Since the earliest days of the coronavirus, scientists have been furiously at work studying its characteristics, searching for treatments and ultimately a vaccine, and investigating its effects — including on sleep. There’s been research that suggests melatonin might have some protective benefits, helping to mitigate the severity of COVID-19 ( in animal models). Researchers are examining the effects of social isolation, economic upheaval, stress and uncertainty on our nightly rest.
We’re (mostly) on the other side of a months-long lockdown, and scientific research has begun to reveal ways that broad social quarantine has affected our sleep. This won’t be the last we learn about the effects of this unprecedented global upheaval on sleep. But research now begins to point to specific sleep challenges — and some silver linings around sleep in the age of coronavirus.
Here are four things we’ve learned so far about what’s happened to our sleep since lockdown, with some advice about how to put this information to work for your sleep, going forward.
Some of us are getting more sleep since lockdown
That’s one of the takeaways from two just-released (and separate) studies, both published in the journal Current Biology. These studies contain several interesting findings which I’ll talk about.
One study by scientists at the University of Colorado Boulder analyzed the sleep of a group of 139 university students, comparing data collected about their sleep before lockdown to new data collected after lockdown, when students left campus and classes went virtual. Scientists found a large majority of these young adults sleeping more during lockdown than they had been before. Pre-lockdown, 84% said they were sleeping seven or more hours a night. During lockdown, that number rose to 92%. Sleep in this group increased an average of 30 minutes during the weeknights, and 25 minutes on weekend nights.
It’s noteworthy that this additional sleep didn’t involve going to bed earlier. The students actually went to bed LATER during lockdown, and got up later. This makes sense when you recognize that nearly all college-age adults are Wolves. Late bedtimes and wake times are right in sync with their bio rhythms. Some adults (like me) stay Wolves throughout their lives. Others, after the age of 25 or so, will shift to Lions, Bears, and Dolphins.
What’s a WOLF? (Don’t know your bio type yet? Take my quiz here.)
Another just-published study, conducted across 3 European nations, included more than 400 sleepers. This study also found people sleeping more at night than before stay-at-home became a reality for most of us.
What next: If you’re a person whose sleep increased during lockdown, that’s great! There are a few important things for you to consider.
Were you sleep deprived before lockdown and not aware of it? Odds are the answer to this question is YES. Many people are too busy and too stressed to assess their sleep accurately. A lot of us become quite used to the impact of sleep deprivation on our thinking, our emotions, our energy levels. Take some time to reflect on what’s different about your life with some additional sleep — and take that new awareness of sleep’s importance with you as you move forward. I just wrote about how most Americans are waking up exhausted. Sleep deprivation is most definitely NOT a problem that began for most of us in just the past few months.
How is your sleep QUALITY? I’ll be talking about what scientists are learning of sleep quality during the pandemic in just a minute. The big takeaway to know is this: the benefits of more sleep can’t compensate for poor quality sleep. You need both sufficient amounts of sleep and sound, refreshing sleep to feel and function your best.
Are you sleeping TOO MUCH? There is no single amount of sleep that’s right for everyone. But there is definitely such a thing as too much nightly snoozing. Oversleeping — the medical term is hypersomnia — can bring about real health consequences, as I’ve written about before.
But wait… Are we REALLY sleeping more since lockdown?
Careful readers will have noticed that I said, “some of us are sleeping more since lockdown.” The reality is, we don’t have enough data to know where sleep amounts have been trending overall since the pandemic began. Plenty of anecdotal evidence suggests that some people are struggling with less sleep since lockdown. And there’s some preliminary research to back this up, including this recent study that included slightly more than 1,000 adult sleepers between the ages of 18-79. Among them, a very slight majority — 53% — said they were sleeping less since lockdown orders went into effect in most parts of the US in March.
I’m particularly interested in seeing how this breaks down by age and also gender. Individual lives have been very differently affected by the pandemic, and by lockdown and other social measures taken to address the virus. A 20-year old college student (see above) might have an easier time finding extra sleep time during lockdown than a middle-aged parent who’s homeschooling and working from home. A retired older adult might have their daily routine less affected than a millennial who’s gone from working in an office and socializing on the town.
What next: If you’re among the people whose nightly sleep duration decreased during lockdown, keep in mind you’re not alone, and there’s no competition here — you’re not “losing” at sleeping during lockdown. But you are losing sleep that you need. To remedy this, start by looking in the areas where your life has changed the most since the pandemic started. Maybe you used to hit the gym after work. The absence of that late day exercise might be affecting your ability to sleep, so try taking a good long walk before dinner. Maybe your kids’ at-home-all-the-time schedule have you folding laundry at 11:30 p.m., when you used to be sleeping peacefully. Get the kids to help — or let the laundry sit until the next day. Same applies to all the chores that lead you to stay up past your optimal bedtime. If your routines haven’t changed much but your sleep has, take a close look at your stress. Here’s what I wrote recently about how stress and sleep are related. If lockdown added a whole bunch of new or different responsibilities to your day, too many to identify just one, then think about what one or two responsibilities you can remove from your plate, in order to allow more time for sleep. You’ll get more done, faster, when you’re rested.
