Sleep and Chronic Illness

Medically Reviewed by Nayana Ambardekar, MD on August 14, 2021
2 min read

Sleep problems can be due to a long-term or chronic illness, such as diabetes, arthritis, HIV/AIDS, lupus, Parkinson's disease, Alzheimer's disease, and multiple sclerosis.

The pain and fatigue of chronic illness have a large impact on people’s daily lives, including sleep. Because of their illness, they often have trouble sleeping at night and are sleepy during the day. This is especially the case for people who have neurological (nervous system) diseases such as Parkinson's and Alzheimer's. Insomnia and other sleep disorders can make the person's pain and quality of life worse. In addition, some drugs used to treat chronic illnesses can cause sleep problems.

People who have a chronic illness may also have depression or anxiety, which can also cause sleep problems.

Pain control

The first step to treating sleep problems linked to chronic illnesses is to try to control the pain tied to the illness. Once pain is controlled, sleeping may not be a problem. Your doctor can prescribe medication that suits your condition.

Behavioral modifications

If you’ve managed the pain but you still can’t sleep, these simple steps may help.

  • Keep noise in the room and surrounding area down as much as possible.
  • Sleep in a dark room.
  • Keep the room temperature as comfortable as possible.
  • Eat or drink foods that induce sleep, such as warm milk.
  • Avoid naps during the day.
  • Avoid foods and drinks that contain caffeine.

Other non-medicinal approaches are effective for sleep problems, including biofeedback, relaxation training, cognitive behavioral therapy, and sleep restriction techniques. With these therapies, you’ll probably work with a psychologist who specializes in sleep disorders.


If these methods don’t work for you, your doctor may suggest a prescription medication to help you  sleep. These drugs include sleeping pills like eszopiclone (Lunesta), zaleplon (Sonata), and zolpidem (Ambien) as well as benzodiazepines such as alprazolam (Xanax), antidepressants, antihistamines, and antipsychotics. For patients who have chronic pain and depression, insomnia may best be treated with tricyclic antidepressants.

It's usually a good idea to try non-drug pain-reducing methods before turning to sleeping pills. When sleeping pills are prescribed, it's best to use them for a short time only (less than 2 weeks). If they are used for longer periods, sleep medications may cause tolerance and psychological dependence.

Talk to your doctor to find the best sleep solution for you.