Pandemic Sleep Advice Straight From Sleep Researchers

In the age of coronavirus, sleep is more important — and more elusive — than ever. Sleep researchers are here to help.

Photo: Basak Gurbuz Derman/Getty Images

Co-authored by Kelly Baron, PhD, MPH, Brendan Duffy RPSGT CCSH, Michael Grandner, PhD, MTR, Jared Saletin, PhD, Rebecca Spencer, PhD, and John Hogenesch, PhD

MMaybe you’ve always struggled with your sleep. Or, perhaps because of the coronavirus outbreak, you’ve started experiencing insomnia as a result of changes to your everyday life, fears about the health and safety of you and your loved ones, financial insecurities, and the barrage of coronavirus information and misinformation that’s coming from all directions. In these uncertain times, it’s not surprising to find that many people have had an increase in sleep difficulties.

With all the challenges we’ll be facing over the next several months as individuals and within our communities, workplaces, schools, and, indeed, globally, there are many reasons to make healthy sleep a priority and take steps to preserve this vital bodily function.

What constitutes good sleep? First, getting the right amount for your age: Most adults require seven to eight hours of sleep for optimal health. Adolescents and emerging adults benefit from eight to 10 hours, school-aged children need between nine and 11 hours, and our littlest ones should get even more.

In the face of the Covid-19 pandemic, we can’t afford not to sleep well right now.

Then, timing: Sleep does its best work for us when we get it at the right “time,” according to our internal, 24-hour body clock, aka our circadian rhythm. Humans are diurnal, meaning all of the workings of our body — eating, digestion, hormone secretion, and even learning and memory — are organized around the basic framework of wakefulness during the day and sleep at night. For individuals who work at night or follow a rotating shift schedule, finding the right sleep timing can be complicated because their sleep-wake schedules are often out of sync with day and night.

Finally, getting high-quality sleep: Sleep disruptions — whether they are from environmental sources, like noise or light or children, or due to things we bring to bed with us, like anxiety or an untreated sleep disorder — diminish the benefits of sleep.

In the face of the Covid-19 pandemic, we can’t afford not to sleep well right now. Healthy sleep preserves our immune function, which will be critical if you are exposed to the virus.

Sleep also helps us focus, think clearly, and solve problems. It helps us maintain our composure when emotions are running high. And for those with common chronic illnesses such as diabetes, obesity, high blood pressure, heart disease, or depression, healthy sleep promotes better management of these underlying conditions.

To help promote refreshing, restorative sleep during these unprecedented times, we, a group of sleep clinicians and researchers, would like to offer our best advice for protecting this important aspect of health as we all attempt to slow the spread of coronavirus:

Keep your body clock running on time

  • Just because you are stuck home does not mean you cannot go outside. Staying inside decreases your light exposure and makes it harder for your body clock to maintain its circadian rhythm. If you can safely get some sunlight, especially in the morning, that will help your brain and body keep the daytime/nighttime schedule running smoothly.
  • You don’t have to keep the exact same schedule every day. But if you are stuck at home for a while, adding structure to your day will help. Plan some anchor activities like meals, social contact, and a concrete beginning and end of your work or school day so that everything doesn’t run together.
  • If you have extra time at home, now might be a good time to work on optimizing your sleep environment. Install better window blinds, put duct tape over those bright LEDs, and set your phone for night mode.

Aim to get the amount of sleep you need

  • For some people, schedule changes and more time at home may equal more opportunities for sleep. If you’ve been “getting by” with less sleep than you need and spending your weekends “catching up” on sleep, reduced commuting time and prepping children for daycare and school may allow you to establish new routines that allow you to get a healthier sleep duration.
  • On the other hand, although staying home may increase the time you have to sleep, resist the temptation to drastically extend your time in bed. Most adults need seven to eight hours and should limit their time in bed to the time they actually plan to sleep. Spending more time in bed awake or sleeping on and off increases sleep fragmentation and results in lighter, less restorative sleep.
  • Brief naps might be a good idea if you are sleepy during the day and have the freedom to build a nap into your schedule. Naps as short as 10 minutes can improve energy levels and promote mental performance. But too much napping across the day can backfire. A nap may make it harder to sleep at night, leaving you sleepy the next day. Avoid this vicious cycle whereby daytime napping worsens nighttime sleep.

Three in the morning is a terrible time to calm yourself down — your brain expects to be asleep at that time, not problem-solving!

Keep active to “earn” your sleep

  • Move your body. Try to exercise. Do not sit around just because you are home and your routine has changed. You will “earn” better sleep with exercise, and it can also keep your body clock synchronized.

Go easy on the booze

  • With the stress of a global pandemic, wine might seem like the answer, but it is not. Although alcohol helps you fall asleep faster, it also makes sleep more shallow and increases middle-of-the-night insomnia. Best not to ramp up alcohol use.

Attempt to manage your worries

  • Although it is impossible to completely avoid coronavirus-related stressors right now, you need to protect yourself from anxiety-provoking information just as you are avoiding physical contact with this virus. Depending on your job, you may need to check email and stay available. Nevertheless, make an effort to limit the amount of information you consume to what is absolutely necessary. Avoid reading news updates right before bed.
  • For those middle-of-the-night wake-ups, remember most of the problems can wait until tomorrow. Three in the morning is a terrible time to calm yourself down — your brain expects to be asleep at that time, not problem-solving! If you are worried that you’ll forget something important, keep a notebook next to your bed and write it down. Then do your best to go back to sleep.

Promote healthy sleep for your children

  • For those with kids at home who are transitioning to distance learning, remember that healthy sleep helps with attention, memory, and emotional regulation. Maintaining a structure of bedtime and wake-time will make your job as “Wait what? Now I’m a homeschool teacher?” a little bit easier.
  • You may feel social pressure to keep your children on their usual schedule, but remember that many schools, especially middle schools and high schools, start earlier than is optimal for the adolescent biological clock. A schedule is important, but there is no need to start the day at a too-early time. Let your tweens and teens start the day at a biologically acceptable time.

Take special care if you have sleep apnea

  • We should all wash our hands, especially before bed, when we may unknowingly touch our faces while sleeping. This is particularly important if you use continuous positive airway pressure (CPAP) for sleep apnea as it is common for CPAP users to adjust their mask and headgear during the night.
  • If you are quarantined because of Covid-19 exposure or have any kind of cold or respiratory virus, it is wise, if possible, to sleep separately from your bed partner while wearing CPAP. If you are infected, then a CPAP machine might blow the virus into the air. By sleeping in a different room, you will avoid exposing your bed partner to viral exposure from your CPAP exhalation breaths.

The current public health situation is stressful and might lead to some new sleep disruptions. We encourage you to use these strategies to minimize this impact, or even make your sleep better, as we combat the spread of coronavirus together.

The coronavirus outbreak is rapidly evolving. For updates, check the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention as well as your local health department. If you’re feeling emotionally overwhelmed, reach out to the Crisis Text Line.

Dr. Sharkey is associate professor of Medicine and Psychiatry & Human Behavior and Assistant Dean for Women in Medicine & Science at Alpert Medical School.

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