Trouble Sleeping During COVID-19? Advice From an Expert

Man laying in bed trying to sleep
Posted April 17, 2020 by UVM Medical Center

When talk of the coronavirus first started, my 8-year-old daughter was coming downstairs 20 minutes after we had put her to bed, which was unusual for her. At first, she couldn't explain why she was having trouble sleeping, but as COVID-19 quickly became an inescapable part of our lives, we knew this must be the cause. One night before bed, I sat down and spoke with my daughter about the virus, how it affects people and why we are taking the precautions of staying safe and staying home. She gave me a huge hug and slept normally that night. She told me later that she had been unable to sleep because she felt scared and stressed about the virus and had been wanting reassurances each night before falling asleep. These are unprecedented times and the unknown can be scary for any of us.

The arrival of COVID-19 has brought dramatic changes to our all of our daily routines. The increased concerns surrounding our health, job security, finances, parenting and caregiving have resulted in sleepless nights for many of us. With the constant news cycle and ever-changing reality, it is more important than ever to maintain a healthy sleep routine to ensure overall health and wellbeing.

Good sleep helps build our resilience, can increase work performance, help with concentration, increase productivity, ensure accuracy, and reduce the chance of accidents and injuries.

Breaking It Down: What Is Sleep?

Sleep is not just a time when our brains turn off and our bodies slow down. When we sleep our bodies are doing many important processes that they don't necessarily get the time to do when we're active, such as consolidating memories, storing calories and regulating our hormones.

Sleep is governed by a concept in science called the circadian rhythm – our body's natural clock. Normally that clock runs on a 24-hour basis and it's cued by light and darkness. Our bodies are designed to be active and alert during daytime hours when the light is out and we're supposed to be sleeping and restoring our bodies at nighttime.

As adults, it's recommended that we get between seven and nine hours of sleep, so the “eight hours a night” is not a myth, it is really important. Some people can function on a little less, but to get all those functions of your body working, eight hours is necessary.

Mood, Memory and Metabolism

A lack of sleep can affect your mood and disposition. You may become grumpy and easily agitated. Layer on stay at home orders during a global pandemic and our struggles feel more challenging. Getting a good night's sleep will only help us all to remain calm, level-headed and in our best mood. If you find yourself struggling with concentration or memory loss, consider your sleep health and ask yourself if you are getting enough sleep.

Not getting enough sleep can also affect your health and can lead to obesity because a lot of your metabolism functions happen while you're sleeping. Not getting enough sleep can make you crave food that's not so good for you, such as high-carb, fast energy food.

Did you know that insufficient sleep can also impair your immune system?  It takes time and sleep to rejuvenate our bodies and mind.  Not getting enough can even lead to heart disease. 

A lot of our growth happens while we're sleeping, especially for children and teenagers. If our young folks are not getting enough sleep they can have growth suppression, anxiety and depression.

Five Tips to Get Your Best Night's Sleep Every Night

1. Stick to a Schedule

Timing is everything. As much as you can, stick to a schedule and go to sleep at the same time every night and wake up at the same time every day. It may be tempting to dismiss a regular sleep schedule if current circumstances have disrupted your other life routines. If you no longer have to wake early to get the kids to school or get ready for work, wake time may seem flexible. Similarly, staying up late may not seem like it will result in consequence. However, our circadian rhythm, that regulates our sleep, is dependent upon routine.


TIP: Face the alarm clock away from you or don't keep it near your bed. If you wake up in the middle of your sleep, don't look at the clock. Set an alarm for when you want to wake up and just trust that that's when you'll wake up. 

2. Make Exercise Part of Your Routine

Exercise is a great way to burn our energy and encourage sleep to restore our bodies. For many of us, quarantining has disrupted our exercise routines. Many forms of exercise are based in social environments that are no longer available to us. It is important to find ways to exercise and maintain fitness during these times. However, don't exercise too close to bed time because you'll have a hard time falling asleep. Complete your exercise at least two to three hours before bedtime.

