On a recent FaceTime call, my friend Jon told me that he hadn’t had a satisfyingly restful night of sleep since March, before the stay-at-home orders and the wave of coronavirus cases hit the US. He’s taken sleeping aids, exercised before bed, and listened to ASMR videos but to no avail; he couldn’t manage to turn his brain off until 2 or 3 am on most nights.
Jon isn’t alone in his sleeplessness. While many people have anecdotally reported having startlingly vivid dreams in quarantine, some are struggling with what feels like incurable insomnia, whether that manifests as difficulty falling asleep, trouble staying asleep through the night, or waking up too early.
A survey of nearly 1,000 people by SleepHelp.org found that 22 percent of responders have had poorer quality sleep due to the pandemic, and a third said their sleep troubles stemmed from the news coverage they consumed. In China, health care workers were reportedly prone to sleeplessness and experienced feelings of depression, anxiousness, and stress-based trauma. The coronavirus, it seems, has conjured up “a perfect storm of sleep problems,” according to one Stanford sleep researcher.
In pre-pandemic times, about 30 to 35 percent of adults suffer from insomnia, and most are short-term conditions that can be resolved without professional help. (Medical professionals and sleep experts generally recommend about seven to nine hours of sleep each night.) The inability to fall asleep can be frustrating, especially in the midst of a pandemic with no end in sight. If you’re an insomniac, you’ve probably spent at least one night Googling something along the lines of “How to fall asleep” instead of actually falling asleep.
I spoke to Bill Fish, a certified sleep specialist and managing editor at SleepFoundation.org, about those struggling with sleep and lifestyle changes. Here is his best advice to achieve more restful nights.
How has staying inside affected our sleep patterns?
It’s interesting to see a progression of the pandemic from a mental health and sleep perspective. Within the first three weeks, starting in early to mid-March, there wasn’t a lot of talk about sleep, but as we got into the stay-at-home orders for two to three weeks, people have really started to notice they weren’t sleeping as well and have had trouble sleeping. There are all kinds of factors at play that cause insomnia in people. For those of us who are fortunate to be working from home, we’ve lost the structure of our daily lives. We don’t have an external reality, so to speak.
What a lot of people have started doing, instead of going to bed at 10:30 and getting up at 6:30, there’s no longer a big motivator to get up at 6:30. While that can be good to some extent, at the end of the day, all adults should be getting between seven to nine hours of sleep on a nightly basis.
If you’re getting any more than that, you could wake up feeling lethargic and not really yourself. Our bodies have become trained to know and prepare for the sleep process. With more people staying up at night and sleeping later in the morning, their bodies after about two to three weeks have redialed, and that doesn’t even take into consideration the health and the financial stress the pandemic has caused.
What tips do you have for people struggling with insomnia?
My biggest thing is schedule — encouraging someone to get back to a sense of normalcy. I have two sons who just want to stay up all night and play video games because they can’t see their friends. I have to explain to them that it’s not healthy for them to stay up. If your body is used to you waking up early, consider adopting that habit again. All of us, and our bodies, are trying to figure out what this “new normal” is, and what I push for is to try and do everything you can to get back to your old bedtime. If you’ve messed up your sleep pattern, I’d recommend trying to change it in increments of 10 or 15 minutes a night until you get back to where you were before.
At one point, kids are going to go back to school and people are going to go back to work, so we can train our bodies by the repetition of going to sleep at the same time and waking up at the same time. It might not cure all insomnia, but it’ll give you a better chance of success.
That’s why I suggest not watching television or scrolling on your phone in your bed. It’s about creating that separation in your waking and sleeping environments between sleep, leisure, and work that’s now occurring in the same building. It’s hard, though. Even my wife does it; she sits with her headphones on and watches a show in bed.
Can you explain how a lack of sleep affects a person’s immunity?
Sleep is considered the third pillar of wellness along with diet and exercise. Those are the three most important factors to keep us healthy. When we get ready to sleep, our body produces melatonin, which causes us to tire. When we aren’t getting that full night of sleep, our immune system isn’t producing as much of an effective response to fight against other infections or viruses. We really want people to get those seven to nine hours of sleep to stay as healthy as they can.
What tips do you have to improve a person’s quality of sleep, not just the duration of sleep?
I’m a believer that people should turn their bedrooms into a sleep sanctuary. Create a separation of your bedroom from the rest of your life. Set up your bedroom so that it’s intended for sleep. Clean up around your sleeping area, since your mind might race if there’s clutter in the room. Consider charging your phone in another room, and don’t watch television before bed.
Give yourself at least 45 minutes away from screens before you go to bed, so maybe read a book or keep a journal — just something to allow your mind to calm down before bed. Make sure that your room is cool and that it’s as dark as possible. I’m a fan of a white noise machine; you can buy it online for $20 and plug it in beside your bed to create a steady stream of white noise, which can mask any external sound that might jolt you out of sleep. The machine can help you stay in sleep and help you feel more refreshed when you wake up in the morning.
Since more people are staying home and, as a result, are more sedentary, how does that affect our sleep?
The key is to get 30 minutes of some form of cardio movement or even just walking. The human body is not meant to sit at a desk all day. Think about it like how a dog needs to be walked every day. We have to get this energy out of our bodies so we are physically tired by the time we get to bed each night.
I do get the question a lot of when you should be exercising, and there are a bunch of studies, but none of them are really conclusive as to what point of the day you should be exercising. You should have your body temperature back to normal, and not be out of breath at least 45 minutes before bed. It doesn’t make sense to run a few miles right before your bedtime.
Are there certain foods or substances like caffeine that might affect a person’s sleep?
You shouldn’t have any caffeine at least three to four hours before bed so it’s out of your system, and really, you shouldn’t be eating anything within an hour of going to bed because your body needs to digest your food and makes it more difficult for you to fall asleep. Eating spicy foods that could possibly cause indigestion doesn’t make a lot of sense. I would stay away from caffeine, and I’ve read a lot of stories that people are drinking more during the pandemic. That’s really not good for your sleep. While alcohol might help you get to sleep a little quicker, the quality of sleep you want, as the alcohol leaves your system, a lot of people tend to wake up in the middle of the night.
As the pandemic becomes the “new normal,” how do you think it will affect our sleeping habits?
It gives us the opportunity to get the recommended amount of sleep. The vast majority of people have a commute, and they used to spend a lot of time in the car, in the subway, or on a train. Now that’s gone. While we will go back to work eventually, we don’t know how quickly that’ll be and whether it’ll be five days a week or less. It takes away the excuse of saying, “Well, I don’t have the ability to get eight hours of sleep a night.”
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