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7 ways to get better sleep with MS

By Dan Digmann

Enough is enough, multiple sclerosis. I have to get some sleep tonight!

I feel fairly confident to conclude that the inability to sleep is a far-to-common reality among those of us living with MS. For proof, just peruse a sample of social media posts within online MS communities, and you’ll find countless conversations centered on this theme: MS kept me from sleeping last night, and today I can’t stay awake.  

I’ve been there many times myself (and this isn’t at all related to my recent MS Focus essay Sleepless in spite of MS).

There are bona fide MS-related reasons that adversely affect our ability to sleep. These include anything from spasticity to stress, depression, anxiety, inactivity and location of our MS lesions. That’s why it’s extremely important for you to address any sleeping concerns you have during your next appointment with the neurologist

I’m not here to offer licensed medical advice or peer-reviewed and research-based opinions on the sleep-related challenges that come with having MS. Why? Well, for starters, I am not a medical professional. However, I bring to this discussion a reputable record of personal experiences suffering through innumerable nights I couldn’t sleep during the more than 22 years since I was diagnosed with MS. 

Not every sleep-deprived overnight I’ve had was MS-induced, but I’ve found there are some tricks that have positioned me for a restful night of sleep despite the disease. Here are the seven top tips I’ve counted on to guide me to slumberland (because does counting sheep really help?).

1. Talk with your neurologist about your sleep issues – I realize I mentioned this earlier, but it is so worth repeating. This is the sure-fire way to address these concerns and treat any sleep issue caused by MS. In a conversation with my neurologist, she found that I have restless leg syndrome, which is consistent for where some of my lesions are. She prescribed a medication I take before I go to bed, and I no longer kick myself (or my wife, Jennifer) awake at night.

2. Limit drinking caffeinated beverages beyond 1 p.m. (or so) – I need my early morning cup or three of coffee to get my day started, and I used to think I could drink it well into the late afternoon. You thought wrong, Dan. The whole reason for the caffeine is to wake me up, so of course it’s going to prevent me from falling asleep. I’ve learned that stopping early in the afternoon provides enough time for it to get out of my system.  

3. Turn off your electronic devices at least an hour before you go to bed – There’s all kinds of evidence that demonstrates how screen time can stimulate your brain and make it more difficult to sleep. I was guilty of checking my phone right up until I crawled into bed, and then wondered why the heck I couldn’t fall asleep. I discovered that shutting my phone off at 9 p.m. is ideal. After all, if someone is waiting until then to email or text me, they can wait until the morning for me to respond.

4. Establish your temperature comfort level – Comfort truly makes a difference. I can’t fall asleep when it’s too hot, and Jennifer – who also has MS – can’t sleep when it’s too cold. So, an hour before we go to bed, I adjust the temperature in the house and turn on Jennifer’s side of the electric heating blanket. 

5. Avoid “nappetizers” and go to bed when you’re tired – This is a difficult practice for Jennifer and me to follow. As we watch TV at night or finish our writing, the thought of getting ready for bed occasionally exhausts us. We say, “Let’s just close our eyes for five minutes to rest up (a nappetizer), then we’ll be ready to go.” We often find ourselves waking up at least 35 minutes later and poof! We’re no longer tired and have trouble going to sleep once we finally are in bed. 

6. Go to bed and wake up at the same times every day (even on the weekends) – They aren’t kidding about the realities of the circadian rhythm. This helps your body to align its sleep-wake cycle. Ever since we’ve consciously focused on this, Jennifer and I have found we are more productive in the mornings and are fully ready to go to sleep and stay asleep at night.

7. Lavender makes perfect scents for falling asleep – Research shows that lavender helps to increase slow-wave sleep, relax muscles and slow your heart rate. Jennifer and I have experienced this firsthand. We use lavender-scented fabric softener on our bed sheets. We also have a lavender-scented candle on our nightstand that I light each night when I turn on Jennifer’s side of the electric blanket and extinguish before I shut off the light. I don’t know the science behind this scent, I just know it workzzzzzzzz.