea checks in at about 40mg; caffeinated soda at about 35mg, and a 1 1/2-ounce piece of dark chocolate (about 1/4 cup chocolate chips) at about 22mg.

7. Don’t eat a huge dinner—but do snack on carbs just before bedtime.

Eating big and/or rich meals in the evening challenges your digestive system, keeping it functioning in high gear for hours after you’ve eaten. You may also feel uncomfortably full when you lie down, which won’t help you sleep.

But eating a small serving of carbs – a small bowl of cereal, or a few crackers or a cookie – actually increases the level of tryptophan in your blood. And tryptophan encourages sleep.

8. Listen to something soothing.

What calms you down? Whether it’s classical music, the drone of a talk show, soft oldies, or guided meditation, listening to something soothing relaxes both mind and body. Try not to concentrate on what you’re listening to; instead, just let it wash over you, like warm, gentle waves on a tropical beach.

9. Keep your bedroom cool.

Scientists have determined 65°F is the optimum temperature for sleep. The closer you can get the ambient temperature around your body to 65°F, the better. That might mean a cooler room with warmer bedding; or a warmer room with scanty or no bedding (or sleepwear). However you get there, 65°F is your goal.

10. Hide the clock.

We’ve all been there, right? Tossing and turning, checking the clock, waiting for sleep, checking the clock… Hide the face of your clock. First, it glows; and you want your room in complete darkness. And second, all it does is remind you that you’re still not sleeping – which increases your stress level, and prevents you from falling asleep.

Bonus tip:

Never mind sheep: Try counting backwards from 200, by 3s. Research has shown this is a much more effective sleep-inducer than watching those frisky sheep leaping over the fence!

More helpful articles:

Living With Breast Cancer: 10 Ways to Fill Up a Sleepless NIght

Breast Cancer: Dealing with Sleep Issues

Sleep Disorders and Breast Cancer Treatment

Breast Cancer: Relieving Stress, One Step at a Time

Breast cancer survivor and award-winning author PJ Hamel, a long-time contributor to the HealthCentral community, counsels women with breast cancer through the volunteer program at her local hospital. She founded and manages a large and active online survivor support network.