Cleaning Up Your Sleep Habits: What to Do (and What to Avoid)

by PJ Hamel Patient Expert

Sleepless nights: We’ve all been there, right? Whether you’re tossing and turning, or staring wide-eyed at the blackness above, you simply can’t fall asleep.

Or maybe you drop off easily, but two hours later wake with a start—and can’t get back to that state of blissful relaxation — sleep — we all crave and need.

Your mind needs sleep

“Your body needs sleep” is something your mom probably called out to you as you reluctantly trudged up the stairs at night, right? And it’s true; according to the National Sleep Foundation, your body uses sleep for cellular repair and regeneration, as well as certain hormonal activities.

But it’s actually your brain, rather than muscles and digestive system, that most needs sleep. Without sufficient sleep, the National Institutes of Health (NIH) says, brain neurons that control all of our body systems become energy-depleted and inefficient. In addition, certain vital connections between neurons—connections that control things like learning and memory—are strengthened in a way that can’t happen while you’re awake.

Sufficient sleep can be a challenge

So how do you ensure you get the seven to eight hours of sleep a night most adults need? When you’re dealing with cancer — or any extremely stressful situation — it’s often not easy. But knowing what encourages healthy sleep (as well as what prevents it) is a good place to start. Normal, healthy adults aren’t dealing with the added stress of illness. A typical routine (e.g., slowing down before bedtime; avoiding TV/computer and other light-emitting devices) may be enough to ensure sufficient sleep.But when your life has been disrupted by a serious health issue, you’ll probably need to take extra steps. Here are some suggestions:

Healthy sleep habits to embrace

Concentrate on something other than your main worry. Whether it’s a radio talk show or listening to your breath during meditation, it’s crucial that you turn your mind away from your main source of worry. Focusing your attention on something that ultimately isn’t life-or-death can help lessen stress—and encourage mental relaxation.

Find your comfort position. Health issues may preclude your normal favorite sleep position. Figure out your body’s most comfortable position, given any current limitations, and proactively put yourself into that position before attempting to fall asleep.

Don’t go to bed hungry. Your stomach needing food is a surefire middle-of-the-night alarm clock. A small serving of complex carbohydrates (crackers, cereal) 20 minutes before bedtime will help you make it through the night without hunger pangs.

Try a sleep aid. Your oncologist may recommend one of a handful of sleep drugs that may help get you through this rough time. If you’re reluctant to use drugs, ask your doctor about melatonin tablets, a synthetic form of the natural hormone your body produces to instigate sleep.

Unhealthy sleep habits to break

Avoid daytime naps when possible. Those naps you may have taken during active treatment are no longer necessary once you’ve recovered, and are potentially robbing you of nighttime sleep.

Know your hidden sources of caffeine. We all know caffeine increases energy; it also prevents sleep. Besides the obvious caffeine in coffee, tea, energy drinks, and chocolate, this natural stimulant can be found in sources as disparate as painkillers and fortified fruit juice. See The Center for Science in the Public Interest’s list of food and beverages including caffeine.

Watch out for sleep-reducing drugs. According to the NIH, decongestants — including nasal sprays — can trigger insomnia. And certain antidepressants can affect sleep quality; find out from your doctor if you’re taking such a drug, and if there’s an alternative.

Steer away from alcohol. While alcohol may “knock you out” and put you to sleep, it also prevents you from falling into a deep sleep, meaning you’re much more likely to wake up during the night. If you’re going to imbibe, don’t do so within several hours of bedtime.

PJ Hamel
Meet Our Writer
PJ Hamel

PJ Hamel is senior digital content editor and food writer at King Arthur Flour, and a James Beard award-winning author. A 16-year breast cancer survivor, her passion is helping women through this devastating disease. She manages a large and active online survivor support network based at her local hospital and shares her wisdom and experience with the greater community via