TIP: Try exercise videos, walks around the neighborhood, simple stretching, gentle yoga, dancing or try one of the many free online movement offerings.

3. Pay Attention to What You Eat and Drink

Caffeine and other stimulants like sugar, alcohol and nicotine can stay in your system for up to eight hours. That means that if you plan on being in bed by, say, 10pm, you need to have your last cup of coffee by 2pm.

During your wakeful hours, certain foods can help boost and give you some energy. Nuts are really good because they're high in protein. Spinach and other green veggies are good because they're high in vitamin C and iron and that gives you some nice, good, sustained energy that will last a little bit longer.

When you feel tired, you may actually be thirsty. You need to drink a lot of water through the day to keep you nice and hydrated. 

Snacks you might want to avoid:

  • Chocolate. Chocolate contains caffeine, so it can keep you awake. Also, if you're thinking that chocolate might be good for some quick energy, it may result in a nice big buzz of energy but leave you feeling poorly after the energy is used up.
  • Cherries. They contain melatonin, which is one of the hormones that helps promote sleep, so if you're feeling sleepy during the day, don't reach for the cherries - they'll just make you sleepier.
  • High-carb foods such as donuts. You're going to get that big rush of energy, maybe, but then you'll crash and feel even worse than you did before you ate the donut.

Good bedtime snacks:

  • Cherries. As mentioned above, cherries have melatonin in them, and that's always a good promoter of sleep.
  • Fatty fish and proteins, like chicken and turkey mixed with a complex carb, actually release tryptophan which we all hear about during Thanksgiving. This can increase your serotonin levels, which will help you fall asleep.

4. Create an Ideal Environment for Sleep

Make it a routine to have something that will help you begin to relax before you plan on getting into bed, such as dimming the lights and closing the curtains to start preparing your body for sleep.

  • Take a warm bath. Not too hot, not too close to bedtime. You don't want to stimulate yourself with the heat, it's just something to help you relax.
  • Write down your thoughts. As I said earlier, my daughter was having trouble sleeping due to fears about COVID-19, I've since urged her to write down any thoughts she is having if she finds she can't sleep, so that she can remember to talk about them with us during the day. She says that sometimes just writing the thoughts down helps her no longer think about them.
  • Listen to soothing music and/or practice meditation. If you find yourself waking or unable to sleep, get up and do something relaxing. Stressing about not being able to sleep will only make things worse. Alleviate the pressure on yourself and give yourself permission to not be sleeping at that time.
  • Keep your bedroom for sleep only. It may be difficult with us staying at home, but try not to use your bedroom as an office or for other functions. This includes children. We want to cue our brains to think that in this environment, in this bedroom, we're here to relax, to sleep, to recharge, recover. Don't watch TV in bed.
  • Keep it cool. Your bedroom should be between 60 and 67 degrees Fahrenheit.
  • Go dark. Our bodies are cued by light and darkness, so even a little light, even if it's the light from your alarm clock can really affect your circadian rhythm.
  • White noise machines help drown out noises.
  • Wear socks. If your extremities are warm, it allows your body to work a little less, and it doesn't have to pump blood as hard. So, it helps in body temperature regulation and that is part of our circadian rhythm.

5. Put Away Your Devices

Suddenly, our whole day is spent in front of screens Where we would normally have a meeting or see a friend, all of that time is now done on the computer. And since we can't go out, we watch TV or play videogames.

When our eyes are exposed to blue light from our devices, our brains cease the production of melatonin, which is the hormone that promotes sleep. All of our technologies have blue light emitting from them and they're telling our brains that it's not time for sleep right now. You want to avoid these at least two hours before bedtime, so that you can build up melatonin prior to bedtime.

There are applications that you can get for your phone or your tablet that will filter out the blue light so that as you're working on your computer or as you're looking at your cellphone, your screen will look weird (it will look orange instead of normal) but it's not telling your brain that it's time to be awake.

Written by Claire Barker, clinical sleep educator at the UVM Medical Center Sleep Program, a registered sleep technologist and certified in sleep health.

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