Sleeping Problems

"I love sleep. My life has the tendency to fall apart when I'm awake, you know?"
~ Ernest Hemingway

What is it?

Sleeping problems or insomnia are described as an abnormal inability to get adequate sleep. The causes are numerous including the chemotherapy drugs themselves, post-chemo drugs, stress and day-time napping to name a few.

Steroids are a commonly prescribed post-chemo drug which, when taken on a twelve hour cycle, can produce a “high”  and accompanying sleeplessness for days. Daytime napping is often necessary when one doesn't sleep at night so the problem becomes circular. The best method for dealing with sleeplessness caused by steroidal drugs is to accept that it is temporary and rest when you can.

Other causes of sleeplessness require your attention. Are you in pain? Are you drinking too many caffeinated beverages? Are you feeling anxious and depressed? Are you getting enough exercise? Are you eating late at night?

The opposite issue – sleepiness – can be caused by chemo induced fatigue (see Fatigue), anxiety and depression. 

Conventional Wisdom:

Sleeping problems caused by chemo drugs can often be resolved with sleep medications.  Other underlying causes of insomnia may be treatable with antidepressants, anti-anxiety drugs and modification of pain medications.

Monitoring the use of these interventions is necessary to prevent dependency, lack of toleration and the masking of other possible disease-related issues.

Self Help:

Many people are fixated on getting a full eight hours sleep when undergoing chemotherapy.  It is not always possible at the beginning of your treatment cycle and nor is it always necessary if you’re able to catnap. Drug-related insomnia is a reality but can be relieved by relaxation techniques such as progressive muscle relaxation (body scan method); meditation and guided imagery (see also Hope and Healing). There are a number of herbal remedies and teas that calm the body and are recommended before bedtime - some of the more popular ones include: passionflower, chamomile and melatonin. A soothing aroma-therapy solution of fresh lavender under your pillow also helps.

Over-the-counter sleep aids often include an antihistamine which make you drowsy but also can cause a very dry mouth and a “hang-over” type feeling in the morning.

Avoid problem-solving and anxiety-producing situations before bedtime.

Avoid caffeine, alcohol and any other stimulants such as chocolate entirely.

Avoid exercising before bedtime.

Make sure your doctor is aware of pain that is not adequately controlled by medication.

Stress is a real sleep interrupter - seek out support groups and professional help.

Lack of sleep can cause mental confusion, unbalance and a general feeling of being unwell.  Be aware of your state of mind before tackling any heavy projects or driving.

Take extra precautions in the kitchen, in reading instructions and in performing complex tasks.

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We strongly encourage you to talk with your health care professional about your specific medical condition and treatments. The information contained in this website is meant to be helpful and educational, but is not a substitute for medical advice.