A great healer for the body, sleep regulates and restores our systems each night, including the vital immune system. It’s one of the crucial ways to maintain and improve our ability to fight off seasonal illnesses and viruses like the flu and COVID-19. But, living in a pandemic world has caused stress levels to go up and quality of sleep to go down. You may find that your sleep has been disrupted, along with many other aspects of your life, during these challenging times. You’re not alone.
The COVID-19 pandemic has created a new group of insomnia sufferers – referred to as “coronasomnia” – with widespread sleep disruptions tied to anxiety and stress. With so many things beyond our control these days, it’s good to understand what is under your control, and sleep is one of them. To help you get back on track, we’ve assembled some expert information to help you and your loved ones make improvements right away.
Why is Sleep Important?
While you sleep, your brain consolidates memories, sweeps and cleans waste, and restores and replenishes your body to ensure better overall performance and a stronger immune system. We’re all seeking ways to improve our immunity and getting enough quality sleep is a critical ingredient. It helps build our immune defenses, strengthens our response to vaccines, reduces severe allergic reactions and, if we do get sick, can help us get better more swiftly. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, adults needs seven or more hours of sleep per night for the best health and well-being. Good sleep is tied to physical health and better quality of life.
What Happens When We Don’t Get Enough Sleep?
“Even just one night of sleep deprivation can lead to problems,” says Pamela Swift, Ph.D., assistant professor of psychiatry at the University of Vermont Medical Center. In addition to negatively affecting how our body responds to viruses and other infections, consistent sleep deprivation is linked to a higher risk of obesity, diabetes, mood changes and a quadrupling of stroke risk. According to the National Heart, Blood and Blood Institute, lack of sleep is associated with cognitive dysfunction, difficulty solving problems, using good judgment and response time with motor functions, which can elevate risks when driving.
COVID-19 Changed Our Routines
Schooling and working from home has changed the way we move through our day. “We are experiencing a lot of stress about health, finances and family members. Increased stress hormones and racing thoughts can impact both falling and staying asleep,”says Dr. Swift. It’s a vicious cycle – we need sleep to recover and become more resilient to face life’s stressors, and yet life’s stressors tend to keep us awake.
We’re also establishing new habits and new ways of interacting with others for fun – which tend to involve screens. Says Dr. Swift: “Blue light from screens may reduce melatonin levels, which is a hormone that tells our body when it’s time to go to sleep. If we don’t have enough of that in our system, our body may not be able to go to sleep. As much as the screens are excellent for maintaining social connections, we need to be mindful, take breaks and try to stop a couple of hours before bed.”
Get Back on Track
There are many things we can do to improve our sleep environment. Thoughtfully review your daily schedule and reflect on how you’ve been spending those couple of hours before bed. What can you shift?
- Get outside. Take a short walk around the block or sit outside for a few minutes. Daylight (even on a cloudy day) acts as an important time-cue for our bodies
- Relocate busy daytime activities out of your bedroom and into another area of the home when possible
- Stop caffeine intake by lunchtime
- If you’re so tired that you need to take a nap, take a nap early in the day and keep it short (20-30 minutes)
- Keep your bedroom as dark, cool and noise free as possible – a white noise machine or fan can also work well
- Engage in relaxing activities
- Avoid big meals
- Reduce or avoid nicotine, caffeine and alcohol
- Get up and go to sleep around the same time every day
- Wake with worries? Keep paper and pen next to your bed to get them out of your head and down on paper so you can focus on them in the morning when your brain is more refreshed
When to Seek Medical Attention
Dr. Swift recommends honestly reviewing how your lack of sleep is affecting your general activities and daily life. If you’ve made behavioral changes, but your mood is greatly altered or you can no longer do the activities you love, it may be time to connect with your Primary Care Provider. The two of you can discuss treatment options including Cognitive Behavioral Therapy for Insomnia (CBT-I) or whether certain medications may be helpful.
For many people, pinpointing and making small adjustments can yield improvements for weeks, months and years to come. Better yet, behavioral shifts don’t typically come with high cost. Despite this time of uncertainty, knowing there are so many things you can control when it comes to sleep may make you rest a little easier.
Pamela Swift, Ph.D, is a pediatric psychiatrist at the UVM Medical Center and assistant professor in the department of psychiatry at the Vermont Center for Children, Youth and Families at the Larner College of Medicine at the University of Vermont.