When you’re sick, something interesting can happen. You’re probably more tired, but at the same time, you may have a hard time getting to sleep. If this sounds confusing, don’t feel bad. Even scientists are sometimes bewildered by exactly why people need more sleep when they’re sick.
Nevertheless, evidence from scientific studies performed on roundworms and fruit flies indicate that feeling sleepier when you’re unwell is probably an essential survival mechanism. In fact, the fruit flies who stopped buzzing around to sleep after they were exposed to bacteria had a higher survival rate than those who continued their regular activities.
Now that we know we need more sleep when we’re sick, exactly how do you go about actually catching a few more zzzzzz’s?
1. Try to Go to Bed Earlier to Get More Sleep When You’re Sick
If you’re lucky (or have a nice boss), you can take a short power nap during the day when you’re feeling sick. However, if that’s not on your agenda, one thing you can do is commit to getting to bed as early as possible. Lying on the couch watching TV doesn’t count. You need to be in your bed with the lights out.
2. Use White Noise
It’s hard to imagine how people in pre-electric days slept. They couldn’t plug in a fan or sound machine for white noise to block out distractions, and they certainly didn’t have smartphone apps that provided it. A study by The Journal of Consumer Research showed that even the most mundane background noise can be effective even when people are well.
Here are some apps to try.
- White Noise (iOS – Android)
- Chroma Doze (Android)
- Sleep Fan (iOS – Android)
- Atmosphere: Relaxing Sounds (iOS – Android)
- myNoise (iOS – Android)
- Noisli (iOS – Android)
- Rain Rain Sleep Sounds (iOS – Android)
3. Take Medications for Symptom Management
If you have a cold or flu, one thing that can keep you awake is sniffling and coughing. Work with your doctor to identify some safe over-the-counter or prescription medications that offer some relief.
Medications won’t cure your cold or flu, but if you can control the symptoms a bit so that you can get some rest, the duration of the illness may be decreased.
4. Eat a Light Meal Before Going to Bed
Are gastrointestinal health issues keeping you up at night? Try eating a light evening meal. A heavy meal can affect your sleep even on days you’re not sick. If you know you’re going to be eating heavily, try to eat earlier so that your stomach isn’t still working to digest your food.
5. Grandma Was Right: Eat Chicken Soup
Speaking of light meals, it turns out that your grandmother was onto something with her recommendation of chicken soup when you’re sick. Research suggests that both homemade and canned chicken soup offer anti-inflammatory effects that may aid in recovery.
In addition to the wholesome ingredients, the steam that comes up from the bowl offers some relief, and the broth helps you hydrate.
6. Take a Hot Bath or Shower
Not only is it relaxing, but a hot shower can also help you feel better before bed. The steam serves as a natural way to ease congestion, and the heat from the water is soothing. If you’re too weak to stand for a shower, consider a bath. Adding a few drops of eucalyptus or lavender essential oil will give even more therapeutic benefits.
7. Make Your Sleep Environment as Comfortable as Possible
Even if you’re not sick, you’ll get better sleep if your sleeping environment is as comfortable as possible. Most people sleep better in cooler temperatures, so crank down the air conditioning and snuggle up with some warm blankets if you’re cold. Sleep experts suggest a temperature range of 60 to 75 degrees Fahrenheit for optimal sleep.
8. Make it Really Dark in your Bedroom
Blocking out distracting light is essential for good rest when you’re sick. If you have dark curtains, you can close them to make your bedroom super dark. In the absence of dark curtains, you can hang a dark-colored sheet over windows as a temporary solution. Another option is a sleep mask that covers your eyes.
9. Stock Your Bedside Table with Stuff You’ll Need
Once you do go to sleep, there’s a good chance you’ll awaken when your symptom relief medications wear off. Put a basket on your bedside table that has everything you need in it. That way, when you wake up, you don’t have to get up and stumble through the house. With any luck, you can re-medicated and go right back to sleep.
Here are some things to put in your “sick basket.”
- Bottle of water
- Pain relievers
- Bottle of honey (the squirt kind, for sore throats)
- Cough drops
- Healthy snacks
- Pen and small notepad to write down when you take the medications
10. Avoid Caffeine Throughout your Illness
To get more sleep when you’re ill, consider skipping that afternoon coffee. Even if you usually have caffeine throughout the day with no negative effect on your sleep, when you’re ill, your body is out of whack and needs some extra TLC. Keep in mind that caffeine is found in tea, soft drinks, and chocolate, too. Instead of caffeinated tea and coffee, consider trying some soothing herbal teas.
11. Avoid Other Chemicals, Too
Caffeine’s not the only chemical that can affect your sleep. Alcohol, nicotine, and other chemicals can interfere with sleep as well. Abstaining for four to six hours before bed will help mitigate the effects of any chemicals.
12. Unplug Electronics an Hour Before Bed
Harvard Medical School has determined that the blue light from electronic devices interferes with sleep. Even though it’s technically environmentally friendly, blue light can impact circadian rhythms that contribute to effective sleep.
13. Avoid Stimulating Activities (Yeah, No Video Games)
It’s not just a matter of the blue light that comes with electronic devices. The stimulation of various activities on your phone can also affect your sleep. Right before bed when you’re sick isn’t the best time for that invigorating Words with Friends match, for example. Try reading for a while in bed, and you’ll slowly drift off to sleep.
14. Elevate Your Head with Pillows
When you’re suffering from congestion and coughing, sleeping with your head elevated can help. You can elevate your head by sleeping with two or three stacked pillows. If nothing you do seems to help and you have a comfortable recliner somewhere in the house, go for it.
15. Declutter your Sleep Space
Ideally, your bedroom should be decluttered anyhow, but if it’s not, taking a few minutes to tidy up will make you feel better in the long run. It will also help if you’re not tripping over shoes and dirty clothes when you get up in the middle of the night.
16. Use Lots of Layers
Your body temperature can fluctuate when you’re sick. One minute you’re cold, the next you’re hot. Sleep in layers so that you can accommodate whatever temperature you’re feeling. Also, having a couple of blankets will help, too, so that you can adjust your bed accordingly.
17. Keep up Your Other Healthy Routines
Whatever you ordinarily do to keep yourself healthy, try to continue those activities when you’re sick. Take your vitamins, move around as much as you’re able, and eat healthily. Illness isn’t the time to throw all of your positive efforts out the window. Be sure to stay well hydrated by drinking plenty of water, herbal teas, and fruit juices.
Now, Go Get Some Sleep!
Now that you’ve studied up on how to sleep better when you’re sick, now’s the time to go catch up on your sleep. You’ll heal more quickly if you do, and if you’re as lucky as those fruit flies, taking care of your body will make your life not only longer but also a lot happier.