March 11, 2024

Your Quick Guide to Improving Sleep Naturally for Chronic Pain

Did you know 1 in 3 people (33%) don’t get the recommended amount of sleep every night?1 Those numbers climb even higher for people with chronic pain conditions, with research reporting that the majority (67-88%) experience poor sleep quality.

This creates a tricky relationship to navigate, as poor sleep worsens chronic pain and vice versa. Because of its effects on health and pain sensitivity, getting the recommended 7-9 hours of sleep every night becomes all the more important for people with chronic pain.

If you’re living with chronic pain and currently struggling with sleep, know that you’re not alone. To help, we’ve put together a short yet comprehensive review of evidence-based approaches commonly used to improve sleep quality.

This guide covers natural, holistic approaches to better sleep:

  • Low-Dose Melatonin

  • Chamomile

  • Psychological techniques

  • Sleep hygiene best practices

Low-Dose Melatonin

Melatonin is a naturally occurring hormone that helps regulate our sleep-wake cycle. Your body begins producing more melatonin in response to increasing darkness, like following the setting of the sun. This is designed to promote more restful sleep. 

The majority of melatonin’s benefits have been found for delayed sleep-wake phase disorder and jet lag. However, some evidence suggests it may help with other sleep issues.5

If you’ve tried melatonin and it hasn’t worked for you, here’s a fun fact to consider — most people take a much higher dose than is recommended, which can lead to bizarre dreams and other side effects. While most stores sell 1-10mg pills, the correct dose for most people is between 0.3-0.5mg (which is 300-500 mcg), taken 1-2 hours before bedtime. You can search “low dose melatonin” online, or cut a 1mg pill in half.

Chamomile

While more research is needed, preliminary studies (and hundreds of years of practice) suggest that chamomile may make it easier to get a good night’s sleep. Researchers suggest it may be due to how one of its components binds with the brain’s benzodiazepine receptors.6, 7

Typical dose is one cup of chamomile tea.

Chamomile isn’t suitable for pregnant people and people with asthma. If you’re allergic to asters, ragweed, chrysanthemums, and daises, you may also be allergic to chamomile. Chamomile can increase the power of sedatives, including benzodiazepines, sleep medications, and alcohol.

Psychological techniques to calm and focus the stressed mind

Daily, persistent pain often leads to mental distress, which can make getting quality sleep even harder and subsequently worsen pain. So to help calm your mind for sleep, here are a few popularly used psychological techniques.

  • Relaxing distractions

These are practices that give your mind something to softly focus on, aside from whirring thoughts and stress.

↳ Here’s a guided sleep visualization meditation you can try.

↳ Here’s another guided sleep meditation option.

↳ Try drifting off to an ASMR sleep story

↳ Listen to a brown noise soundscape.

Calm and Headspace offer subscriptions for their sleep meditation collections, but you can find plenty for free on Youtube, Spotify, and more.

  • Breathing exercises

↳ Try the psychological sigh

(Perform one long inhale through the nose, followed by another quick, sharp inhale through the nose. Then, exhale slowly out your mouth for longer than both inhales.)

↳ Practice box breathing. 

(Breath in for 4 seconds, hold for four seconds, exhale for 4 seconds, then hold for 4 seconds.)

  • Cognitive behavioral therapy

↳ Speaking with a professional can help give you the mental tools to disrupt unhelpful cycles of thought and develop better skills and habits to help your mind fall asleep.

Sleep Hygiene

Sleep hygiene refers to practices and routines that promote sleep and set you up for a deeply restorative slumber.

  • Avoid screens

↳ Or use a blue light filter, to block the wavelengths of light that signal daytime to the brain. Most phones have a “night mode” setting. For your computer, try F.lux.

  • Use your bed ONLY for sleep and intimacy.

  • Keep the temperature between 60-68° F.8

  • If you’re not asleep after 30 minutes, get out of bed.

↳ Preferably, try one of the relaxing distractions from our list above, or an activity that soothes you.

  • Build your very own relaxation evening ritual.

↳ This could include meditation, aromatherapy, listening to relaxing music, soaking in a hot bath, drinking warm milk or non-caffeinated tea, and more.

  • Get up at the same time every day. 

↳ It can be tough to escape the “sleep when you can” mentality, but a consistent wake-up time can help your body get used to falling asleep at the same time.

  • Try to avoid naps during the day. 

↳ Chronic pain can be so exhausting, sometimes you just need to get your sleep when you can. If you feel like you’re going to crash, listen to your body and nap. But otherwise, try to avoid napping so you feel more tired when bedtime rolls around.

  • Avoid caffeine, alcohol, and nicotine before bed.

↳ While alcohol can help you get to sleep, it leads to lower quality sleep and more nighttime wakefulness.

  • Regularly exercise for 30 minutes throughout the day.

↳ Regular exercise can promote tiredness and help you sleep. For the best results on sleep, schedule it earlier in the day (at least 1 hour before bed.)

https://www.mountsinai.org/health-library/herb/roman-chamomile#:~:text=Pregnant%20women%20should%20avoid%20chamomile,NOT%20take%20it%20and%20drive.

https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4046588/

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