Woman with cannula looking very tired. Night sky in the background.

Sleep Disorders and COPD

Reviewed by: HU Medical Review Board | Last reviewed: April 2022 | Last updated: June 2022

Getting a good night’s sleep is an important part of our overall health and well-being. However, people living with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) often have trouble sleeping. In fact, anywhere from 34 to 78 percent of people with COPD have some form of sleep disorder.1

Poor sleep can leave you feeling groggy and tired the next day. It can also cause headaches. If left untreated, prolonged sleep disorders can impact a person’s quality of life and introduce other, more serious health issues.1,2

What sleep disorders are common in people with COPD?

People with COPD are more prone to having the following sleep disorders:1,2Insomnia: A common sleep disorder that makes it hard to fall asleep and stay asleep
Obstructive sleep apnea (OSA): A sleep-related breathing disorder in which you repeatedly start and stop breathing as you sleep
Restless legs syndrome (RLS): This irresistible urge to move your legs often gets worse in the evenings and can keep you awake at night

People with COPD are also more likely to experience anxiety and depression. This is because having trouble sleeping impacts your daily life and can cause you to feel foggy, irritable, and more prone to mental health issues.1,2

How does COPD cause sleep disorders?

COPD comes with many symptoms that can disrupt your sleep. These include:1,2

  • Difficulty breathing
  • Chest tightening
  • Coughing, wheezing, and breathlessness
  • Acid reflux
  • Anxiety/depression

Because our breathing slows at night, those with COPD can have lower levels of oxygen during the night. Drops in oxygen levels can impact the quality of sleep and cause headaches and grogginess the next day. Plus, lying flat on your back reduces lung capacity and makes breathing even harder for people with COPD.2

Some medicines used to treat COPD may make it more difficult to fall asleep. Drugs called bronchodilators can make breathing easier but can also impact your sleep. Tell your doctor if you are having problems going to sleep while taking any kind of bronchodilator.2

What are the consequences of having COPD and a sleep disorder?

Not getting enough sleep can impact nearly every part of our lives. For people with COPD, not getting enough sleep can result in:1,2

  • Sleepiness during the daytime
  • Snoring, gasping, or choking during the night
  • Morning headaches
  • Feeling drowsy or confused when you wake up
  • Slower reaction time
  • Feeling irritable
  • Difficulty remembering things or solving problems

Some sleep problems can even worsen your COPD. Sleep apnea causes low oxygen and breathing difficulties on its own. Having COPD and sleep apnea, also called overlap syndrome, can cause other health problems, such as:2

  • Irregular heartbeat (arrhythmia)
  • High blood pressure (hypertension)
  • Heart attack from the stress both conditions put on the heart

If you think you may have sleep apnea, speak with your doctor. They may recommend a sleep study to get an accurate diagnosis. Sleep apnea is usually easy to manage with a special device called a continuous positive airway pressure (CPAP) machine.2

Ask your doctor about oxygen therapy. Some people with COPD can benefit from this, and it might help them sleep better.3

Tips for better sleep

While there is no cure for COPD, it can be treated. In turn, treatment can help resolve some sleep issues. Lifestyle habits that may help you get more restful shut-eye include:2

  • Do not smoke. And if you do smoke, quit
  • Elevate your head at night so it is easier to breathe
  • If you get acid reflux at night, avoid alcohol, spicy foods, and heavy meals later in the day
  • Avoid naps during the day so you are tired at bedtime. If you do need a nap, keep it to under 30 minutes
  • Eat a healthy diet rich in vegetables and fruit in order to get the antioxidants, vitamins, and minerals you need
  • Keep a regular sleep-wake routine
  • Avoid using electronic devices about an hour before bedtime. The blue light from TVs, phones, and tablets can keep you awake
  • Exercise regularly.

Speak with your doctor

If you have COPD and you think you may have a sleeping problem, talk with your doctor. They may refer you to a sleep specialist. A sleep evaluation can help them understand what is causing your sleep disruption and the best ways to treat it.

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This article represents the opinions, thoughts, and experiences of the author; none of this content has been paid for by any advertiser. The COPD.net team does not recommend or endorse any products or treatments discussed herein. Learn more about how we maintain editorial integrity here.

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