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Lung Health and Sleep

Your lungs keep every organ in your body functioning properly, and their health affects your sleep quality. There are many pulmonary diseases and disorders that can cause trouble breathing at night. This is why understanding the impact they can have is vital if you’ve been diagnosed with a pulmonary disorder or disease.

Adequate sleep is needed to help your lungs cleanse themselves so you can stay strong and well. Whether you toss and turn due to chronic lung disease or sleep apnea, anything less than 6-8 hours of sleep can lead to further health complications.

Healthy lungs counteract the toxins from allergens, pollutants, and smoke. Daily care paired with exercise will ensure your lungs are functioning to their full capacity. Take a look at how lung health and sleep are related, so you can focus on obtaining restorative sleep.

How Does Lung Health Relate to Sleep?

Breathing patterns change significantly during sleep due to reduced brain activity. In a woken state breathing patterns fluctuate based on emotions, stress, eating, and activity.  During sleep, breathing becomes shallow and less regular. This pattern intensifies from non-rapid eye movement (NREM) sleep to rapid eye movement (REM) sleep, with breathing becoming even less frequent during REM sleep. If you have trouble breathing at night, reduced lung activity can make it even more difficult to inhale and exhale optimally.

Any obstruction to regular breathing will likely result in sudden arousal in order for your body to get more oxygen. Thus any lung issue that obstructs breathing (lung diseases, smoking, etc.) is likely to cause sleep problems.

There are many different sleep disorders that can impact the nature of sleep as well as alter breathing patterns.  Patients with lung diseases often experience abnormalities in breathing during sleep, which often leads to a lack of quality sleep, hypoxia, and frequent arousals. Most importantly, sleep deficiency plays a role in exaggerating underlying health conditions.

There’s a significant interaction between respiratory diseases and sleep. Our bodies are very busy during their inactive state. Understanding the complexity of sleep and its mechanics can help you from worsening any pre-existing conditions while preventing future ones.

Lung Health and Sleep Apnea

Sleep apnea is a chronic and serious disorder involving breathing that suddenly starts and stops during sleep. These episodes can last 10 seconds or more and cause oxygen levels in the blood to drop. Symptoms of sleep apnea vary, but most people with the condition experience snoring, and often feel tired even after a full night’s rest.

Obstructive sleep apnea (OSA) has a reciprocal relationship with many lung diseases including chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD). COPD encompasses many conditions that block the airways such as chronic bronchitis, emphysema, and asthma. According to the Lung Institute about 10-15% of patients who have COPD are also diagnosed with OSA. This combination is known as “overlap syndrome.”

Generally, OSA and COPD exacerbate each other, with one condition predisposing or even aggravating the other. The outcome is worse than that of patients who have been diagnosed with OSA or COPD alone.

This combination can cause hypercapnia (excessive carbon dioxide in the blood), pulmonary hypertension, fatigue, and nocturnal hypoxemia (sleep-related low arterial oxygen supply). Patients suffering from overlap syndrome have a greater risk of mortality and morbidity. If you’ve been diagnosed with both OSA and COPD it’s vital that you learn about the conditions, how they affect one another, and take the necessary steps to improve your breathing.

Smoking is the leading cause of COPD and it can triggers symptoms of cough, wheezing, difficulty breathing and mucus production. It can lead to unhealthy lungs, cancer, heart disease, depression, and even sleep apnea. Because smoking causes swelling in the nasal tissues and the throat it can result in blockages that trigger sleep apnea symptoms.

Lung Diseases, Disorders and Sleep

Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD)

There are two main types of COPD that make it difficult to breathe: emphysema and chronic bronchitis.  Both of these cause shortness of breath, wheezing, tightness in the chest, and a cough that produces excessive mucus. Although rare in people under the age of 40, COPD is a serious, progressive, and life-threatening condition that in most cases is caused by smoking or exposure to secondhand smoke. COPD is linked to heart disease and is often diagnosed after it has already progressed from mild to severe. Therefore, there’s little chance of reversing it.

While there is no cure for COPD, there are treatments to help relieve the symptoms. Oxygen therapy, surgery, lung transplant, and various medications can be successful in providing relief. The best thing you can do if you have COPD is to quit smoking, as the condition is also linked to sleep disorders.

Sleepiness and sleep problems are common in COPD patients and the symptoms of COPD often worsen at night. When this happens it can cause a variety of sleep disturbances such as poor sleep, hypoxia, hypercapnia, and nocturnal awakenings. This is partly due to the condition itself as well as the medications that are taken to treat COPD.

Restrictive Lung Disorders

Characterized by a reduction in lung capacity during inhalation, restrictive lung disease is usually incurable and can lead to respiratory failure. It can also make sleep difficult, although sleep is necessary for resting the pulmonary muscles.

