Sleep Tips for People With COPD

Medically Reviewed by Poonam Sachdev on December 19, 2023
6 min read

Many people with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) find it hard to get a good night's sleep. Medications, coughing, and breathing problems get in the way. Daytime sleepiness can make your COPD symptoms worse.

Consider these tips to improve your quality of sleep and manage your COPD better.

Make these healthy habits a part of your life:

If you smoke, get help to quit. Keep your entire house free of secondhand smoke, dust, and pollutants. When you inhale smoke, your air passages get smaller, which makes it harder to breathe.

Start an exercise program. Ask your doctor what you can do. People with COPD often experience drops in oxygen levels at night. Physical activity builds up your oxygen supply. Aim for 30 minutes of exercise a day, three times a week. Try not to do high energy or stressful activities 2 hours before bed.

Don't take naps. If you must, don't nap for longer than about 20 minutes.

Keep a sleep diary. Include what you ate, your medicines, and activities for the day as well as when you went to bed and woke up. Review it to see what helps you sleep better.

Go to bed at the same time every night, even on the weekends. A sleep routine programs your brain and internal clock to relax at the same time each evening.

Your oxygen levels may drop at night and your breathing may slow down. If you use an oxygen mask, wear it when you go to bed.

Changes to your diet may improve your sleep quality. Caffeine and caffeine products can keep you from falling asleep. Stay away from them after dinner. Alcohol may help you fall asleep quickly, but after it wears off, it keeps you wide awake.

It's hard to sleep on a full stomach. So don't eat large meals that are heavy on starchy or sugary carbohydrates too close to bedtime. Eat a well-balanced diet that includes fruits and vegetables as well as lean protein.

Before you're tired, prepare for sleep by doing things that calm you. When you create a relaxing ritual, your mind and body follow. Try these tips for relaxation:

  • Take a warm bath to help your body reach a nice temperature for rest.
  • Journal or write a to-do list for the next day to clear your mind.
  • Relax your muscles with light stretching.
  • Listen to soothing music or a hypnosis recording.
  • Shut off your electronic devices an hour before bed.

Your bedroom should welcome and calm you. A dark room tells your brain it's time for bed. Blackout curtains shut out any light from outside.

Create a comfortable and cool space with a temperature between 60 F and 71 F. Get rid of clutter as it can cause stress. Aromatherapy with lavender can make it easier to fall asleep.

Keep electronics such as your smartphone, computer, and TV out of your bedroom.

Your lung capacity is lower when you're flat on your back. Sleep with your head slightly higher than the rest of your body.

If you prefer lying on your side, place a pillow between your legs and keep your back straight. When you sleep on your back, bend your knees slightly with a pillow placed under them.

In BiPAP therapy, a machine helps you breathe through a mask connected to a tube, usually as you sleep.

Some evidence shows that BiPAP therapy might help in certain types of COPD cases. But scientists need more information to find out where and when it helps most.

Your overall health, other illnesses, and the type and stage of your COPD all make a difference.

Although some people have had success at home, many doctors recommend this therapy only in a hospital setting, especially at first. Medical personnel may need to watch its effects on things like the blood oxygen and carbon dioxide levels in your blood and your breathing muscles.

If you use BiPAP therapy for your COPD at home after you leave the hospital, you may need to go back to your health care provider for new tests from time to time.

How does BiPAP work?

In the simplest terms, a BiPAP machine helps you breathe as you sleep. Light air pressure from the BiPAP machine helps make sure your airway doesn't close and interrupt your breathing as you sleep.

The machine has a small motor that blows air into a tube that connects to a mask that covers your nose and mouth, or in some cases just your nose.

The "Bi" in BiPAP stands for "bilevel." It means there are two levels of pressure: a normal one as you breathe in and a lower one that makes it easier to breathe out. 

If you have moderate to severe COPD, you may use a BiPAP machine at the hospital to help with sudden symptoms. You can also use it at home to help with sleep. It'll keep your blood oxygen levels up and remove carbon dioxide.

But BiPAP is not always helpful for COPD. Talk to your doctor about whether you are a good candidate for BiPAP-aided breathing.

Breathing might be even harder when you have obstructive sleep apnea and COPD.

Some people think that having COPD makes you more likely to get sleep apnea. But recent studies have found the chances of getting sleep apnea are about the same whether you have COPD or not.

Still, if you have both conditions, it's important to know how one affects the other and the steps you can take to make your breathing and your life easier.

What is obstructive sleep apnea?

Obstructive sleep apnea happens when your breathing stops briefly on and off throughout the night. Each pause may last only a few seconds. You might have hundreds of these interruptions every night.

It has many causes, but the most common one happens when the muscles in the back of your throat relax too much while you're sleeping. They can block the airway in your throat.

People with sleep apnea tend to snore. They also gasp for breath when their breathing pauses.

About 10% to 30% of people with COPD also have sleep apnea. That combination is called "overlap syndrome" and raises your chances of having:

CPAP therapy

CPAP therapy means a special machine helps you breathe with a tube, usually as you sleep. Doctors use it most often to treat obstructive sleep apnea.

Does it help with COPD? It depends. Some research shows it might help in certain types of COPD cases. But more studies are needed.

Whether CPAP helps you depends in part on your overall health, and the type and stage of your COPD.

Some doctors recommend observing this treatment in a hospital setting at first. If you use CPAP therapy for your COPD at home after a hospital stay, you may need to return to your doctor for new tests from time to time.

How does CPAP work?

CPAP stands for continuous positive airway pressure. Light air pressure from the CPAP machine helps make sure your airway stays open as you sleep. That keeps your breathing from being interrupted.

The CPAP machine has a small motor that blows air into a tube that connects to a mask that covers your nose and mouth, or in some cases just your nose. Some people find the constant airflow from the CPAP less comfortable than the BiPAP. 

You might use a CPAP at the hospital to help with especially intense symptoms. Or you might use it at home.

Regular CPAP use doesn't always help people with COPD. Talk to your doctor about whether a CPAP machine could help with your COPD.