The Great Sleep Shortage
How a stressful pandemic year is affecting sleep—and what you can do about it
By Brad Martin
Have your sleeping habits been affected by the past year, as the pandemic and political instability roiled the country? You’re not alone. Six in ten American adults say they experienced the worst sleep of their lives during the COVID-19 pandemic, according to a September survey conducted by marketing research company OnePoll.
Even those who’ve not said they’re sleeping worse than ever have noticed changes, such as especially vivid dreams.
Sleep clinics have been busy as the pandemic and other national events have caused no problems and made people more aware of existing ones.
Brandon Miller, clinical manager at Own Sleep Medicine on State Line Road, says that the pandemic has brought a wave of new patients, especially people who customarily traveled for work.
“Before the pandemic when people had problems with sleeping it was always pointed at something else—always on a plane, always in a different city, always in a hotel,” he says. “But once those things were gone and the problem didn’t go away they knew they needed to get help if they are not able to magically get good restorative sleep.”
Here’s what you may have noticed, and what you can do about it.
Limiting Blue Light
Sleep medicine physician Dr. Maniza Ehtesham has seen patients with a few different disruptions in sleep patterns since the pandemic started—some are showing delayed phase sleep, meaning they are staying up later because they are now able to sleep in if they work or go to school from home. She also says that because peoples’ sleep schedules are off, they’ll often stay up later watching TV or playing games—even after a full day of likely already being glued to a screen.
“Blue light from these screens can decrease inherent melatonin production and cause insomnia,” she says. “Stay away from TV, laptop and phone screens two hours before bedtime.”
On top of that, mental health can play a huge part in maintaining a healthy sleep schedule—if you’re stressed by any major life changes, whether brought on by the pandemic or not, it can discourage an optimal night’s sleep. “Anxiety can lead to poor sleep and poor sleep can lead to increased anxiety,” Dr. Ehtesham says. “This can become a vicious cycle.”
If your sleep has been affected, Dr. Ehtesham recommends upping your sleep hygiene by setting sleep and wake schedules and partaking in relaxation techniques closer to bedtime, like doing a light yoga session or taking a warm shower or bath. A low-dose melatonin can also help reset and advance your sleep cycles.
Dr. Ehtesham says there’s a strong argument that lack of sleep can decrease your body’s defense mechanism against infections—including COVID-19.
Giving Your Immune System a Leg-Up
It’s no secret that sleep is tied directly to your overall health, especially when it comes to your immune system. Allowing the body to get good, solid rest also allows it to prepare to fight off any illnesses that strike—including COVID-19.
For that reason, being treated for sleeping disorders can also help keep you safe during the pandemic.
“Optimal sleep enhances your immunity,” Dr. Ehtesham says, adding that lack of sleep “decreases your antibody production to the virus and other infections” and increases inflammation in our body. The more inflammation your body has, the more damage is done by the infection.
Being Treated At Home
Another big consideration in the current pandemic is how to get tested and treated for sleeping problems without putting yourself at risk for exposure to COVID. In the past, most sleep clinics operated labs where patients would come to be tested and diagnosed. But with the pandemic has brought a new interest in being tested and treated at home.
Own Sleep Medicine on State Line Road works exclusively through telemedicine, says the group’s business manager Clint Hooper. The idea is to make sleepcare affordable, convenient and accessible.
“We are a labless sleep lab,” Hooper says. “We want to take down the barriers. In this climate, people want it to be shipped to them, they want it delivered to their home and they want to just hop on a call and do their appointment.”
In order to make this model work, Own Sleep Medicine offers unlimited telemedicine visits with each client’s sleep coach, and the coach remains the same. They also use newer tools that are designed to automatically increase pressure to clear airways as needed during sleep.
It’s meant a lot of new clients coming to see them, says Miller, the group’s clinical manager.
“The excuses are gone now,” says Miller, the group’s clinical manager. “The reality is setting in, and a lot of people are really focused on their health and ready to do something about their chronic sleeping problems.”