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If you are losing sleep right now, you are not alone. According to Clifford Singer, chief of Geriatric Mental Health and Neuropsychiatry at Northern Light Acadia Hospital, scientists don’t yet have any hard-and-fast data on the impact of the coronavirus on people’s sleep habits.
Still, there are a number of factors set off by the pandemic, the shelter-in-place orders and the disruption of daily life in general that are tied closely to disruptions in sleep, including increased anxiety, lack of exercise and more time spent indoors. Getting quality sleep, however, is more important now than ever.
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“One of the primary purposes of sleep is to maintain health of the immune system,” Singer, who has been studying sleep for more than 30 years, said. “When you’re worried about an infectious disease, you want a healthy immune system. Sleep is critically important.”
For the sake of your immune system and your beauty rest, here is how to better manage sleep during the pandemic.
Manage your anxiety
One major factor in disrupting sleep is anxiety. Worrying about getting sick, about family members getting sick or the state of the economy can all interfere with sleep by causing anxiety. Learning how to manage mental health in light of these stressors is essential.
“Experts recommend, me included, practicing the ability to compartmentalize anxiety from relaxation,” Singer said. “If you set aside a time to worry about things, even maybe writing them down [and] keeping a worry journal [you’re] isolating your time of worry to a particular time of day or in the evening. You might be better able to shut it down and move on from there.”
If you are having trouble, try turning off coronavirus-related news in favor of lighter, happier stories.
“You might want to take a break from COVID news, as that can feed your anxiety,” Singer said. “Focus on media that are funny [like] comedy, or engaging in some uplifting things with happy endings.”
Exercise in the afternoon
Singer said that studies show that lack of exercise during the day can impact sleep at night. As people are quarantined at home, exercise may be falling to the wayside in our routines. Those in assisted living facilities or with limited abilities to get outside may struggle even more to find a way to incorporate movement into their daily lives.
If you are having trouble sleeping, make sure you are incorporating exercise into your daily routine.
“Any exercise during the day can help sleep [but] mid-and-late afternoon is probably most helpful for sleep — some aerobic, resistance training, stretching, walking or bicycling in the late afternoon, at least four hours before bedtime,” Singer said. “Then, before bedtime, you might do some gentle yoga.”
Limit eating and drinking before bed
Singer said that snacking before bed can impact your metabolism during sleep, which can not only disrupt restfulness but lead to metabolic problems like diabetes later in life.
“[You can have] a little bedtime snack if it’s a ritual you enjoy, but anything more than 250 to 300 calories can affect metabolism during sleep, can increase the likelihood of reflux [and] heartburn,” Singer said. “You’re not actively metabolizing food if you’re asleep. It’s best to fast a few hours before bedtime.”
In a similar vein, drinking alcohol can also disrupt sleep.
“A little bit of alcohol may relax you and may facilitate sleep; a little more alcohol can produce rebound insomnia as the alcohol is metabolized,” Singer said. “Even if alcohol helps you relax and fall asleep, the second half of the night shows more restless sleep after alcohol.”
Take a warm bath
If you have a tub that is suitable for a bath, take advantage of it. A warm bath is not only relaxing, but it helps create the physical signals in your body that prepare it for sleep.
“A warm bath relaxes not just muscles, but it raises body temperature. As the body temperature drops, that’s actually a signal for the brain to initiate sleep,” Singer said.
Natural light is essential to maintaining your circadian rhythms.
“Morning is the most important time to get light exposure,” Singer said. “Morning light exposure tends to keep our body clocks better synchronized with the day night cycle. Light any time of day is also important. Even midday light is better than no light exposure. Another reason to get outside is [to get] vitamin D, which is also critical for a healthy immune system”
If you can’t get outside, Singer said to make sure you are maximizing your exposure to light indoors.
“A bright window is better than nothing,” Singer said. “[Seasonal Affective Disorder] lights can be a helpful substitute if you don’t have one, [though] it’s not as good as the real thing.”
Avoid daytime naps
Singer said that because we are socially isolated, we are more likely to take naps during the day. Though daytime naps can be helpful if you are struggling to sleep at night, he said to be careful about the length of time you are sleeping during the day.
“If you’re sleeping more than an hour during the day, it could contribute to poor sleep at night,” Singer said.
Try to resist the urge to nap during the day. If you can’t resist, set an alarm for ten to twenty minutes to make sure you aren’t oversleeping and further disrupting your sleep cycles at night.
Make your room a sleep sanctuary
Especially if you live with roommates, you might be spending more time than usual in your room. For some people, this means doing everything from working and eating to exercising and watching television in the same place where you sleep.
“A bedroom should be a sanctuary, a special place associated with sleep,” Singer said. “If you watch TV there [and] eat there, it loses that psychological conditioning that’s a prelude to sleep. Spend as much time out of the bedroom as possible during the day.”
If you can, make your room a sanctuary where you do not do anything except sleep. Keep your room tidy, avoid screens as much as possible and don’t eat in bed.
Even if you can’t avoid spending more time in your room, you can take steps to make your bedroom a sanctuary for sleep. Try to cover or put away work stations and screens after the work day is done in order to draw the line between work and relaxation.
“If there are things in your bedroom that remind you of tasks or things to do, if it has to be there, keep it out of sight so you can keep it out of mind, particularly if it’s work related or screens or monitors,” Singer said.
If sleep issues persist, contact a doctor
Singer said that if sleep issues persist despite your best efforts, contact a doctor.
“We can’t ignore the other health issues that normally would contribute to poor sleep,” Singer said. “If a person has a sleep problem that didn’t just develop during this time during the pandemic or if they’re having serious anxiety problems, they should see a healthcare provider to discuss their sleep or anxiety problems.”
The same goes for persistent nightmares.
“If you’re having recurring dreams, then your brain is sort of stuck processing the same information,” Singer said. “Moving to some kind of daytime therapeutic activity might be helpful to deal with what might be a more serious anxiety problem.”
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