Restrictive lung disorders are staged as mild, moderate, severe, early, and advanced. Because people with restrictive disorders have lungs that cannot fully expand, there’s limited oxygen inhalation and exhalation during each breath. Not only is this uncomfortable, but it also increases the breathing rate. Unfortunately, this condition only worsens over time.

There are two groups of restrictive lung disorders that are divided by intrinsic and extrinsic causes. Intrinsic causes can include pneumonia, lung cancers, rheumatoid arthritis, irritable bowel disease, and more. Extrinsic lung disease is associated with scoliosis, ALS, obesity, malignant tumors, heart failure, rib fractures and damage, and intermittent muscle weakness.

People with restrictive lung disorders suffer from a wide range of breathing problems while sleeping. Factors such as the amount of restriction, the age of the patient, sex, medication, and obesity affect the degree of nocturnal physiology. Many patients suffer from insomnia, fatigue, diurnal sleepiness, and other sleep disturbances due to restrictive lung disorders. Coughing and chest pain can make it hard to get comfortable and remain in deep sleep. The management of these diseases should include correct treatment so that poor sleep isn’t a result.  Medications, therapy, exercise and other treatments can aid in improving your ability to rest soundly.


Mesothelioma is a type of cancer that forms in tissues that cover the internal organs. Because it spreads to other surfaces rather than forming a tumor, mesothelioma can be difficult to treat. Patients with this type of cancer can have challenges sleeping due to pain and persistent coughing.

The stage of cancer, type of mesothelioma, and the overall patient’s health are the three most important factors to determine the overall patient prognosis.

It’s important to understand that although this cancer is difficult to treat, living a healthy life can significantly improve the overall prognosis, and this includes focusing on sleep quality and quantity. Understandably, emotional triggers such as anxiety can make it hard to relax and quiet the mind. In turn, this can cause hypersomnia and insomnia.

Because sleep is proven to have serious health benefits, it’s vital mesothelioma patients do everything they can to ensure a good night’s rest.

Other Lung Cancers

Lung cancers can affect sleep quality due to the difficulty they cause in breathing as well as the patient’s emotional health.

Lung cancers are separated into two main types: non-small lung cancers (NSCLC) and small cell lung cancers (SCLC). Both types spread differently and are treated accordingly.

In addition to SCLC and NSCLC, there are a few other, less common types of cancers of the lung which include bronchial carcinoids and any other cancer of the lung’s supporting tissues. These types can form in the blood vessels and muscles. It’s important to note that metastatic cancers found anywhere else in the body can spread to the lungs through the lymphatic system and the bloodstream.

According to the Kuopio Ischaemic Heart Disease Study conducted on 2,682 men, there could be an increased risk of lung cancer and dementia due to sleep patterns that last less than 7.5 hours. During sleep the body focuses on immune functions, the brain’s neural plasticity, and cellular repair. Insufficient or disruptive sleep precedes and often co-occurs with chronic conditions. The study found that frequent disruptions in sleep can cause low-grade inflammation as well as secretions that contribute to the development of cancer. However, a separate study reported by 21,026 males physicians failed to support these findings. Without concrete evidence, more work needs to be done to determine if there is a link.

What is evident is that sleep problems can develop in lung cancer patients due to the symptoms of cancer itself, as well as the mental health side effects such as anxiety that can manifest following a cancer diagnosis.


Asthma affects over 25 million Americans. Although it has many different symptoms, all of them can contribute to disruptive sleeping patterns. Since asthma is a long-term chronic disease, managing it successfully is essential in maintaining good health and obtaining enough rest.

There are two classifications of asthma, intermittent and persistent. Both types are caused by the narrowing and inflammation of the airways of the lungs. Intermittent asthma is the most mild form, with most patients only suffering from attacks a few times per week. Persistent asthma carries many more limitations, and patients are frequently at risk of an attack.

In addition to intermittent and persistent asthma, there’s another form known as nocturnal asthma. Patients with this type experience symptoms that worsen during rest. Although there is no known cause for any of the types of asthma, nocturnal asthma has been linked to obesity, smoking, city living, and allergic rhinitis.

People with asthma are sensitive to triggers such as smoke, allergens, exercise, weather changes, certain foods, and even anti-inflammatory drugs.

Living with asthma can make it hard to get a good night’s sleep. Many sufferers are awakened several times per month, resulting in both fatigue and sleep deprivation. According to the Wisconsin Sleep Cohort Study launched in 1988, long-term asthma patients might be prone to developing sleep apnea, although a cause-and effect relationship has yet to be proven.


Pneumonia is a lower respiratory infection that comes in different forms. Since it causes difficulty breathing as well as coughing, obtaining quality sleep every night can be challenging. The primary cause of pneumonia is either a bacteria or virus, although there are some types that are caused by either parasites or fungi.

