Sleep is essential when you’re fighting a disease or recovering from illness, surgery or physical trauma. That’s because it plays an important role in immunity, as well as other physiological and mental components of the healing process. Shoddy, insufficient sleep leaves you more vulnerable to infection, more sensitive to pain and generally less able to function in a stressful environment.
The irony is that it’s notoriously hard to sleep in the hospital, the place we go specifically for medical treatment and convalescence.
“There are noises we are not used to hearing — alarms and beeps from monitors and IVs,” says Barbara Bishop, a nurse practitioner with Virginia Beach Neurology. “Lights are always on in the hallway and sometimes in your room, and the healthcare staff is constantly checking your vital signs, doing exams and giving you medications. The beds can also be uncomfortable.”
Of course, illness itself, pain, side effects of medication and anxiety can also disrupt sleep. To add insult to injury, you might be paired with a roommate who keeps you awake. But experts and experienced patients alike say there are small things you can do to help yourself (or another patient in your life) get shuteye in the hospital.
A Yale University study of critically ill patients suggested that healthcare workers might be part of the problem — less-experienced nurses and doctors in particular may deliver nonessential care during the night rather than allow patients uninterrupted slumber. They also might not realize how important sleep is for recovery or have a strong handle on how to promote sleep in the hospital setting. And they can be noisy: An Australian study found that disruptive noise on hospital wards mostly came from nursing stations, and that nurses were either unaware of the amount of noise they were making or underestimated how strongly patients responded to the volume of their voices. Hospital practices, such as scheduling inpatient imaging studies at night so outpatients can undergo tests during the day, and delaying the transfer of patients from the emergency department to a hospital ward, also led to sleep deficits.
You can ask the staff to help you sleep better by requesting that they not check vital signs or perform blood draws during sleep hours unless absolutely necessary.
The same Australian study reported that patients in the hospital slept 1.8 hours less than they did at home, and that 42 percent reported sleeping poorly or very poorly. Nurses perceived patients to be sleeping better than patients said they were. Other research has found that patients in the intensive care unit wake up multiple times each hour (sometimes more than six) and spend most of their time dozing in light stages of sleep, which are less restorative than deep sleep. In turn, these sleep patterns can lead to prolonged illness and longer stays in the ICU. Finally, more than half of total sleep time in the hospital occurs during the day. Forcibly adopting an off-kilter sleep schedule can throw off a patient’s circadian rhythms (the body’s internal clock) and lead to sleep disturbances that persist long after someone is discharged from the ICU.
“Sleep deprivation and fragmentation [interrupted sleep] are associated with defects in immunity, spikes in heart rate and blood pressure, delirium and increased anxiety and depression,” according to Budhiraja Rohit, director of the Sleep Medicine Clinic at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston. Lack of sleep and poor sleep can also raise levels of the “stress hormone” cortisol.