Ever since the COVID-19 pandemic began, you can’t fall asleep or stay asleep. Coronavirus anxiety may be contributing to your sleeplessness, as well as a host of other factors, from overexposure to electronic devices to too much caffeine, says Daniel Barone, M.D., Associate Medical Director of the Weill Cornell Center for Sleep Medicine. Practicing good sleep hygiene is vital to not only the duration and quality of your sleep but also your overall health, especially during these challenging times, Dr. Barone says.
Many things can disrupt a good night’s sleep, including the isolation and inactivity of quarantine, Dr. Barone says. “Being in quarantine, not exercising, not to mention watching the news and being inundated with information have raised people’s anxiety and stress levels, and affected their sleep health,” he says. “We're designed to move, not to sit around a desk or at a table, working continuously or watching TV. And when we're not able to move on a regular basis, sleep gets impacted,” he says.
Stimulants like alcohol, caffeine, and nicotine can also make it hard to fall or stay alseep. “Caffeine, even if you have it in the morning, stays in your system for up to five hours or longer, which means that it's still in your system when evening arrives,” Dr. Barone says. He advises not drinking coffee after 1 p.m. Even alcohol, which may help you fall asleep, can awaken you an hour later, as your body metabolizes it. “Alcohol can be very deleterious to sleep quality,” he says.
Although short naps--especially during the day--can have tremendous benefits, they become problematic during the late afternoon or early evening because they relieve the ‘sleep pressure’ that makes you want to sleep at night. Dr. Barone recommends napping no longer than 20-30 minutes, no later than noon. “When you go over that, you get into ‘deep sleep’ and that can really interrupt sleep pressure,” he says. “There's no harm per se in a nap. But it can be a slippery slope and lead to insomnia at night.”
Not sleeping well or enough can weaken your immune system, which may increase your susceptibility to infections like colds or COVID-19, as well as heart disease, diabetes, hypertension, strokes, or heart attacks. “A lot of chronic conditions can be tied back to a lack of sleep, at least partially,” Dr. Barone says.
Maintaining a consistent sleep schedule can help. “You need to condition your brain to say, ‘This is my time for work. This is my time for relaxation or sleep.’ When those things get blended into one another, insomnia or poor sleep habits can emerge,” he says. Structured sleep schedules should apply to weekends too. “We tend to stay up later on the weekends, but then we sleep in the next day, and it is harder to fall asleep at night,” Dr. Barone says.
It's also important to use your bed only for sleep and intimacy. “Working in bed actually tricks the brain into thinking that bed is not a place of sleep but of work,” he says.
Another sleep disrupter is the blue light that computers, smartphones, and tablets emit, tricking your brain into thinking that the sun is out and stopping it from making melatonin, a chemical that naturally promotes sleep. “You want to turn off these electronic devices at least 30-60 minutes before bedtime,” Dr. Barone says. “You want to make sure that your bed environment is as sleep-inducing as possible.”
Turn off news and email, too, as they can cause emotional upset and keep you awake. “At least 30-60 minutes before bed, keep your eyes away from this type of stuff,” Dr. Barone says. “Read instead, do 10-15 minutes of mindfulness or guided meditation, listen to a podcast or an audio book, anything to take your mind and brain and eyes away from stimulating or upsetting situations.”
Additionally, try blackout shades to prevent light from streaming in, or take delayed release melatonin, valerian, or chamomile tea, after speaking with your medical provider.
If you can’t get to sleep or stay asleep, or if you wake up too early for three months, then consider visiting a sleep center. “Not having quality or quantity of sleep can affect your immune system, and how you feel emotionally, and the consequences can be far reaching.”