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COVID-somnia: Harder to get sleep during pandemic

There are many aids available to help get a better sleep, during the pandemic and beyond.

A good night’s sleep has become one the casualties of the pandemic.

Prior to COVID-19, sleep deficiency was already considered a global epidemic by the World Health Organization, happening to about one in four Canadians. 

“Now it’s as much as thirty to forty per cent in some settings,” said Cary Brown, a professor with the department of occupational therapy at the University of Alberta. “That’s quite a significant number.”

Brown said sleeping less than six and a half hours a night increases the risk for cardiovascular problems, diabetes, obesity and mental health issues such as anxiety and depression. 

In a 2020 online survey by the Canadian Sleep & Circadian Network and three other groups, 5,500 Canadians shared experiences about sleep and mental health. Though one-third already had insomnia before COVID-19, half of the respondents reported serious sleep difficulties during the pandemic. 

“There are techniques to help,” said Brown, who has been researching non-drug-based insomnia interventions for about 15 years. 

Keep a routine 

Changes in routine can disrupt the circadian day/night cycle, and Brown said it’s why people who regularly walk the dog or have school-aged children tend to have less sleep disruption during COVID-19.

“During the pandemic, the risk is to get out of routine, so make sure to keep one,” she said. “The habits we set up now are hard to break when normal job and life patterns return.”

Brown said there’s a strong correlation between mental stress that comes with pandemic anxiety--over things like financial strain and disruption of family routines--and being physically distressed. 

“Bodies can’t differentiate between the stresses,” said Brown. “When we’re stressed mentally, our bodies respond, which interferes with sleep.”

Stress hormones caused by anxiety or irritation are the same ones that trigger the body’s ‘fight or flight’ response. On the other hand, when the heart rate slows and breathing gets deeper, the body stops sending alerting chemicals. 

“Try to have something to concentrate on that does not cause anxiety; things like mindfulness meditation or talking books," she said. 

A white noise app in the bedroom can also help--the same goes for lessening our screen time. Electronic devices emit blue light, which suppress the development of sleep-helping melatonin, Brown said. If you have to bring your laptop to bed, Brown recommends blue spectrum-decreasing goggles, and/or choosing devices with the minimal amount of such light. 

Time your exercise

According to the National Sleep Foundation, people who regularly exercise are much less likely to report sleep problems, including waking too early or trouble falling asleep. However, aerobic exercise causes the body to release endorphins which increases activity in the brain. Instead, it's recommended to finish running or weight training at least two hours before bed to give endorphin levels time to wash out.

“Later in the day, a better approach is to take the dog for a walk or go for a stroll," Brown said.

Waking during the night is not abnormal, Brown said, adding that we sleep in 90-minute cycles. If you wake up and can’t get back to sleep, consider self-shiatsu massage or a body scan, which is a form of meditation. 

“Anything that gives your mind something to do, that isn't stressful,” said Brown. “Think of the end of the book you're reading, or how you’d like to spend a relaxing day.”

Meditation a helpful practice

Ami Stadnick, an Edmonton registered psychologist and Transcendental Meditation (TM) teacher for over 40 years, says many of her students report better sleep with the practice.

“When we do TM practice, we experience less stress and anxiety, and many have better sleep as a result,” she said. "Twenty minutes twice a day is good, but as with exercise, don’t do it right before bed, because TM “can enliven the mind”. 

While older people need as much sleep as when they were younger, they do tend to sleep less deeply and wake up more often. The Canadian Sleep Society recommends being physically active and adding lots of natural light to the daytime hours, among other solutions. 

For more on hand self-shiatsu, go to cbotlabs.wixsite.com/handselfshiatsu

For more on sleep during COVID-19, visit sleeponitcanada.ca 

INFO BOX

Modify your environment (OT department, U of A)

  • Use bedding that is soft, made of heavier material and has less thermal insulation to arms and legs
  • Use a medium firm mattress, and try temperature-regulating bedding
  • Use orthopedic pillows that are not down or feather, as they retain heat
  • Get lots of natural light during the day and dim the light before bed time
  • Have continuous noise with a white noise app or soothing music
  • Minimize disruptions by using ear plugs, thicker drapes and no pets in the bedroom
  • Turn off your laptop half an hour before bedtime
  • Take a warm bath before bed 
  • Turn down the thermostat, turn on a fan or open a window, as cool is better for sleep

Tips for restorative sleep (Sleep on it Canada):

  • Get 7 to 8 hours of rest, including daytime naps
  • If you can’t fall asleep in a half hour, read or listen to music until your eyelids feel heavy
  • Cultivate social ties with the outside world by phone or video-conferencing
  • Brighten your days with lots of light – on the balcony, on your walks or using lights in the house
  • Avoid caffeine and alcohol late in the day 
  • Walk, stretch or do yoga 
  • Stay away from too much news, especially before bed time
  • Don’t over-stress about sleep, as age-related sleep changes are normal