By Joan Monchak Lorenz, MSN, RN, PMHCNS-BC
A cat eats and sleeps. Then maybe it plays with some string. A cat eats and sleeps. Then maybe it stretches. A cat eats and sleeps. Then maybe it curls up on your lap. A cat eats and sleeps.
If only our patients were cats, sleeping and eating without any concerns. Unfortunately, our patients are people. And many people suffer from two very common conditions: problems sleeping and problems eating. As a nurse, you need to have a tool kit of helpful hints and tricks to help your patients.
Catch up on your zzz’s
The normal sleep cycle is about one-and-a-half hours in length and includes passing through five stages of sleep: Stages 1, 2, 3, and 4 are sometimes called non-rapid eye movement sleep, and are followed by a period of rapid eye movement (REM) sleep.
Stages 1 and 2 are periods of light sleep during which eye movement, heart rate, and breathing slow down. Stages 3 and 4 are deeper periods of sleep. People awakened during these stages often feel disoriented and groggy. It is the deeper stages of sleep—REM sleep—that refresh the body. It is a time when breaths quicken, the heart beats faster, muscles become immobile, and the person experiences vivid dreams.
In search of some rest
People of all ages can experience trouble sleeping. Parents complain that babies and children have erratic sleep patterns; teens are notorious for staying up all night and wanting to sleep during the day; adults complain of not getting enough sleep; and older adults complain that they have trouble staying asleep.
Activities that help promote sleep are the same throughout a person’s lifespan. First, make sure your patients have careful and comprehensive assessments of their sleep problems. For example, if a person is having trouble sleeping because of allergies or enlarged tonsils and adenoids, these need to be addressed. People with restless leg syndrome or other limb movement disorders need to be evaluated and treated properly. Obstructive sleep apnea, a serious cause of sleep problems, also needs prompt attention.
Here is a list of hints that you can give your patients to help them sleep and feel rested in the morning:
Avoid stimulants. Cutting caffeine at least four to six hours before bedtime can help a patient fall asleep easier. Caution them to avoid using alcohol as a sleep aid. Alcohol may initially help a person fall asleep, but it also causes disturbances in sleep resulting in less restful sleep. Restrict nicotine, as it too is a stimulant.
Relax before bedtime. Provide time for quiet activities in the hour before bedtime. Try reading something light or doing some light stretching. Many nurses use aromatherapy for its relaxant effect, and commonly used essential oils include oils of chamomile, jasmine, lavender, neroli, rose, and marjoram. Add a few drops to a warm bath or sprinkle a few drops on a handkerchief or pillow. It is important to understand the difference between essential oils and fragrances.
Other bedtime relaxation rituals that might work include asking the patient to gently wiggle his or her toes. You could also give him or her a head message, and/or ask the patient to apply lotion to his or her hands and feet.
Provide for a comfortable bedroom situation. Keep the patient’s bedroom as quiet, dark, and comfortable as tolerated. For many people, even the slightest noise or light can disturb sleep. Ear plugs and eye masks may help. Ideal room temperatures for sleeping are between 68°F and 72°F. Temperatures above 75°F or below about 54°F can disrupt sleep (Kryger et al.).
Eat right, sleep tight. Help the patient to eat sensibly during the day and to avoid heavy meals before bedtime. Foods high in tryptophan, such as milk, can promote sleep. The patient can also try a bit of carbohydrate in the form of cereal or a banana, and should avoid overeating, as this may cause indigestion.
Caution the patient to avoid drinking fluids after 8 p.m. Waking up to go to the bathroom may disrupt sleep and the patient may not be able to fall asleep again once disrupted.
Start a routine. Do not allow the patient to nap during the day. Waking up at the same time in the morning helps develop a sleep rhythm.
Just (help them) relax!
Progressive relaxation and relaxation breathing exercises can also aid in sleep. Progressive muscle relaxation (PMR) was described by Edmund Jacobson, MD, PhD, in the 1930s, and is based upon his premise that mental calmness is a natural result of physical relaxation. It is a deep relaxation technique that has been used to relieve insomnia as well as aid in the reduction of stress, anxiety, and pain. Simply stated, PMR is the practice of tensing (tightening) a muscle group and then releasing (relaxing) it, followed by moving on to another muscle group and repeating the process until you have systematically tensed and relaxed all muscles in the body.
Almost anyone can learn PMR. Usually it is best to start at the head or the feet. For example, start at the head and work down through all the body muscle groups, or start at the feet and work up to the head. Practicing relaxation breathing at the same time you practice PMR adds benefit.
Many people like to practice PMR in bed just before sleep, but it can be practiced in a sitting position as well. Sometimes PMR is a useful technique to use during long and tedious meetings.
Here’s how to start PMR:
- Inhale and contract all your facial muscles, squeezing your eyes together, puckering up your mouth, and scrunching up your face. Now exhale and relax your facial muscles.
- Inhale and tighten your neck muscles, and then exhale and release.
- Inhale and contract your upper chest and upper back, and then exhale and release.
- Inhale and contract the muscles in your left arm and hand, and then exhale and release.
- Continue working your way through your body, contracting each muscle group and then releasing.
During PMR, keep your breath calm and do not hold it. Breathe in when contracting or tensing your muscles, and breathe out during release. As you practice this technique on your own or with your patients, gradually pay more attention to the release of body tension, as well as emotional tension.
Relaxation or diaphragmatic breathing
Using the diaphragm and not the chest is the most efficient and relaxing way to breathe. Chest breathing elicits anxiety. Try it: Breathe only with your chest and see how you gradually become more and more anxious. Now, switch to breathing with your diaphragm, bringing in your breath through your nose, allowing it to slide through your chest without raising your chest, and continuing down to the area just above your navel. Some people have difficulty pushing out their abdominal area when inhaling and it may take some practice. But with practice, you and the patients you teach will find that it comes more naturally and that it results in a more alert and relaxed feeling.
To practice diaphragmatic breathing, try the following:
- Put one hand on your chest and the other on your abdominal area. Spread your fingers open, put the little finger near the navel, and put the thumb near the end of the sternum.
- Pay attention to your breathing. Breathe in slowly through your nose, allowing the breath to flow through the chest (keeping the hand over the chest still) and flow down toward the other hand, filling up the space under that hand.
- Continue to breathe in and blow up that space below the diaphragm like a big balloon.
- Now, exhale through the nose or mouth, sucking in the abdominal area to expel as much air as possible.
- Do not hold your breath, but continue with an inhalation through the nose again. Repeat this process for five to 10 minutes to feel a relaxation response.
Caring for sleepwalkers
Most sleepwalkers are children, but occasionally a teen or adult will sleepwalk if he or she is sick, has a fever, is sleep deprived, or is under stress. Sleepwalkers tend to go back to bed on their own and don’t usually remember sleepwalking. However, sometimes nurses need to prevent injury and help a sleepwalker move around obstacles in their way. Sometimes nurses may need to help them find their way back to their bed, especially if they are in unfamiliar surroundings. Sleepwalkers may startle easily, so it is best to guide them back to bed gently without waking them.