The COVID-19 pandemic is still disrupting an essential component of a healthy life: a good night’s sleep.
In a July survey of 2,000 adults, released on September 13 by the Harris Poll on behalf of The Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center, about 18% of respondents said they sleep less now than before the pandemic, while 19% said they struggled to sleep because they were worried or stressed (Around COVID-19, politics or other factors). In college, at least, this has led to an increase in demand for help; in 2021, the Ohio State Medical Center received about 29% more referrals for insomnia treatment compared to 2018, says Dr. Aneesa Das, a sleep specialist and professor of internal medicine there.
Stress can disrupt sleep, Das says, as it can increase your heart rate and blood pressure, upset your stomach and cause your muscles to tense. However, the survey also points to another problem: poor sleep habits, including using phones before bed, sleeping at irregular times and spending too much time in the bedroom. The challenge, says Das, is that these habits threaten important drivers of healthy sleep, including exposure to light at the right times and maintaining a regular sleep schedule.
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Part of this, Das says, is because many people do the wrong things to relax and sleep. In the survey, 47% of respondents said they use their phone before bed and 37% fell asleep with the TV on. “Both of these are things that people often do to try to take their mind off it,” says Das. “But bright light is actually stimulating and lessens the association of the bedroom with sleep.”
The disruption to people’s daily schedules by the pandemic may also have had a ripple effect on sleep, Das says. COVID-19 forced many people out of work or to work from home, giving them more control over when they go to sleep or get out of bed. But not getting the same amount of sleep each night can make it harder to fall asleep, Das says. During the pandemic, people may also have started spending too much time indoors without enough exposure to sunlight (although the survey didn’t measure this). This becomes especially problematic, Das says, if they spend more time in their bedrooms. “Waking up, putting your laptop to bed, and working from home are probably the worst things we can do to cause insomnia.”
If you’re having trouble sleeping, Das suggests reconsidering your sleeping habits. His bedroom should be cool (ideally above 60 degrees), dark and quiet, and should only be used for sleep and privacy. His daily schedule can also have a big impact on his sleep: Exercising, spending time in the sun during the day, cutting out caffeine after 2 p.m., and keeping regular sleep-wake schedules can all help, says Das. To help herself sleep, Das says she likes to create a to-do list to feel prepared for the next day, and she takes a daily two-mile walk.
While it can be hard to change habits (or give up your afternoon latte), improving sleep can have important benefits for your health. physical and mental health. Lack of sleep has been linked to a variety of conditions, from increased risk of stroke and heart disease, to increased vulnerability to obesity and depression.
And while the pandemic has disrupted sleep schedules, getting a good night’s sleep could help people become more resilient to its effects. After a bad night’s sleep, studies have shown that people even have a poorer immune response to vaccines, says Das. While this hasn’t been studied with the Omicron booster, Das notes, “I can tell you that I tell my kids, ‘Before you get your booster shot, we want to make sure you get a good night’s sleep.'”
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