Because symptoms are similar to a common cold or flu, pneumonia can be difficult to diagnose. According to the CDC, roughly one million Americans are hospitalized each year due to pneumonia. In fact, it’s the second most common cause of hospitalizations throughout the country. Treatment options for bacterial pneumonia include antibiotics. Viral pneumonia requires the treatment of the symptoms themselves since antibiotics are ineffective.

Although pneumonia is common and treatable, 15% of annual cases result in fatality. People with asthma, systemic diseases such as diabetes, COPD, weakened immune systems, cystic fibrosis, and smokers are at the highest risk of getting pneumonia.

Due to the excessive coughing, fever, chills and vomiting that usually accompany the disease, sleep deprivation is a common concern. Since lack of sleep also lowers immunity, it’s important that anyone suffering from pneumonia takes effective measures to get proper rest. Medications can alleviate the symptoms and help patients get the rest they need to fully recover.

Cystic Fibrosis

Cystic fibrosis is a rare disease that’s both progressive and genetic. Over time, it causes repeated lung infections that result in lung damage, limiting the patient’s ability to breath. Even if the disease is deemed as clinically stable, people with CF reportedly get much less sleep than the average person.There is no cure for CF and the average lifespan for patients is 40 years.

People suffering from CF experience many different symptoms which may include salty-tasting skin, repeated lung infections, shortness of breath, wheezing, poor growth and weight gain, as well as bulky and greasy stools.

Diagnosing CF requires many steps including a newborn screening, sweat tests, carrier or genetic testing, and a full evaluation at a CF Foundation-accredited care center. Most people with CF are diagnosed by the age of 2, although some don’t find out until adulthood.

Frequent nebulizer treatments and physiotherapy mean less time in bed for most people suffering from CF. Sleep apnea is yet another sleep disorder that is common in CF patients. This can impact overall quality of life and cause more repeated lung infections. If you suffer from CF, it’s important you do your best to maintain a healthy sleep schedule.

How to Help Maintain Healthy Lungs

Healthy lungs are important in obtaining adequate sleep. Coughing, wheezing, and gasping for air lead to disruptive sleep patterns that can lower immunity and worsen lung disease. The following steps can help you improve your lung health so you can help prevent sleep disorders.

Avoid Smoking

Need a reason to quit smoking for good? There are over 7,000 chemicals found in cigarettes and 69 of those are known to cause cancer. It harms pretty much every organ in your body and acts as a stimulant, making it difficult to obtain restful sleep.

Smoking and Sleep ApneaThe scarring of your lungs from smoking is irreversible and results in permanent damage. Fortunately within several weeks of quitting, you’ll likely find it easier to walk and exercise without experiencing the usual shortness of breath. Although it can be tough to quit and often requires multiple attempts, the benefits to your lungs and other parts of your body far outweigh the struggle of breaking the addiction.

Take a look at the many ways quitting smoking improves your lungs and overall health:

  • Lung function improves
  • Decreased risk of developing emphysema
  • Prevents new DNA damage
  • Risk of heart attack decreases
  • Normalized white blood cell count
  • Shortness of breath decreases
  • Lowers the risk of developing cancer of the mouth and esophagus
  • Lowers cholesterol levels


It doesn’t just help you look and feel your best, exercise improves your lung capacity. Although exercise is commonly associated with improving the heart, it also reduces breathlessness and increases endurance. People with and without a lung condition will benefit from increasing their physical activity.

To maintain optimal health you should aim for 150 minutes of activity per week. People with a lung problem might need to lower their pace to stay active. If that’s the case you should aim to be just moderately breathless during your workouts. Diabetics, anyone with medical and physical restrictions, more than one risk for heart disease, and men over 45 and women over 55 should always speak with their physician prior to beginning any exercise program. In these cases a stress test might be required first.

Avoid Pollutants

Keep your lungs healthy by limiting your exposure to indoor pollutants such as radon, asbestos, and second-hand smoke. You should always have your home inspected for radon and educate yourself on what kinds of locations contain asbestos.

Proper alleviation steps can reduce the radon levels in your home. Despite popular belief, caulking or sealing foundation cracks is not effective in radon reduction. It must be combined with other efforts.

Whenever you think an area may or may not contain asbestos, always assume that it does. Never take samples of the material by yourself. And do not drill, hammer, cut, saw, break, damage, or disrupt anything until you know it is asbestos-free.

In addition to indoor pollutants, you should take steps to limit your exposure to outdoor pollutants. Air pollutants from wildfire smoke, city living, and exhaust fumes from cars and factories can have a negative impact on lung health.  Always be mindful of what the air quality is like so that you can avoid excessive outdoor exposure when it’s poor.

Practice Good Hygiene to Avoid Infections

One of the best ways to lessen your risk of lung problems is to practice proper hygiene to reduce the spread of germs and avoid infections such as pneumonia and the flu.

