Insomnia – disturbed sleep
The main HIV drugs that affect sleep are efavirenz and dolutegravir. Efavirenz needs to be taken at night, but if problems continue it is better to change to a different drug. Sleep problems with dolutegravir are more rare. These usually go away by taking dolutegravir in the morning.
But most sleep problems are more likely to be symptoms of other problems rather than being a side effect of HIV treatment.
This is always important enough to tell your doctor. We all need regular, good quality sleep. Sleep is an essential part of a healthy life. It is a time when your body is able to rest and repair.
Without good sleep, either in the long or short term, our ability to think, speak and concentrate will be reduced. We quickly become irritable. We have slower reactions, and our memory and judgement will be affected.
Sleep problems are generally under-reported, under-diagnosed and under-treated. Keeping a sleep diary for the week before you see your doctor can help diagnose some of the problems.
Insomnia is more often related to depression than a side effect of HIV treatment. One study reported that 1 in 3 people living with HIV had symptoms of depression. In 40% of cases this was not being treated.
Our psychological health relates closely to our physical health. Getting a referral for support for depression, including treatment if appropriate, might help with sleep problems.
Factors affecting sleep include:
- Problems falling asleep at night.
- Waking up too early in the morning.
- Waking throughout the night and only getting intermittent sleep.
A sleep diary can include when you fall asleep and when you wake up – on weekdays and weekends. Include any naps you have during the day.
- Record how you feel about the general quality of your sleep, including vivid dreaming or nightmares.
- Record drug and alcohol use -– or changes in use such as withdrawal or cutting back on either.
- Caffeine in tea, coffee and cola can affect your ability to sleep, even many hours before you go to bed. Keep a record of how much caffeine you drink during the day and see if changing to a non-caffeine alternative helps.
- Include details about your sleep environment. How comfortable is your bed? Is the room warm and quiet?
- Include when you normally eat. Leaving a couple of hours between your last meal and going to sleep will improve the chance of better sleep.
Stress and worry can easily disrupt your sleep pattern, as can ongoing health concerns, especially if they are painful or uncomfortable.
Your doctor should also give you a physical check up and blood tests to check for cardiovascular, respiratory or hormonal reasons, especially thyroid function, that might be causing sleep disturbance.
Sleeping pills are only usually prescribed when other self-help remedies have been tried. They are used to help re-establish a pattern of sleeping. They are not recommended or generally prescribed for long-term use.
Sleeping tablets should only be used for a short period and at the lowest dose.
All sleeping pills work in a similar way by reducing brain activity, but the type of sleep they produce varies between different types of drug. They can help you sleep, but the depressed brain activity means that the quality of sleep is often not as good as natural sleep, and you might still not feel rested the next day.
Sleeping pills reduce the amount of ‘dream sleep’ that you get which is an important component of good sleep. Sometimes this can leave you feeling drowsy the next day. They can become less effective after even a few days’ use, and you can develop a physical or psychological dependency if they are used for more than 1–2 weeks.
Although benzodiazepines (ie temazepam) have relatively few side effects they can interact with protease inhibitors.
Non-benzodiazepines such as zopiclone and zolpidem work in a similar way, are shorter acting, and are preferred when anxiety is not a contributing factor.
Melatonin is a hormone produced at night linked to your ‘biological clock’. As a supplement it is used to help deal with jet lag and might help return sleep patterns to normal, although side effects include vivid dreams.
Suggestions to help
It is important that the causes of insomnia are diagnosed before any treatment is given.
The wide range of causes mean that non-pharmaceutical approaches, such as having a warm bath or hot milky drink before bedtime, can often make a big difference and are sometimes sufficient.
- Sleep only enough to be refreshed.
- Get into a routine where you can go to sleep and wake up at the same time each day. Waking up earlier might help.
- Try to exercise every day.
- Avoid extremes of noise or temperature.
- Drink chamomile or other herbal teas.
- Make your bedroom as comfortable and relaxing as possible.
- Eat an evening meal so that you are not hungry when you go to bed.
- Try burning oils.
- If you use sleeping pills, don’t use them every night
- Drink caffeine drinks or alcohol before bedtime as this will reduce the chance of sleeping well
- Smoke close to bedtime – it makes sleeping difficult
- Don’t nap during the day, so that you are more tired at night when you need to sleep.
Last updated: 1 March 2023.