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Sleeping Soundly When You Are HIV Positive

A Good Night's Sleep Is an Elusive Dream for Many People Living With HIV

Winter 2013

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Strategiezzz ...

Finding the solution that's right for you might not happen overnight, but persistence and trying different strategies with the support of a knowledgeable doctor can go a long way. Here are some suggestions:

Stay away from the light! Light at night is one reason why many people don't get enough sleep. Our circadian rhythms respond to the light and dark around us. Derived from the Latin words circa and diem, meaning "around a day," the term describes our sleep/wake pattern, hormone release, body temperature and other bodily functions over a 24-hour period. In the past, people would wake up with the sun and go to bed with the moon, but the lightbulb changed all that. Bathed in artificial light long after the sun has set, many of us find our patterns out of sync with our body's biological clock. And our sleep suffers from it. (Research suggests that it may also contribute to cancer, diabetes, heart disease and obesity.)

In the absence of light, our bodies release the hormone melatonin, which helps us get to sleep. When we are exposed to light, the release of melatonin is suppressed and makes sleep more difficult. Any kind of light has this effect, but the "blue light" emitted from electronic devices makes it particularly easy to disregard the body's readiness for sleep. That is why it is important to sleep in total darkness. The best way to achieve this is with a specialized window covering that blocks outside light (a "blackout blind"), but a sleep mask is effective as well. It is also important to eliminate all sources of light in the bedroom, including all blinking lights or display screens, by turning them off, taping over them or removing them altogether.


Cut back on caffeine. Caffeine is the world's most consumed psychoactive (mind-altering) drug and can be found in coffee, tea, soda, energy drinks and chocolate. Coffee is the most popular choice, with 65% of Canadians drinking an average of 2.8 cups per day. With its ability to boost energy, increase alertness and improve mood, it is a simple solution for a quick pick-me-up. Unfortunately, it can also disrupt sleep patterns. A central nervous system stimulant, caffeine increases the heart rate, core temperature and blood pressure, which, in turn, can increase the time needed to get to sleep, decrease sleep duration and limit your time spent in deep sleep.

Caffeine has a half-life of five hours -- that's how long it takes to metabolize half the amount circulating in your system. So if you drank a 12-oz coffee containing 260 mg of caffeine at 8 am, there would be 33 mg of caffeine left in your system by 11 pm, which is more than enough to disrupt sleep.

Want to sleep better? Here are some caffeine tips:

  1. Limit your consumption after 10 am.
  2. Reduce your overall intake -- withdrawal symptoms like headaches can occur within 48 hours after you stop and can last two to nine days. If this happens, you're on the right track!
  3. Decaf does not mean caffeine-free -- that same coffee still has 20 mg of caffeine.

Check your meds and supplements. Review with your doctor all the medications and supplements you're taking to determine if any of them could be to blame. Dr. Montaner points out that it's essential to find the medication regimen best suited for each individual -- one that is highly effective and can be taken long-term without disrupting daily activities. "Antiretroviral therapy is a lifelong proposition," he says. "This is a marriage that has to work."

Some cough and cold medicines, Gravol, antihistamines and other over-the-counter remedies are used to help people sleep; however, these can exacerbate underlying sleep problems and, when used over time, can lead to anxiety and depression.

Get your vitamins and minerals. If you have a calcium or vitamin B12 deficiency, taking a B-complex vitamin along with calcium and magnesium supplements can help your muscles relax.

Seek peace of mind. If an underlying emotional issue is keeping you awake, seeing a psychologist, counsellor or other health professional can help with depression, anxiety and other issues. A healthy support system and meditation, yoga or acupuncture can also help you rest easier.

Avoid sleeping pills. Sleeping pills offer a short-term solution for some people, but using them over the long-term can create dependency, negatively impact sleep architecture and make you feel drowsy the next day.

You are getting sleepy ... A bedtime routine is essential for quality rest. We know its value for children, so why do so few adults have one? A consistent bedtime routine, which ideally starts 60 minutes before hitting the hay, helps you prepare for sleep by giving your day closure, quieting your mind and relaxing your body. A few pointers:

  1. Turn off all electronics.
  2. Dim the lights to start the release of melatonin.
  3. Listen to soft music.
  4. Set the temperature in your bedroom between 16°C and 20°C and make sure the room is well ventilated.
  5. Have a hot bath. The rapid drop in body temperature that occurs when you get out will help you fall asleep.
  6. Spend time reading, stretching or meditating.
  7. Try some deep breathing in bed: Inhale for five seconds, hold for two seconds, exhale for five seconds. Repeat until asleep.

When Jasmine gets home from her night shift, around 3 am, she says it's not as easy for her to "do the whole wind down/relaxation thing, the way a person who works regular hours would." Instead, she finds that putting on a pair of blue-light-blocking glasses for two to three hours before bed helps; in fact, she swears by it. She starts wearing them toward the end of her shift and doesn't remove them until she's in bed with the lights off. She also makes a point of exercising (cross-training, kick-boxing, roller-blading or biking) during the day, which helps with her sleep. Although working nights isn't easy, her modified regimen of anti-HIV drugs combined with these lifestyle changes has helped.

As for Terry, after years of trial and error, he now has a roster of strategies that have turned his formerly sleepless nights into long, uninterrupted deep sleeps. He tweaked his medication schedule (he now takes his meds at 7 or 8 pm in BC and at 9 or 10 pm in Asia) so that he no longer needs to call for room service in the middle of the night. He consulted with a dietitian who recommended light meals (nothing greasy) before a flight to reduce jet lag. When travelling, he routinely orders hotel turndown service, to make sure his room is completely dark at bedtime (he also tapes the curtains to the wall to make extra sure that no light comes through when day breaks). Regular Chinese acupressure massages and use of the hotel steam rooms or a bath help him relax before bed. Emotionally, he is now faring much better. When asked how he sleeps, he says unequivocally, "Like a baby."

For 23 years, David Evans woke up feeling the same way he did when he went to bed. Desperate for answers, he did his own research, met with specialists and completed an overnight sleep study. Blood tests turned up nothing. Meds for sleep, anxiety, depression and daytime drowsiness produced more side effects than benefits. His relationships and finances were a mess and he had difficulty holding down a job. He became isolated and considered suicide as he longed for a state of non-existence.

Fast-forward to today: David's sleep is under control and he is leading an energetic life. He no longer needs caffeine, naps are a rarity and he takes no sleep medication. Since transforming his own life, he now dedicates his time to helping others sleep soundly. He has delivered the workshop "Better Than Counting Sheep" at Positive Living BC and Vancouver Friends for Life Society. For more info, visit

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This article was provided by Canadian AIDS Treatment Information Exchange. It is a part of the publication The Positive Side. Visit CATIE's Web site to find out more about their activities, publications and services.
See Also
10 Things You Can Do to Enhance Your Emotional Well-Being
More Advice on Coping With HIV/AIDS


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