Everyone needs to get quality sleep, but it’s especially important for people with chronic diseases like ulcerative colitis. "Research shows that people with ulcerative colitis who get more sleep are less likely to have a flare," says Neilanjan Nandi, MD, a gastroenterologist and an assistant professor at Drexel University College of Medicine in Philadelphia.
Poor sleep is linked to higher levels of stress, which in turn may make people with ulcerative colitis more aware of their disease, says Leonard Baidoo, MD, director of the Inflammatory Bowel Disease Program at Northwestern Memorial Hospital in Chicago.
The problem is that the abdominal pain, frequent bowel movements, and fatigue that often accompany ulcerative colitis can prevent you from sleeping soundly. Here are five tips that can help calm your symptoms and pave the way for a good night’s sleep:
1. Limit screen time before bed. "[Being online] is a common way to distract yourself from discomfort, but it can also keep you from falling asleep," says Dr. Nandi. It can also interfere with your sleep quality once you fall asleep, according to a November 2016 study in the journal PLOS ONE. Researchers think that electronic devices’ blue light suppresses the production of the sleep hormone melatonin, which would otherwise cause you to become drowsy.
Your best bet is to keep your smartphone and tablet out of the bedroom; if you like to read before bed, stick to paper books or reading devices that don't emit the problematic blue light.
2. Eat dinner earlier. "Finish eating dinner by 5 or 6 pm," Nandi advises. Your body's natural reflex after eating is to go to the bathroom, he says, so if you have dinner shortly before going to bed, you’ll probably wake up a few hours later to go to the bathroom. He also recommends that you avoid caffeinated beverages and too much of any other fluids later in the evening.
3. Use a heating pad instead of ibuprofen. Abdominal pain often keeps people with ulcerative colitis awake during a flare, but not all pain relievers are created equal for people experiencing this symptom. Over-the-counter nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) like ibuprofen can irritate the small intestine or colon, says Nandi, possibly worsening your symptoms during a flare. He recommends an electric heating pad placed on your stomach for relief.
4. Find the right sleep position. Depending on the side of your colon that’s most affected by ulcerative colitis, you may feel more comfortable sleeping on the opposite side. But everyone is different, Nandi says, so you’ll want to experiment with different sleep positions to determine what works best. Nandi says that sleeping on your back may also provide relief.
5. Treat any underlying anxiety and depression. The symptoms of ulcerative colitis can take a toll on a person’s mental health, sometimes leading to anxiety and depression — two conditions that are linked to a higher risk of sleep problems. A February 2014 study published in the journal BMC Psychiatry concluded that people who had depression were more likely to go to bed after 2 am and get less than six hours of sleep per night compared with people who weren’t depressed.
To address possible psychological problems underlying poor sleep, you may want to talk to a professional. "A good therapist can be worth their weight in gold," says Arun Swaminath, MD, director of the Inflammatory Bowel Disease Program at Lenox Hill Hospital in New York City. Treatment may involve antidepressants, talk therapy, or a combination of the two.