The quality of sleep has taken a nosedive
Recall I mentioned above how you can’t have just plentiful sleep — it must also be high-quality sleep? Here’s the flip side of the news about people sleeping more during lockdown. It appears that even among people who started getting more sleep during the weeks and months of stay-at-home, their sleep quality suffered. Some of the same recent studies that showed increased sleep duration showed a decline in the quality of sleep. This investigation of a European population found that sleep quality grew worse during lockdown, with more people having problems falling asleep and staying asleep through the night. And while a small majority of people reported their sleep duration has increased, a much larger majority of people in this study reported that their sleep quality was better before lockdown began.
There are several reasons why sleep quality might have been compromised during lockdown, and might still be a challenge:
Stress. No surprise here. There’s been a massive uptick in stress over the past several months. Increased stress is almost certain to interfere with sleep. Here’s my recent article on how stress and sleep interact, and ways you can reduce stress to improve sleep.
Lack of exercise. Most people I know — my friends, my patients, my colleagues—try hard to stay fit and physically active. So many exercise routines got put on pause during lockdown, and you might not have found your footing again yet. Missing out on exercise will diminish sleep quality — and you’re especially prone to feel this if you’d been working out regularly before lockdown and had to stop suddenly.
Changes to diet. They don’t call it eating your feelings for nothing. Stress and emotional upheaval can change appetite and send us running for the starchy, sugary foods that comfort us (thanks, in part, to their triggering of spikes in the calming, feel-good hormone serotonin). Those same foods are likely to contribute to restless, less refreshing sleep. This is especially true if you’re eating lots of these foods AND eating them at night, close to bedtime. Here are food mistakes that can really undermine your bedtime routine — and here’s why scheduling time for daily, intermittent fasting may help your waistline and your nightly rest.
Bad dreams and nightmares. Quaren-dreaming was a real phenomenon — and may still be for many people. Early on in the pandemic, we saw studies showing significant rise in nightmares and stress dreams. Active, intense, disruptive dreaming will interfere with how well you rest at night.
What next: A few important steps everyone can take. First, bring your awareness to your sleep, and do a real, honest inventory of how it’s going. Include your daytime energy, mood, and degree of fatigue in that assessment. Just because you don’t remember waking up throughout the night doesn’t mean it isn’t happening. Your daytime functioning is an important blueprint for sleep quality.
You’re likely to find at least one if not several causes for your poor sleep on this list I’ve given you, above. Identify the triggers that have created new sleep problems — or, as is likely the case for many people, exacerbated sleep problems that already existed, pre-lockdown. If your own adjustments and attention don’t bring about improvements after a few weeks, reach out to your physician for guidance and consider working directly with a sleep specialist.
Sleep schedules may be more routine than before
There’s some preliminary research that suggests lockdown may have increased the consistency of sleep schedules. Those college students from the U.C. Boulder study? They not only reported getting more sleep, they also reported sleeping on more regular schedules than before lockdown. (Remember, they went to bed later and got up later. I’ll come back to this in a minute.) Something similar was true for the pan-European group of sleepers who were recently studied. They also were found to be sleeping on more regular schedules, in addition to be sleeping more overall. What’s happening here? Seems pretty clear that lockdown freed many people from social jet lag — the fatigue and sleep deprivation that results from a mismatch between a person’s individual optimal sleep-wake schedule and the schedule that society demands us to adhere to. Lockdown brought about a suspension of those society-wide schedules for most people, and offered more flexibility in daily routines.
It makes perfect sense to me that this would lead directly to a more consistent sleep schedule. That’s because with newfound flexibility, many people will have naturally gravitated toward sleeping more in line with their bio rhythms — like those college students who went to bed later and got up later during lockdown. Wolves prefer late nights and are averse to early mornings. I’ll bet there are Lions out there who are going to bed before its dark outside during these long, June days!
Consistency is the cornerstone of a healthy sleep routine. The more regular your sleep schedule, the easier you’ll fall sleep, and the sounder your sleep will be. (Less waking up restlessly during the night.) You’ll be sharper and have more energy for all you need to do during the day. And you’ll be reinforcing the same bio rhythms that keep your sleep-wake schedule on track and keep your body functioning at its best.
What next: Lean into your chronotype right now, and for the long haul (www.chronoquiz.com). If your sleep schedule has become more routine, that’s great. Put effort and attention toward maintaining this new schedule as your routines continue to evolve and change. And don’t stop with sleep schedules. Your chronotype can point you toward the optimal times to do just about everything, from leading a team meeting to going for a run to having sex. I wrote about how we can use our bio types to minimize disruption and maximize health and performance during these uncertain times.
Michael J. Breus, PhD, DABSM
The Sleep Doctor™
For more on the importance of sleep, check out the latest stories from Thrive Global’s Sleep Editor at Large, Shelly Ibach.
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