5 Tips to Help You Sleep Well with COPD
January 18, 2024

5 Tips to Help You Sleep Well with COPD

COPD might be the cause of your poor sleep. Here are tips to help you get a good night’s rest.

When it comes to chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) and sleep, it’s possible to fall into a vicious cycle. Your condition can increase your chances of sleep difficulties, but if you don’t get enough rest, it can worsen your COPD symptoms.

According to researchers, this can be even more challenging if you also have a sleep disorder like obstructive sleep apnea.

How does COPD affect sleep?

2022 study found that the risk of COPD flare-ups was greater in people who experienced poor sleep compared to good quality sleep. The researchers concluded that poor sleep may be a better way to predict flare-ups than a history of smoking.

But getting good sleep can be tough when you have COPD.

Researchers in 2013 say that because people with COPD may have decreased oxygen levels, this increases the risk of sleep-related problems.

But it’s worth tackling the issue, according to Margarita Oks, MD, a pulmonologist at Northwell Lenox Hill Hospital in New York.

“COPD often comes with fatigue and low energy levels, and sleep problems can make this worse,” she says. “Poor sleep can also lower your immune system function, which puts you at higher risk for infections.”

Tips for sleeping well with COPD

Oks says that it might take a combination of strategies and trial and error to learn what works best for you. Consider these tips as a starting point:

Elevate your upper body for sleeping

One way to reduce the effects of COPD on sleep is to adjust your position so that you’re not lying completely flat on your back, says Thomas Yadegar, MD, pulmonologist and medical director of the ICU at Providence Cedars-Sinai Tarzana Medical Center in California.

He adds that many people elevate their head and neck with a pillow, but more is needed.

“Although propping up your head can keep your airway more open and help you sleep better, many with COPD have success with slight elevation of their chest as well,” he says.

That can be as simple as putting wood pieces under the feet of your bedframe at the top. Doing this creates a slight angle that’s enough to increase your lung capacity. Adjustable beds also make this possible.

Try breathing exercises

Breathing exercises are already part of many COPD management programs, but Yadegar says that being purposeful about having a deep breathing routine at night can help your body relax just before bedtime.

There are several types of breathing exercises for those with COPD, including:

Exercises like these can help clear mucus from the airways and help lower stress levels, which is a crucial part of falling asleep. Also, you can use these same techniques if you wake up in the middle of the night with a “busy head” and grow frustrated that you won’t be able to fall back asleep.

Develop a bedtime routine

Developing a bedtime routine is standard advice, and that’s for good reason, says Oks.

A routine gets your brain and body ready for sleep, and the more often you do this sequence, the shorter that prep time will need to be. The CDC also recommends this as a tip for improving sleep.

In addition to deep breathing exercises, you can take a warm bath, read, drink non-caffeinated herbal tea, do a gentle stretching practice like yoga or Tai Chi, meditate, or journal.

The goal is to wind down from the day in a way that makes you tired, says Oks. Even if you have low energy during the day, it’s helpful to nap only when you really need it rather than automatically napping every day.

Use supplemental oxygen if needed

If you’re on oxygen all the time, be sure to keep it on at bedtime. But suppose you only use oxygen “as needed” or are not using it at all, and you’re having trouble sleeping. Talk with your doctor about whether using supplemental oxygen overnight might benefit you.

“Some people are hesitant to start using oxygen because they believe that’s a sign their COPD is progressing, and once they begin using it, they’ll need oxygen during the day as well,” says Oks. “However, that’s not always the case. Not only can it help with getting your body the oxygen it needs during sleep, but it can reduce anxiety about waking up in the middle of the night.”

Check with your healthcare team

What is the top tip for addressing the relationship between sleep and COPD? Talk with your doctor, especially if you suspect you have sleep apnea, advises Oks. The American Thoracic Society also recommends this.

There may be factors you haven’t considered, like medication side effects or other treatments available from your doctor and physical or respiratory therapy. For example, these therapies may help reduce muscle tension in the chest and shoulders, allowing you to breathe better while sleeping.

Another resource can be talking with a social worker or another therapist about the effects of living with a chronic illness like COPD. That’s because the condition comes with a higher risk of stress, depression, and anxiety, and those can all sabotage sleep quality, according to the American Lung Association.

“Make the most of the resources you have available as part of your health system,” says Oks. “Considering the incredible benefits of better sleep when you have COPD, it’s worth the effort to find what works for you.”

Authored by Elizabeth Millard

Medically Reviewed by Thomas Johnson, PA-C