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Why Poor Sleep and Digestive Problems Are Common — and Hazardous
Not surprisingly, tummy troubles and sleep don’t mix very well. Physical discomfort interferes with your ability to relax your body, and the stress that comes along with the pain can send your mind reeling. If you notice the bags under your eyes grow when your irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) flares up, you’re not alone.
The vast majority of those living with IBS patients don’t get the quality sleep they want and need. In turn, they struggle with more severe symptoms, and possibly even chronic health problems. Luckily, there are some ways to improve your sleep and IBS symptoms at the same time. The first step is a better understanding of how the two problems feed off each other, and then you can attack the issue at the source.
The Cycle of Poor Sleep and Painful Symptoms
You can count on feeling lethargic after a sleepless night with IBS pain, but the effects of a poor sleep can reach well beyond the morning.
In fact, one night lost to pain can quickly become a string of sleepless nights — and your days can become progressively more painful. The sleep/pain cycle is predictable, and hard to break:
IBS is a health condition that affects the large bowel, causing pain and cramping. IBS and mental health are closely related. Here's how.
1. Pain Prevents a Restful Sleep
This fact probably comes as no surprise. Even if you can manage to get to sleep, abdominal cramps or spasms in your colon can rouse you from your slumber before you hit the deep sleep phase — the most restorative phase, when your muscles repair, your energy is restored, and important hormones are released to stabilize hunger and mood. This phenomenon is known as “sleep fragmentation” and can have all sorts of negative consequences.
2. Less Sleep Equals More Stress
When you don’t get a solid stretch of shut eye, your tissues can’t regenerate, and your body releases more cortisol (a major stress hormone). Too much cortisol is responsible for a host of problematic processes, from weight gain to premature ageing to mood swings.
In fact, sleep quality and emotional health are so intertwined that chronic sleep problems have been found to dramatically raise the risk of depression, anxiety and other mood disorders. With depression and anxiety comes stress, and stress can have a very physical impact on your daily life.
3. Stress Leads to Abdominal Pain
Stress and anxiety don’t necessarily cause IBS, but they can sure make it more difficult to handle. First, anxiety tends to heighten your awareness of your body — especially any negative sensations — which can make you focus on your abdominal issues, like intestinal spasms. Then, there’s the immune issue: stress interferes with your immune system, and a malfunctioning immune system is thought to play an important role in IBS flares.
Sleep deprivation also increases both your perception of pain and your sensitivity to pain, which means any IBS symptoms you’re already experiencing can feel a lot worse after even one sleepless night.
Steps to a Better Sleep
Unfortunately, there’s rarely a quick fix for the sleep/pain problem, but a multi-pronged approach can get to the heart of the physical and emotional barriers that are keeping the terrible cycle going.
Learn to Cope With Stress
Stress management is one of the most direct avenues to better sleep and more manageable IBS symptoms. There are all sorts of ways to reduce stress, so it’s important to find a management approach that suits your taste and personality. Exercise is a good place to begin – both cardio and stretching or strengthening activities can be useful.
A therapist can be an extremely helpful ally in your fight against stress. If you’re not able to calm yourself down, or you simply feel like you could use a few new techniques, talk to your doctor about a referral to a CBT therapist, psychologist, or other mental health professional that could offer you some good guidance.
Improve Sleep Hygiene
No matter where your sleep problems stem from, a carefully constructed bedtime routine is the first step to better sleep. There are a few vital elements to include in any sleep hygiene plan:
- Relaxation. Set aside a half hour before your head hits the pillow to unwind. Use calming visualization exercises, gentle yoga or mediation to slow down your mind and body.
- Consistency. Go to bed at the same time and wake up at the same time every day. It may be difficult for the first couple of nights of interrupted sleep, but stick with it and your body will adjust.
- Focus. Be sure to use the bed only for sleep and sex. Don’t drag your work to bed, and don’t keep a television in your bedroom. Try to keep distractions of all sorts away, including the clock: turn your alarm clock away from the bed, so you won’t get stuck on the time if you wake up in the night.
If you can’t get to sleep, it’s often better to get up and do something to relax your brain rather than simply lie there and wait to fall asleep. Exercise might not be the best option — it can wake you up more than tire you out.
Recent studies suggest that taking melatonin — a supplement that promotes sleep — can ease pain associated with IBS. One study that followed IBS patients with sleep problems found a two-week course of melatonin dramatically decreased abdominal pain in most patients, although it didn’t do much for bloating, anxiety and bowel motility. If you find that tummy pain is interrupting your sleep, melatonin might be worth a shot.
When chronic insomnia is interfering with your health, and no lifestyle change seems to help, you may want to consider medication. While most sleeping aids are not suitable for long-term relief, some drugs (including certain antidepressants) could help both your sleep problems and IBS symptoms.