We may need a new emoji of a human curled up in a ball asleep, or of a person lying in a puddle of their own tears. If we’ve learned one thing from the last year and COVID-19, it’s how to be stressed and tired.
COVID-related sleep problems are real. Dr. Hossam Mahmoud, behavioral health medical director for Regence BlueShield, says that in the last year he’s seen a significant increase in what he calls “COVID-somnia.”
“These can be changes either in the quantity or quality of sleep, so we see increases in reported insomnia, difficulty falling asleep or staying asleep,” Mahmoud says. “But many people are reporting that despite sleeping a similar number of hours as before the pandemic, the quality of their sleep is not as good. We’ve seen these types of changes in one in four people.”
Loss of sleep can have a range of effects. According to the American Heart Association, the amount and quality of sleep can influence your eating habits, mood, memory, internal organs and more.
What exactly is causing all this sleep degradation?
Allie Henderson, a wellness consultant for Regence BlueShield, says that while stress is certainly a factor, our lifestyle changes have also contributed. A lack of sunlight for example, can throw off our normal circadian rhythms. The use of electronics before bed can interfere with the body’s ability to release melatonin, a hormone that helps us fall asleep.
“Also, alcohol consumption really increased during quarantine,” Henderson says. “Alcohol is a sedative, which makes people think it helps with sleep. But, really it just puts people into a sleep state while interfering with their ability to get deep sleep. So although they might feel like they’re sleeping all right, they’re not getting that restorative sleep that puts them in the best mental and physical space.”
When we don’t get quality sleep, our bodies suffer, and we’re not as able to retain information or emotionally regulate, Henderson says. As a result, people often distance themselves from social events and relationships.
“Interestingly, many symptoms of poor sleep overlap with symptoms of depression, like low energy, low motivation, irritability and limited concentration,” Mahmoud says. “Poor sleep has also been associated with obesity, diabetes, chronic heart disease and other serious health conditions like high blood pressure. It can have a negative impact on both our physical and mental health.”
How to get great sleep
- Exercise — Being physically active helps you fall asleep faster and helps you get more restorative rest.
- Screens — Removing electronics an hour before bed helps you naturally get ready to fall asleep.
- Routine — Stick to a normal sleep schedule. Get yourself to bed and up every day at the same time (yes, even on weekends).
- Keep your room cool and dark — Maybe you want to buy those blackout blinds and that air conditioner before they’re sold out.
- Meditation or journaling — These are great tools to add to your routine. They help you get some of your thoughts out and that lowers your stress level so it’s easier to fall asleep.
- Ditch caffeine and alcohol — Try to limit caffeine and alcohol.
“As with alcohol, people who drink coffee often think, ‘I’m fine, I still fall asleep at night,’” Henderson says. “But it affects our ability to get deep restorative sleep. So we want to stop drinking caffeine after lunch and try to avoid alcohol.”
Things to avoid
- Naps — If you must take one, be sure to keep it short, like 15-30 minutes. A two- to three-hour nap is going to interfere with a good night’s sleep. Sometimes even just lying in a quiet room without distractions for a few minutes can give you the energy boost you need to get through the day.
- Sleep aids — If you’re taking a sleeping pill or supplement on a doctor’s recommendation, then follow their advice. However, there are a lot of drinks and pills on the market that advertise good sleep, but these remedies aren’t well regulated and should be used cautiously.
- Nightcap — Some people think of nightcaps as helpful to fall asleep, but you know better now, don’t you? According to Mahmoud, as alcohol is metabolized while you sleep, it can lead to lighter, less restorative sleep.
Now, as we recover from the pandemic, go forth into the world and get some good sleep. Soon enough you’ll be looking for a happy, wide-awake emoji with stars in its eyes.
For nearly 100 years, the American Heart Association has been been fighting heart disease and stroke and helping families and communities thrive.