  • Wash hands well and often, especially after using the restroom, before and after food prep, and after finishing dirty chores and gardening.
  • Cover your cough- Prevent the spread of germs by covering your mouth whenever you cough and use a tissue that you promptly dispose of after use.
  • Wound care- Wash and bandage all wounds and do not pick at them or squeeze your pimples.
  • Sharing- Avoid sharing dishes and utensils, especially when you’re sick.

Get Tested for Sleep Apnea

If you have a lung-related issue and are experiencing the symptoms of sleep apnea, it’s important you go to your doctor or to a sleep specialist to get tested properly.

There are basically two types of testing that can gather accurate data. These include an overnight lab test and an at-home test.

  • Overnight lab test: Overnight tests take place in a sleep facility where trained techs will use electrodes to monitor you. They’ll pay special attention to your heart rate,muscle movement, snoring, brain activity and oxygen levels, as well as respiratory events, should any occur.
  • At-home test: If you’re at high-risk for sleep apnea or have a complicated medical history, an at-home test may be performed. Although these tests aren’t as detailed as lab tests, your doctor will still have sufficient data to make a diagnosis. And you’ll get to stay within the comforts of your own home during testing.  

Try CPAP therapy

Also known as Continuous Positive Airway Pressure (CPAP) and Bilevel Positive Airway Pressure (BiPAP), CPAP and BiPAP machines are widely used to help patients suffering from sleep apnea.

These electronic devices use an internal fan to draw the outside air in, and then humidify and pressurize it. A breathing mask connected to a hose is placed over the patient’s mouth to provide a steady stream of air, greatly improving lung issues and sleep apnea.

Depending on the type of sleep apnea you have, a CPAP or BiPAP machine will be prescribed by your doctor. While CPAP is most commonly prescribed for OSA, BiPAP works best for those with breathing that suddenly starts and stops (known as central sleep apnea or CSA). Prices for machines vary, and BiPAP models tend to be costlier than CPAP machines.

It’s important to consider all factors such as the machine’s volume, humidifier, the ramp time, pressure range, hose length, alerts, controls, operating altitude, and power source whenever you’re shopping for an air pressure machine.

Change Sleeping Positions

Side sleeping has many positive benefits and can prevent snoring, sleep apnea, and acid reflux. Sometimes changing the way you sleep is all you need to do to obtain a better night’s rest. This is especially true if you’re suffering from any significant lung problems or sleep apnea that make obtaining adequate rest challenging.

If you sleep on your side in the fetal position, avoid curling up too much. Doing so can restrict your diaphragm and prevent you from breathing deeply. If it feels more comfortable, feel free to place a pillow in between your legs to reduce stress on your lower back and hips and to maintain proper spinal alignment.

If you have sleep apnea or are prone to snoring, avoid sleeping on your back, as this may cause your tongue to block your airways.

While stomach sleeping might feel good, your core sinks right into the mattress which may cause alignment problems that can result in back and neck pain.

Practice Good Sleep Hygiene

Practicing good basic sleep hygiene when dealing with lung-related sleep issues is especially important to help you heal and recover. Take a look at the following ways you can improve your bedtime routine:

  • Know how much sleep you need. Most healthy adults require anywhere between 6-8 hours of sleep per night. Being aware of what your body demands means you can strive to obtain it nightly.
  • Go to bed at the same time every night and follow a bedtime routine. Whether it’s reading a book, doing some light meditation, or taking a warm shower, establish a routine that relaxes you and prepares you for turning in at the same time.
  • Dedicate your bed to only sleep and sex. Keep your work, your computer, the bills your paying, and the unfolded laundry out of your bed. Instead, reserve your bed for sex and sleep to help with relaxation.
  • Limit screen time. Turn off all electronic devices an hour or so before bedtime. When possible keep television out of your bedroom and instead listen to soft music or read a book.
  • Eat well, exercise, and get sunshine during the day. Not only will these improve your mood, they’ll help prepare you for a better night’s rest as well. Make a point to spend time outside every day. Better yet, go for a daily walk.
  • Avoid substances like caffeine and alcohol before bed. While you might crave a nightcap, alcohol and caffeine are both stimulants that will disrupt your sleep. Have a glass of warm milk or a cup of tea instead.


Lung disorders can affect your sleep in many different ways. From lung infections to breathing difficulties, proper treatment is necessary to prevent sleep deprivation and fatigue.

If you’re experiencing a lung problem and are concerned it’s causing trouble breathing at night, be sure to visit your doctor promptly to rule out any serious illnesses and to begin a treatment plan.

Sleep doesn’t just help you function at your best day-to-day, it helps your body prevent disease. It’s important that you focus on getting the right amount of sleep your body needs on a regular basis to help maintain your health.

Additional Tuck Resources

If you want to learn more about how different conditions can affect sleep, check out our additional guides below:

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