For those of us who are caregivers for loved ones with any kind of brain injury, including traumatic brain injury, acquired brain injury, stroke, or any diagnoses that result in brain injury, sleep can be a challenge and a point of frustration. It is one of the most important things we can use to maintain our health and well-being as caregivers, but also one of the things that will help or hinder the long-term prognosis of our loved ones and their recoveries.
I have been caring for Mark for 6 years, prior to that, I really was sold a bill of goods my entire life that I could run on 5-6 hours of sleep and still remain healthy and at my best mentally and cognitively. However, the newest evidence suggests I was so wrong. Now that I have started to prioritize sleep and set a goal for 8 hours per night, I have seen an improvement in my ability to problem solve, my patience as a caregiver, may stamina, my immune system, my performance at work as well as a decrease in my anxiety, forgetfulness and even the achiness in my muscles and joints (which I actually blamed on my age).
The newest medical evidence suggests that a lack of sleep can have a detrimental effect on multiple areas of our overall health and well-being. Lack of sleep can cause memory impairment, increased agitation, decreased ability to problem solve. hallucinations, lack of focus, decreased brain volume and even increased impulsive decision making. If you are a caregiver for anyone, these losses can impact your ability to continue to provide optimum care and can also adversely affect the choices you make regarding your own health.
Understanding that often, sleep is elusive for those of us under the compounding stress of caregiving, there are some things we can do to stack the deck in our favor to promote better sleep. While this might seem to be low on your never-ending list of tasks, remember, sleep is the time when our body also removes toxins from the brain and without it, the long-term damage can become irreversible, leading you to be on the receiving end of the caregiver spectrum.
Good sleep hygiene is one thing that we can all do to improve sleep. Turn off electronics at least 2 hours before heading to bed. While it is tempting to play on your phone, online shop or watch your favorite shows, evidence has shown the light produced by our electronics messes with the sleeping chemicals in our brain, leading to poorer quality and quantity of sleep. Read a book, pray, meditate, do something relaxing that does not involve electronics.
Exercise 20-30 minutes a day, but not too close to bedtime. Physical activity is good for so many reasons, but it is especially helpful to help our bodies from both a physical, mental and emotional place, making us much more ready to get sleep at night.
Avoid caffeine and alcohol before bedtime. Both of these have their place and I am not suggesting that you give them up completely, however we know now that caffeine after 2pm is often a culprit in poor sleep quality and alcohol prevents us from going into the ever important REM sleep that we need to be at our best.
Habits including trying to go to bed and wake up at the same time, using the bedroom only for sleep and sex, keeping a TV out of the bedroom and even establishing a bedtime rountine will allow you to gain a better quality and quantity of sleep. In turn, giving you a better quality of life and helping you to feel your best.
For those of us with loved ones who have a brain injury, sleep for them is also very important. You may find that the person you are caring for is sleeping excessively to have difficulty with sleep. Depending on the affected area of the brain, sleep can be impacted in a multitude of ways. However, the benefits of sleep for those with any kind of brain injury are great!
Quality sleep supports neuroplasticity, allowing the brain to make new connections in an effort to repair areas that have been damaged. As mentioned earlier, while we sleep, the brain clears out the “garbage”. For those with damage to the brain, this is a way to ensure that the brain doesn’t get “clogged” which would ultimately impair healing.
If your loved one is not getting good quality of sleep after a brain injury, try the ideas listed above to see if you are able to improve sleep with good sleep hygiene. If that is not effective, reach out to your loved one’s health care provider and report the issues you see with sleep and ask for recommendations. They may order a sleep study, supplements such as calcium, magnesium or melatonin, or they may ultimately trial pharmaceutical solutions.
Unfortunately, for most of us who are of the more mature generation, lack of sleep, working around the clock, being a martyr was glamorized and seen as someone who really was a hard worker or selfless. It’s time to change this narrative. It is not appropriate for anyone to lose sleep in an effort to prove themselves. The best thing you can do for yourself and your loved one is to stay balanced, well and happy.