Dear two legged creepy crawlies,
For most of my life I have taken pride in being a “night owl.” I’ve always loved sleeping in late and staying up later. Mentally I’ve always felt more capable of focusing at night, not to mention more mentally active. As I grew older and more unwell, this began to contradict the fact that physically I feel more sick as the day progresses. When I was younger, my first love was practically nocturnal; I’d stay up all night with him, go to school, come home, nap for hours, and proceed to do it over again. I enjoyed it for the most part (minus the getting in trouble with my parent on a regular basis). Now, the idea of staying up all night seems unfathomable, because I simply don’t know how I’d survive for that long. It’s almost as if my body has a dial being slowly rotated towards zero. When I finally reach zero, I can hardly function.
As I have become more open about my disability and chronic illness, I have come into contact with others who relate to me. I’ve found that regardless of how different our illnesses are, we still seem to have commonalities; one of them being that for many of us, night time is when we feel the worst. This has been especially true for me lately. The past week, I’ve been in such agony that by 8pm I could hardly walk and would have to take a muscle relaxant. Due to being a curious little monster, I have decided that it’s time to do some internet sleuthing and figure out just why this is. To the Magic Google Machine!
To be honest, I hadn’t the slightest idea where to start my research. I began as literally as possible. “Why do people feel more sick at night?” I asked the MGM. “Bitch, I don’t know, I’m not Google! Oh…wait…yes I am,” it replied. After it was done being extremely rude, it found several different articles somewhat in the realm I was looking for. I discovered that it seemed literally every type of illness tends to get worse at night. Asthma, Arthritis, colds and flus, even heart disease. My research also brought up our Circadian rhythms, which may be the connecting culprit as to why we feel worse. This wasn’t quite enough though, and I felt a bit stuck. When I don’t know what to do about medical things, I run to one of my favorite human beings on the entire planet, my dearest friend Chris. He’s one of the most intelligent people I’ve ever met, and since he’s in medical school, he’s one of the few people I can talk to about these medical things who 100% gets it. He may not always have answers, but he always tries to bring me understanding, and I am forever grateful for it. It’s also nice that he never minds me texting him, “QUESTION!” at any given moment.
Chris brought up the term sundowning, a symptom I’ve recently become familiar with since my grandmother has Alzheimer’s. Sundowning basically means that the person feels worse the later in the day it gets. before my grandmother was being properly cared for, she would be fairly pleasant in the daytime, but as soon as it became night she would be anxious, aggressive, and heartbreakingly filled with sorrow. Chris also explained that while no one really knows why we feel worse at night, part of it could be that sleep allows our bodies to repair themselves. The longer you’re not sleeping, the less of a chance your body has to work on building you back up and the longer it has been since the last shift. In the case of the chronically ill, considering our bodies are always fighting, our immune systems really have a big job on their (metaphorical) hands.
For some illnesses it’s a bit more obvious as to why they worsen at night. If you have asthma, the fact that you are reclined when sleeping and your airways are cooling and narrowing can aggravate the condition. As for other illnesses, the answer isn’t so clear. There’s tons of theories, of course, but the answer ultimately is, well, we just don’t know.
Between all my diagnoses and the symptoms that continue to go unanswered, “I don’t know,” is my least favorite response. That’s the problem with the medical world; there is so much we have to discover and so much left to understand because our bodies are extraordinarily complex machines. We are constantly making advances, and of course as a perpetual patient I am thankful, but there’s also so much that’s still unknown. As Hank Green says, the most intelligent people are often the most content with admitting they don’t have answers, because only then can they be available to learn.
While none of that is much comfort, the one fact that I can assure you of, my darling readers, is that you are not alone in your pain and struggle. If you feel that your symptoms worsen at night and disrupt your activities and sleep, it isn’t all in your head. There is loads of proof that it’s common to feel more sick at night, and while it’s unclear as to exactly why, it is very real. As someone chronically ill it’s unfortunately easy to be invalidated by my own doubt, others, or even by those in the medical field on occasion. For most of my life I was told I was dramatic, a “giant baby,” a hypochondriac, and that I was blowing my health issues far out of proportion. 15 diagnoses later, I’ve proven most of those people wrong, whether they admit it or not.
I’m hoping that as I grow older and learn to function better with all my illness, I’ll be able to live the best version of my life. I also have a great deal of faith in the medical community. While our medical system is deeply flawed and not every doctor and nurse has given me positive interactions, there are many more who are working as hard as they can towards understanding and helping those who are sick, and for the right reasons. As for us sick ones, for now the best we can do is support ourselves, educate ourselves with the knowledge we do have, stay open minded to what comes next, and most importantly, pour love on each other.
I’ve got nothing to say,
I’ve got nothing to say.
I’ve got nothing to give,
Got no reason to live,
But I’ll kill to survive,
I’ve got nothing to hide.
Wish I wasn’t so shy.
My amazing friend Chris who tolerates me more than most.
Why Illnesses Get Worse at Night: From arthritis to colds and even heart disease, changes in your body clock – and the fact you’re lying down – can send symptoms soaring By Thea Jourdan
Asthma and Sleep – National Sleep Foundation