We are sleepless in Seattle, Los Angeles, Newark, and Boston… Americans across the country are adjusting to the societal changes brought on by the novel coronavirus. As the death toll and unemployment rates continue to climb, and the uncertainty of when life outside will resume, fear and anxiety are causing poor sleep quality and sleep deprivation for many.
Before the COVID-19 pandemic, more than 50 million Americans were already suffering from over 80 different types of sleep disorders, and another 20 to 30 million said they experience intermittent sleep problems. As the lines between work, child care, and home have become blurred, the pandemic presents a host of new challenges for people who already experience sleep problems – even for those who previously had none.
The Coronavirus As A Sleep Inhibitor
Maintaining a daily routine is paramount to our overall well-being. Consistency in our daily activities, such as wake-up times, commuting schedules, regular work hours, designated exercise time, and bedtimes, served as “anchors” to our underlying daily rhythms. However, the coronavirus outbreak changed our daily lives and routines overnight. Without a regular schedule, that absence of consistency in conjunction with the ever-changing pandemic landscape, we find ourselves ruminating in the dark over all of the stressors of the day.
Sleep impairment, as a result of too many sleepless nights, can aggravate mental and physical health issues. Beyond general irritability and the inability to focus, chronic insomnia impacts a range of health problems, including cardiovascular disease, diabetes, hypertension, and obesity. Insomnia has also been linked to an increased incidence of Alzheimer’s disease and other forms of dementia. A lack of sleep can exacerbate these health problems.
Most healthy adults need 7-9 hours of optimal sleep a night, which helps regulate mood, improves brain function, and increases energy and overall production during the day. Ample rest also supports the immune system, which reduces the risk of infection and can improve outcomes for people fighting a virus. Sleep requirements vary slightly from person to person, with the average time clocking in at less than seven hours, according to The National Institutes of Health.
How Do You Know If You Are Sleep Deprived?
If you are getting less than 8 hours of sleep a night, you are probably sleep-deprived. Some people are more resilient to the effects of sleep deprivation, like older adults, while others, like children and young adults, are more vulnerable. Occasional sleep interruptions are typical; however, excessive missed hours can lead to daytime sleepiness, poor job performance, emotional difficulties, and increased anxiety.
Some signs include:
- Depressed mood
- Difficulty learning new concepts
- Lack of Motivation
- Increased appetite
How You Can Get A Better Night’s Sleep
Sleep is a critical biological process and has essential benefits to both physical and mental health. Sleep is vital for all of us all of the time, but particularly now as we are faced with a pandemic. To nip insomnia in the bud, below are a few suggestions to help achieve a better night’s sleep:
1. Establish a regular sleep routine. Try to go to sleep at the same time every night with the goal of at least 7 hours per night. Your body’s internal clock will eventually adjust, optimizing quality sleep. You may be tempted to sleep in on the weekends, but consistency is the name of the game.
2. Limit screen time at night. Avoid computers, cellphones, tablets, and tv at least an hour before bed. The blue light and light from the television are stimulants and suppress melatonin necessary for sleep. Avoid excessive news consumption, particularly at night. Pandemic updates will most likely increase levels of stress, making it more difficult to fall asleep.
3. Get regular exercise. While the crisis has limited our options for physical activity, there are many ways you can stay moving. People who exercise regularly do experience better quality sleep and fall asleep faster. Getting at least 30 minutes of moderate aerobic exercise a day supports the biological process in the brain that contributes to higher quality sleep. Exercise does speed up metabolism, elevates body temperature, and increases cortisol levels, so try not to exercise too close to bedtime.
4. Get some vitamin D. Exposure to light plays a crucial role in how our bodies regulate sleep. Spending time outside in natural light, especially in the morning, has a positive effect on our circadian rhythm. Our circadian rhythm, also known as the sleep/wake cycle, is a 24-hour internal clock that helps our brain cycle between sleepiness and alertness. Keep curtains and blinds open as much as possible, move your desk close to a window and take breaks outside for some sunlight and fresh air.
5. Food for thought. Eating a healthy diet plays a role in how well you sleep. Avoid stimulating foods and drinks such as caffeine, alcohol, sugary foods, and refined carbs. These can trigger wakefulness during the night. Also, avoid heavy or spicy meals late at night as they often result in stomach upset or heartburn—limit fluids close to bedtime to reduce late-night trips to the bathroom.
6. Practice a bedtime routine to calm your mind. For most of us, our brains are highly or overstimulated most of the day. Taking steps to manage overall stress levels can make it easier to wind down before bed. Practicing relaxation techniques such as deep breathing exercises or mindful meditation, taking a warm bath, reading a book, or listening to calming music will quiet an overactive brain.
7. Improve your sleep environment. Sometimes even small changes to your sleep environment can make a big difference in the quality of sleep. Make the room as dark as possible as too much light signals the brain to stay awake. Most people sleep best in a slightly cool room with a temperature between 60 and 67 degrees. Try a diffuser with a favorite scent like soothing lavender, which can decrease your heart rate and lower blood pressure helping to induce sleep. And, working from home does not mean working from bed. Reserve the bedroom for sleeping, and you know.
The novel coronavirus news changes rapidly, and the times are uncertain. It’s essential to pay attention to self-care and emotional well-being. If you feel your sleep problems are worsening or that the steps taken to improve sleep are ineffective, it is vital to seek the advice of a medical professional.