In a survey conducted in July of 2,000 adults, released Sept. 13 by the Harris Poll on behalf of The Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center, about 18% of respondents said they get less sleep now than they did before the pandemic, while 19% said they struggle to sleep because they’re worried or stressed (about COVID-19, politics, or other factors). At the university, at least, this has led to a surge in demand for help; in 2021, Ohio State’s medical center received about 29% more referrals for insomnia treatment compared to 2018, says Dr. Aneesa Das, a sleep specialist and professor of internal medicine there.
Stress can disrupt sleep, says Das, since it can boost heart rate and blood pressure, upset stomachs, and make muscles tense. However, the survey also points to another problem: bad sleep habits, including using phones before bed, sleeping at irregular hours, and spending too much time in the bedroom. The challenge, says Das, is that these habits threaten important drivers of healthy sleep, including being exposed to light at the correct times and maintaining a regular sleep schedule.
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Some of this, says Das, is because many people do the wrong things to help wind down for sleep. In the survey, 47% of respondents say they use their phone before bed, and 37% fall asleep with the TV on. “Both of these are things that folks often do to try to distract their mind,” says Das. “But bright light is actually stimulating and decreases the association of the bedroom with sleep.”
The pandemic’s disruption of people’s daily schedules may have also had a knock-on effect on sleep, says Das. COVID-19 forced many people out of work or to work from home, giving them more control over when they go to sleep or get out of bed. But not sleeping the same hours every night can make it harder to fall asleep, Das says. During the pandemic, people may have also started spending too much time indoors without enough exposure to sunlight (although the survey did not measure this). This becomes especially problematic, Das says, if they spent more time in their bedrooms. “Waking up, putting your laptop on the bed, and working from home are probably the worst things we can do for causing insomnia.”
If you’re struggling to sleep, Das suggests rethinking your sleep habits. Your bedroom should be cool (ideally with a temperature in the upper 60s) dark, and quiet, and it should only be used for sleep and intimacy. Your daily schedule can also have a big impact on your sleep: getting exercise, spending time in the sun during the day, stopping caffeine consumption after 2 p.m., and keeping regular sleep and wake schedules can help, says Das. To help her own sleep, Das says that she likes to create a to-do list so she feels prepared for the next day, and she takes a daily two-mile walk.
While it can be hard to change habits (or give up your afternoon latte), improving your sleep can have major benefits on your physical and mental health. Poor sleep has been linked to a range of conditions, from a higher risk of stroke and heart disease, to increased vulnerability to obesity and depression.
And while the pandemic has messed with sleep schedules, good sleep could help people become more resilient to its effects. After getting a bad night’s sleep, studies have shown that people even have a poorer immune response to vaccines, says Das. While this hasn’t been studied with the Omicron booster, Das notes, “I can assure you that I tell my kids, ‘Before you get your vaccine booster, we want to make sure you’re getting good sleep.’”
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Contributor: Tara Law