Sleep Disorders

Updated 11 August 2014

Good sleeping habits after surgery, illness

Your doctor may have prescribed bed rest if you are recovering from surgery or serious illness. Here are 10 steps to help you.

Recovering from surgery or serious illness? Then chances are that your doctor prescribed bed rest. Unfortunately, being less active than usual can mean that you struggle to fall and stay asleep.

It’s important to nurture good sleep habits during your recovery time. It will speed up the healing process and help you get back to your normal daily activities as soon as possible.

During sleep, your glucose reserves are replenished; your brain networks are given a workout and essential cycles - such as the secretion of growth hormones - take place. In adults, growth hormones ensure that cells, skin, bone tissue and muscles remain healthy.

So, sleep is by no means an unconscious resting time. It’s an active, dynamic process that keeps your body in shape.

Struggling to sleep?

Here are 10 steps to help you:

1. If you’re in hospital, it’s important to try to eliminate sleep disturbances as far as possible. Ask the attending hospital staff to close your room door and to switch off as many lights as they possibly can. Keep a set of earplugs and a sleep mask at hand.

2. Pain might be keeping you awake. Speak to your doctor and attending nurse to find out if an increase in pain medication, or a change in sleeping/lying position, would help for the pain.

3. If you’re tossing and turning because you’re anxious, worried or depressed, speaking to a psychologist or counsellor could be of great help. Once again, speak to your doctor or nurse to find if there’s someone at the hospital who can assist. Also keep a notebook handy and write down anything that’s worrying you and which may be keeping you awake.

4. Learn to fall asleep without thinking about it. Don’t wait to “switch off”. Visualise something nice or replay a movie you enjoyed in your head. For instance, if you wish you had a Mercedes Benz, visualise yourself walking into a showroom, getting into the flashiest car and driving away – straight into dreamland.

5. Avoid stimulants such as coffee, Coca-Cola and chocolate after 18:00.

6. Don’t toss and turn. If you’re not asleep after 10 or 20 minutes, switch on the light and read a book or magazine. Try not to watch TV and avoid devices such as tablets and mobile phones – looking at a screen could keep you alert, instead of making you drowsy.

7. Don’t get anxious if you can’t sleep for a night or two. You’ll soon catch up. Comfort yourself with the thought that you’ll probably sleep better the next night or the one after that. The worst that can happen is that you’ll be tired and irritable the next day.

8. Follow the same routine every day. Your brain will learn to associate it with sleep. A cup of hot milk and listening to soothing music at bedtime can be effective. Try to sleep until sunrise.

9. Don’t use sleeping pills without consulting your doctor first. Some sleeping pills are downright dangerous. The benzodiazepams (e.g. diazepam, oxazepam, nitrazepam and temazepam) are extremely addictive and potentially dangerous, especially if you’ve been diagnosed with respiratory illnesses, depression, psychiatric conditions, muscle disease, porphyria, sleep apnoea, epilepsy, glaucoma, kidney or liver trouble, or alcohol or drug problems.

10. If you’re still not getting enough shut-eye, you could try a natural therapy or two. The popular herbal remedy Valerian has a calming effect, but its side-effects aren’t well researched. Pregnant women, children and people with liver problems should preferably avoid it. It should also not be used in combination with other medications that make you drowsy. There’s anecdotal evidence that avena sativa (wild oats), lavender and chamomile also help. Once again, it’s important to let your medical team know about any treatments you’re taking, even if deemed “natural”.

(Photo of sleeping woman from Shutterstock)

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Sleep disorders expert

Dr Alison Bentley is a general practitioner who has consulted in sleep medicine and sleep disorders, in both adults and children of all ages, for almost 30 years. She also researches and publishes on a number of sleep-related topics both in formal research journals and lay publications including as editor of Sleep Matters, an educational newsletter on sleep disorders for doctors.

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