Did you know that up to 70 million Americans are struggling with sleep deprivation?
If you have endometriosis, you’re probably familiar with insomnia, or “painsomnia,” as it’s commonly referred to within the endo community. Thankfully, it’s no longer my endometriosis that keeps me awake at night, but rather my continuing interstitial cystitis problems and dysregulated cortisol levels, which leave me either in pain or totally wired at 3 a.m.
It’s something I constantly work on, because as my sleep improves, my bladder pain improves. However, the opposite also is true. If I have a series of sleepless nights, within a few days, my bladder pain will feel like it’s at a breaking point, and that it has spilled over into the rest of my body, leaving everything from my waist down aching.
Is it in my head?
Actually, lack of sleep genuinely increases pain levels and affects endometriosis and other chronic pain conditions.
While I appreciate that the following information might be depressing to those of us with insomnia, I hope that by sharing the effects of sleep deprivation, those of us who can sleep more but choose to spend a few hours watching Netflix instead might be inspired to wrap it up an hour earlier.
And for those of us with insomnia, perhaps reading the following information might motivate us to take further action and do our own research to get to the root problem.
Having said all of that, here are five key ways that lack of sleep can affect endometriosis:
Most of us are now aware of the deep connection between endometriosis and inflammation. Inflammatory chemical compounds are actually involved in the development of endometriosis, but endometriosis also triggers the immune system to inflame the area, while the endo patches themselves release inflammatory chemicals into the pelvic cavity. Needless to say, that’s a lot of inflammation, and we know inflammation plays a big role in creating pain.
Unfortunately, lack of sleep causes an increase in inflammation as well, so you may find yourself in worsening pain or swelling the day after a bad nights’ sleep.
If you’ve followed my columns for a while, you’ll know that I write a lot about hormonal balance and blood sugar. The main reason for this is that dysregulated blood sugar can cause an increase in inflammation and trigger problems like estrogen dominance. Estrogen dominance symptoms include clotty, heavy, or painful periods, PMS, and mood swings — many of which are symptoms commonly reported by those of us with endometriosis.
Lack of sleep actually causes insulin resistance. Insulin is the hormone that carries glucose to our cells for energy, and if our body isn’t responsive to it, blood sugar problems can really come into play, resulting in hormonal imbalances over time as well as other issues.
In fact, one study demonstrated that four hours of sleep for just six nights in a row resulted in a prediabetic state!
Coupled with inflammation, research also has shown that a lack of sleep increases our sensitivity to pain and decreases the brain’s natural pain-relieving chemicals, such as dopamine. So, even if nothing has changed internally, your brain is firing off pain signals at a more intense rate than it did the previous day, resulting in worsening pain.
This one is pretty obvious, but it’s worth stating. For those of us experiencing chronic fatigue, it’s essential that we get adequate sleep — at least about eight hours. However, sleep scientist Matthew Walker suggests that those of us with either chronic or acute illness may require more sleep, and I commonly see that in myself and my clients.
For example, some clients may get eight hours of sleep and still feel terrible, but if they bump it up to nine or 10 hours, the change in ongoing fatigue is dramatically noticeable. Clients report no longer needing to self-medicate with caffeine or sugar, they no longer need daytime naps, and they actually have steady energy throughout the day!
Depression and anxiety
While we’ve known for some time that insomnia can be a symptom of depression and anxiety, we’re now discovering that sleep deprivation can increase the risk of developing depression and anxiety, and also can exacerbate them.
Depression and anxiety not only can make living with endometriosis more difficult, but also they can worsen how we experience pain by causing our brains to feel unsafe and under threat, resulting in a heightened pain response.
What to do about it?
Firstly, know that this isn’t an overnight fix. Don’t beat yourself up about it. Instead, actively work on improving your sleep over time, and be kind to yourself in the process. I recommend starting here and reading up on Matthew Walker’s evidence-based advice about overcoming sleep problems.
Note: Endometriosis News is strictly a news and information website about the disease. It does not provide medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. This content is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health provider with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition. Never disregard professional medical advice or delay in seeking it because of something you have read on this website. The opinions expressed in this column are not those of Endometriosis News or its parent company, BioNews, and are intended to spark discussion about issues pertaining to endometriosis.