Pandemic-related sleep problems are so prevalent that there’s even a name for the condition: “Coronasomnia.” In fact, one British study revealed the number of people experiencing insomnia has increased from one in six to one in four in the past year.
That stands to reason. Anxiety, stress and worry all have a negative effect on our sleep patterns and circadian rhythms—at a time when rest is crucial to maintaining a strong immune system.
“Sleep issues are both a cause and an effect of psychological stress,” says Dr. Jack Muskat, Medcan psychology team lead. “When we’re worried, we have trouble falling or staying asleep. And when we’re sleep deprived, we’re irritable, angry and less able to cope with stress—and that ultimately causes us to worry more about falling and staying asleep.”
Most experts say adults need seven to nine hours of rest a night. A recent study published in Nature Communications found that sleeping less than six hours a night in middle age is associated with a 30% higher risk of developing dementia. Sleep can also be associated with high blood pressure, diabetes, heart attack, heart failure and stroke.
Sleep also aids in DNA repair. A study in the journal, Anaesthesia, found that on-call doctors who worked overnight shifts experienced higher rates of DNA damage compared to those who didn’t work overnight. “Sleep is very important to recovery,” says Dr. Andrew Miners, Medcan’s director of sports therapy and rehabilitation, who also coaches clients on proper sleep conditions.
If you’re procrastinating from hitting the pillow, you could be suffering from what a recent BBC article calls “revenge bedtime procrastination”, in which a lack of control over your daytime activities causes you to retaliate by staying up late instead.
“We need to rebel against this impulse,” says Dr. Muskat, who advises his patients on good sleep hygiene. That includes sleeping in a cool, dark room, avoiding blue light before bed, and adhering to a consistent “bedtime” and “wake up” schedule, which stabilizes your internal clock. He also suggests removing TVs from bedrooms and using the bed for sleep only to foster good sleeping habits and set the stage for a night of slumber.
Fitness apps and smart watches may help you monitor your sleep schedule. But watch out: According to this study in the Journal of Clinical Sleep Medicine, trackers can trigger an anxiety disorder called “orthosomnia”—aka the drive to achieve perfect sleep—resulting in lost sleep instead.
Even if your mind is racing, tiring out your body may help. Stephen Salzmann, Medcan’s director of fitness, suggests a brisk 20-minute walk or jog during the day to address problems with nocturnal recovery. Exercise, Salzmann says, can help cut the time it takes you to fall asleep, while offering added benefits like lowered body weight, which may lessen the severity of obstructive sleep apnea.
If seven hours of uninterrupted sleep isn’t possible—due to young children, shift work or chronic illness—feel free to squeeze in a nap midday. But don’t make it longer than an hour—and try not to make it a habit. The American Sleep Association says that 30-minute naps are great for boosting energy. After 30 minutes, your body enters deep sleep, which can “improve memory, decision-making and creativity, but can also leave you feeling groggy and sluggish.” Longer naps may actually cause health problems. One study by the European Society of Cardiology found that more than an hour of mid-day slumber was associated with a “30% greater risk of all-cause death and 34% higher likelihood of cardiovascular disease compared to no napping.”
In a recent Globe and Mail article, Leslie Beck, Medcan’s director of food and nutrition, explains the relationship between diet and sleep. “Studies show that people who are sleep deprived tend to eat larger portions of food, snack more at night and are more likely to reach for high-carbohydrate or high-fat snacks,” she writes. Tweaking your diet, however, can help you sleep better. Beck suggests eating dinner at least three hours before bed and to keep the meal light to prevent any digestive upset during the night. Avoiding caffeine in the afternoon is also key.
Three types of insomnia exist, according to Stanford Health Care: Transient insomnia lasts less than a month. Short-term insomnia lasts up to six months, and chronic insomnia persists for more than six months. If you fall into the transient insomnia category, try not to worry. “Be kind to yourself,” says Dr. Muskat. “In normal times, both good news and bad news can cause sleeplessness. These are difficult times and there’s bad news every day, so it’s natural to be losing sleep. But most likely, you’ll be back to getting regular sleep soon.”