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Spotlight on Sleep: Finding Rest in Troubled Times

Health Hub
Author name: Lee Health


Every day for the past year, we’ve lived with the coronavirus pandemic. During that time, we’ve learned to practice safety precautions in our daily interactions with others to prevent the spread of COVID-19.

Just as important, we’ve also learned to monitor our own health for any symptoms of a possible COVID-19 infection, including its earliest indications, the temporary loss of taste and smell. 

But one aspect of our health we’ve tended to neglect during the past year is our sleep health, or what’s called sleep hygiene. Since the pandemic started, we’re having a harder time falling and staying asleep, researchers say.

Some of us are also waking too early and, unable to fall back asleep, we spend our days experiencing excessive daytime sleepiness.

According to Dr. Jose Colon, a Lee Health physician certified in sleep medicine, neurology, and lifestyle medicine, new studies show that the COVID-19 pandemic has increased mood and sleep disturbances, as well as increased the risk for insomnia.

The culprit behind those restless nights? Stress.

“The pandemic has upset our daily routines, which stresses us out,” Dr. Colon says. “We’re also stressed by the economic uncertainty related to the pandemic and we’re worried about our family members contracting the virus, including vulnerable loved ones like grandparents, not to mention concerned about our own health.”

All those stressors are affecting our sleep habits, or sleep hygiene, which Dr. Colon defines as healthy sleep habits that we can take to improve our ability to fall asleep and stay asleep.

“Sleep hygiene is vital to boosting the health of our immune system, which defends the body against infection. One of the most effective ways to improve your immune system's health is by reducing stress. We’ve known for a long time that stress can hamper the immune system.”

Survey says…

We’re not sleeping well. How do we know this? Well, if you want to know what’s on someone’s mind, visit their “history” on their computer’s web search engine. It turns out, many of us who are unable to sleep, are using Google to search for answers about how to sleep better, a new study reports.

That study, based on Google Trends’ search queries for the term “insomnia,” showed more of us were having difficulty sleeping during the acute phase (April and May 2020) of the COVID-19 pandemic, compared to the same months in the previous three years.

For some of us, we developed insomnia, which Dr. Colon defines as difficulty initiating sleep, staying asleep, or waking up too early, which is accompanied by daytime impairments and sleepiness.

The most common sleep disorder in the world, insomnia occurs in about 10 percent of the population. The disorder occurs mostly in women, older adults, and people with medical or mental illness.

Most insomnia symptoms resolve without treatment, according to Dr. Colon.

But if you’re symptoms aren’t going away, it might be time to check-in with a physician who specializes in sleep medicine, preferably one certified by the American Board of Sleep Medicine, which is part of the American Board of Medical Specialties.

Dr. Colon defines chronic insomnia disorder as “having sleep issues at least three nights a week for at least three months,” he adds. “In most cases, insomnia symptoms resolve without treatment. But about 7 percent of patients who have insomnia will go on to develop a chronic insomnia disorder.”

Healthy Sleep Habits

If you have difficulty sleeping or want to improve your sleep, Dr. Colon suggests following these healthy sleep habits:

  • Be consistent. Go to bed at the same time each night and get up at the same time each morning, including on the weekends
  • Make sure your bedroom is quiet, dark, relaxing, and at a comfortable temperature
  • Remove electronic devices, such as TVs, computers, and smartphones, from the bedroom
  • Avoid large meals, caffeine, and alcohol before bedtime
  • Get some exercise. Being physically active during the day can help you fall asleep more easily at night

These habits will boost your immune system, Dr. Colon says.

“During sleep, our immune system releases cytokines, which are proteins that target infection and inflammation.

When you’re fighting an infection or under stress, you need sleep to release more cytokines. Sleep also releases infection-fighting antibodies and cells,” Dr. Colon says. “Sleep deprivation is associated with a decreased production of these protective cytokines.”

So, to keep your immune system healthy, try to maintain a regular sleep schedule.

“That means going to bed at the same time and waking up at the same time every day,” Dr. Colon advises. “Also, drinking too much alcohol can interfere with sleep, especially the deep sleep that’s critical for your body’s antiviral immune response.”

To help manage your stress levels, Dr. Colon suggests practicing meditation, which may also help you sleep better. A 2015 study published  in JAMA Internal Medicine reported that among older adults, meditation could produce “robust improvements in sleep.”

Here are other tips for managing stress, offered by the federal Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration:

  •          Build social connections
  •          Manage negative thoughts
  •          Keep a sense of humor
  •          Get outdoors
  •          Relax by listening to music or practicing meditation

Dr. Colon says an overall healthy lifestyle is the best approach to fortifying your immune system and improving your sleep. That includes engaging in regular physical activity, eating a diet of wholesome foods rich in healthful nutrients, and managing your stress.

Sleep Medicine

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