Over the past several months, many people have been plagued by sleepless nights.
The coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic has created a perfect storm for sleep problems, including difficulties falling asleep, staying asleep and waking earlier than desired. This has largely been due to feelings of uncertainty, fear and apprehension, as well as anxiety and stress related to this crisis.
Many remain concerned about isolation, their health and the health of family members, lost jobs and sources of livelihood, and disruption to their education and professional lives, all of which can keep our minds occupied at night.
Furthermore, stay-at-home restrictions caused changes to our daily habits, social cues and rituals, which can also be disruptive to our sleep. With more time spent at home, many turn to technology and screens, which emit light that can suppress melatonin, a natural hormone that helps us fall asleep. Loss of sleep can also disrupt brain functions such as decision making, learning and memory and the ability to regulate emotions.
Sleep health in a pandemic is more important than ever, as adequate sleep is key to a balanced and healthy immune system. Eating right, regular exercise and consistent high-quality sleep build the immune system and help defend the body against disease. Meanwhile, poor sleep can make it difficult to recover from an illness.
Below are eight important tips to promote better sleep and overall health as we navigate the uncharted waters of this pandemic.
Establish a routine. While you may not be able to maintain the daily schedule you had before the pandemic, you must try to start and end your day at roughly the same time. After waking from sleep, seek natural light and try to maintain regular meal times to help stabilize your circadian rhythm throughout the day and ensure your body regulates sleep in a healthy way.
Create a comfortable sleep environment. Ideally you should sleep in a quiet, dark and cool room with temperatures between 65 and 70 degrees.
Adopt a healthy diet. Avoid high-calorie or heavy meals too close to bedtime. Consider a healthy snack, such as cheese and crackers, prior to bedtime if you feel hungry or are prone to waking up due to hunger.
Limit caffeine and alcohol intake. Caffeine can stay in the body for up to eight hours and should ideally be cut off at about 2 pm. Alcohol can make you sleepy initially but wake you up as it is metabolized, and should be avoided within four hours of bedtime.
Exercise regularly. Regular exercise not only improves sleep quality and duration, but can also help relieve stress and anxiety.
Avoid or limit naps. If you must nap, try to limit naps to about 20 minutes and take them earlier in the day. As a rule, do not try to make up for lost sleep following a night of poor sleep.
Practice mindfulness. Mindfulness is the psychological process of bringing your attention to the present moment – without judgement or distraction – and is developed through the practice of meditation. Schedule wind-down time within 30-60 minutes of bedtime by relaxing in a room with dim light and engaging in non-stimulating activity, such as reading a hard copy book or meditating.
Limit activities in bed. Remember, sleep is for the bed and the bed is for sleep. If sleep is proving too difficult, get out of bed and only return to bed when sleepy. In between, you may engage in relaxing activities that occupy your mind in a pleasant way, but are not too stimulating. Try not to be super-productive in bed, as you may subconsciously reinforce that you’re productive when you wake up at night.
As counterintuitive as it sounds, worrying about or chasing sleep makes sleep less likely to occur. Good sleepers typically do not put effort into sleep; you should instead allow sleep to find you. Behavioral therapy is the preferred treatment for insomnia long-term. Try natural avenues or lifestyle changes and modifications to address insomnia or disruptive sleep patterns.
A good night’s rest is a key ingredient in both physical and mental wellbeing. For more information about sleep medicine and sleep disorders, or to inquire about a sleep study, please call the Tallahassee Memorial Sleep Center at 850-431-4400 or visit TMH.ORG/Sleep.
Amara Emenike, MD, is Medical Director of the Tallahassee Memorial Sleep Center.
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