NB: This is the second in a four-post series about how to combat “fibro fog” and improve cognitive function. Post #1 examines fibro fog in its various manifestations and examines some possible causes. It also provides an overview of a three-phased approach to combating fibro fog that the remaining posts in the series will examine in more detail. This post looks at improving sleep; post #3 outlines strategies to keep your brain challenged and healthy; and post #4 examines various coping mechanisms to deal with the fibro-fog effects that can’t be eliminated by the first two phases.
Why We Start With Sleep Problems When We’re Combating Fibro Fog
Most experts agree that sleep is, if not the single cause of fibro fog, one of the largest contributing factors. Although fibromites can have wildly divergent experiences with this condition, one thing that almost all of us share in common is poor sleep and not enough of it.
As most of us who are parents learn when our children are infants, there’s a very good reason that sleep deprivation is used as a torture technique: it works! Inadequate rest can quite literally shut your brain down, increase confusion, deaden your reflexes, and create massive gaps in your memory and recall ability.
So, we start with improving our sleep in Phase One of this three-phrase approach.
Phase One: Address Your Sleep Issues First
Start by attacking the generally-agreed-upon root cause of fibro fog first: poor sleep. Begin by taking a week-long “read” of your current sleep patterns. Ask yourself the following questions:
- How long do you sleep at a time?
- How often do you reach waking consciousness during the night?
- How many times are you aware of moving in bed because of pain?
- What is your pain level when you go to bed compared to when you get up in the morning?
- What is your current nighttime pre-bed ritual?
- What did you have to eat and drink before bed, and how close to bedtime were these taken?
If you can arrange to perform this initial survey during a week when you don’t have to set the alarm to wake up, you’ll get more reliable results. But start with wherever you are and do the best you can.
Analyze Your Results
From your informal survey of your past week’s sleep patterns, you should now have a clearer idea of what your specific sleep issues are, whether that’s waking up too many times during the night, falling to sleep in the beginning, or sleeping long enough overall.
Now you can begin to adjust your sleep-related habits more effectively. I suggest trying each major adjustment one at a time for a week or so, before adding or trying another. This gives your body time to adjust to the new routine but also allows you to see which adjustment “did the trick” if you begin experiencing improved sleep.
Basic Sleep Hygiene
Begin by improving on some general “hygiene” habits that have been shown to improve sleep in terms of both quality and quantity. These suggestions include:
- Lower the temperature in the room. Studies show we sleep best in cooler temperatures.
- Experiment with pillows to provide support beneath and between knees, depending on your preferred sleep position, to ease pressure on the back.
- Move all electronics out of the bedroom, save for an alarm clock if necessary. But turn the alarm clock away from the bed, to remove the temptation of looking at it when you have trouble falling asleep; this will only increase anxiety.
- Leave at least three hours between your last meal or drink before bedtime. This can reduce the urge to urinate in the middle of the night, which might help your body stay in the sleep pattern, instead of waking to go to the bathroom.
- Experiment with white noise or nature sounds to prevent waking due to household noises.
- If you like to read before bed, watch what you read: eschew thrillers and tightly-plotted suspense novels for more literary or spiritually-themed books that you’ll be able to put down more easily. (I can personally recommend Marcel Proust’s In Search of Lost Time!)
- Try installing a home fragrance diffuser or air freshener with a lavender scent. Better yet, use lavender water to freshen your bed linens. Lavender has been shown in several studies to produce a relaxing, calming atmosphere.
- Put up blackout curtains underneath your normal bedroom window coverings to block out all ambient outside light from streetlamps, full moons, and the sun in the morning.
- Eliminate caffeine from your diet after 4 PM, or better yet, eliminate it altogether. Some people appear to be more sensitive to this drug than other people are, and by eliminating it completely, you can tell whether you’re one of those people. If your energy picks up dramatically during the day (an odd but not uncommon side effect for caffeine sensitives) and you fall asleep more easily at night, you’ll know to avoid caffeine in the future.
- If you like to take a bath before bed, make certain the water is not too hot. Increases in body temperature can make falling asleep more difficult.
Should You Try Medication?
If all else fails, consider speaking to your doctor about medication to help you sleep. For fibromyalgia patients, these drugs can either be pain-relievers (if it’s the pain keeping you from attaining good rest) or sleep aids such as Lunesta and Ambien. Talk to your physician to determine whether one or both of these might be a useful addition to your treatment program.
While some are resistant to prescription drugs for fear of becoming addicted, the truth is that the real rate of addiction in chronic pain patients is pretty low.
The media doesn’t do much to assuage these baseless fears and in fact aids in the perpetuation of the chronic-pain-addict myth by confusing two very different concepts: addiction and dependence. Addiction is a psychological malady that is an unfortunate side effect of using pain medication for the wrong reasons; dependence is a perfectly normal and expected physical state that results from the proper use of such medications.
If you’re concerned about dependence, as opposed to addiction, your doctor should be able to reassure you and give you ways to keep your body from becoming dependent, if you’re steadfast about that. If you have reason to be concerned about addiction, then you should still talk to your physician because there may be non-habit forming alternatives you can try.
The bottom line is that sleep isn’t just a good idea or something you’d like to have more of: it’s absolutely crucial for everyone, but especially so for chronic pain patients, and maybe even more so for fibromyalgia patients. Why? It’s only during restful, deep sleep that our muscles can heal.
So, whether you decide to try medication, or decide against it, that’s an extremely personal choice. But whatever you do, don’t give up on the quest for a good night’s sleep. It’s that important.
In the next post in this series, we’ll examine strategies to keep your brain challenged and healthy.