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HEALTH PLUS MEDICAL CORRESPONDENT

The novel coronavirus has brought the world into uncharted waters. There’s still so much unknown about this pandemic — how much the disease will spread, whether hospitals can manage the crisis, when the economy can recover — and such uncertainty often brings anxiety that disrupts sleep as a racing mind keeps the body tossing and turning.

Sleep is critical to physical health and effective functioning of the immune system. It’s also a key promoter of emotional wellness and mental health, helping to beat back stress, depression and anxiety.

How sleep impacts mental health

Every 90 minutes, a normal sleeper cycles between two major categories of sleep — although the length of time spent in one or the other changes as sleep progresses.

During “quiet” sleep, a person progresses through four stages of increasingly deep sleep. Body temperature drops, muscles relax, and heart rate and breathing slow. The deepest stage of quiet sleep produces physiological changes that help boost immune system functioning.

The other sleep category, REM (rapid eye movement) sleep, is the period when people dream. Body temperature, blood pressure, heart rate, and breathing increase to levels measured when people are awake. Studies report that REM sleep enhances learning and memory and contributes to emotional health — in complex ways.

Although scientists are still trying to tease apart all the mechanisms, they have discovered that sleep disruption — which affects levels of neurotransmitters and stress hormones, among other things — wreaks havoc in the brain, impairing critical thinking, and emotional regulation. In this way, insomnia may amplify the effects of psychiatric disorders, and vice versa.

Challenges to Sleep During a Pandemic

With such unprecedented changes coming on so quickly, it’s understandable that the importance of sleep is flying under the radar. But as we adjust to stay-at-home recommendations and try to remain healthy in a time of COVID-19, focusing on sleeping health offers tremendous benefits.

Millions of people suffered from insomnia before the coronavirus and unfortunately, the pandemic creates a host of new challenges even for people who previously had no sleeping problems.

Disruption of Daily Life

Social distancing, school closures, quarantines, working from home: all bring profound changes to normal routines for people of all ages and walks of life.

• It can be difficult to adjust to a new daily schedule or lack of a schedule.

• Keeping track of the time, and even the day, can be hard without typical time “anchors” like dropping children at school, arriving at the office, attending recurring social events, or going to the gym.

• Being stuck at home, especially if it has low levels of natural light, may reduce light-based cues for wakefulness and sleep, known as zeitgebers, which are crucial to our Circadian Rhythm.

• If you are not working now or your weekly hours have been decreased due to COVID-19, you may be tempted to oversleep each morning. Sleeping more than seven to eight hours per night can make waking up on time much more difficult, even if you use an alarm. Over sleepers may also feel groggy, irritable and unfocused throughout the day.

Stress-Related Fatigue

The chronic stress of living through a pandemic can lead to a host of physical symptoms, including persistent headaches, memory lapses, and digestive problems. Stress-related fatigue is another common side effect. The MAYO CLINIC defines fatigue as “a nearly constant state of weariness that develops over time and reduces your energy, motivation and concentration.” Even if you receive an adequate amount of sleep at night, fatigue can still leave you feeling tired and unmotivated in the morning.

Greater Family and Work Stress

Keeping up with work-from-home obligations or managing a house full of children who are accustomed to being at school can pose real problems, generating stress and discord that have been shown to be barriers to sleep.

Economic concerns are affecting nearly everyone as well. As economic activity stalls and job losses mount, it’s normal to worry about income, savings, and making ends meet.

Excess Screen Time

Excess screen time, especially later in the evening, can have a detrimental impact on sleep. Not only can it stimulate the brain in ways that make it hard to wind down, but the blue light from screens can suppress the natural production of melatonin, a hormone that the body makes to help us sleep.

Experts agree that getting consistent, high-quality sleep improves virtually all aspects of health, which is why it is worthy of our attention during the coronavirus pandemic.

In spite of the daunting challenges, there are a handful of steps that can promote better sleep during the coronavirus pandemic.

If these efforts don’t pay off immediately, don’t give up. It can take time to stabilise your sleep, and you may find that you need to adapt these suggestions to best fit your specific situation.

Creating Quality Sleep Hygiene Practices

Establishing a routine can facilitate a sense of normalcy even in abnormal times. It’s easier for your mind and body to acclimate to a consistent sleep schedule, which is why health experts have long recommended avoiding major variation in your daily sleep times.

Sleep-specific aspects of your daily schedule should include:

• Wake-Up Time: Set your alarm, bypass the snooze button, and have a fixed time to get every day started.

• Wind-Down Time: This is an important time to relax and get ready for bed. It can involve things like light reading, stretching, and meditating along with preparations for bed like putting on pajamas and brushing your teeth. Given the stress of the coronavirus pandemic, it’s wise to give yourself extra wind-down time each night.

Reserve Your Bed for Sleep

Sleep experts emphasize the importance of creating an association in your mind between your bed and sleep. For this reason, they recommend that sleep and sex be the only activities that take place in your bed.

On any given night, if you find that you’re having a hard time sleeping, don’t spend more than 20 minutes tossing and turning. Instead, get out of bed and do something relaxing in very low light, a mindfulness practice or journalling and then head back to bed to try to fall asleep.

See the Light

Exposure to light plays a crucial role in helping our bodies regulate sleep in a healthy way. As you deal with disruptions to daily life, you may need to take steps so that light-based cues have a positive effect on your circadian rhythm.

• If you can, spend some time outside in natural light. Even if the sun isn’t shining brightly, natural light still has positive effects on circadian rhythm. Many people find outdoor time is most beneficial in the morning, and as an added bonus, it’s an opportunity to get fresh air.

• Be mindful of screen time. The blue light produced by electronic devices, such as mobile phones, tablets, and computers, has been found to interfere with the body’s natural sleep-promoting processes. As much as possible, avoid using these devices for an hour before bed. You can also use device settings or special apps that reduce or filter blue light.

Practice Kindness, Gratitude and Foster Connection

It might not seem critical to your sleep, but kindness and connection can reduce stress and its harmful effects on sleep and will improve our emotional wellbeing during this Pandemic. So start by being grateful for breath!

Look out for HEALTH PLUS every Tuesday for more informative and healthful articles. If you have any questions or concerns regarding this topic, please email [email protected]