Sleep

Healthy Sleep Habits in the Time of COVID-19

How quarantine jeopardizes sleep—and what to do about it.

Posted Mar 29, 2020

Photo by Kinga Cichewicz on Unsplash
Source: Photo by Kinga Cichewicz on Unsplash

In this time of necessary quarantine, let us uphold a vital function of healthy sleep. Comprising about a third of our lives, sleep makes significant contributions to physical resilience (e.g., immune function) and psychological well-being (e.g., positive mood and resistance to stress). Staying home-bound for an uncertain period of time creates four factors that jeopardize healthy sleep in any individual:

  1. Lack of consistent exposure to sunlight which regulates the circadian system
  2. Reduced physical activity which promotes the homeostatic sleep drive
  3. Increased worrying and ruminations at night due to the uncertainty of the situation
  4. Turning the bed/bedroom into a place of work and leisure instead of sleep

Let us consider these factors one by one.

1. Circadian System.

The circadian system maintains a regular 24-hour cycle of sleep and wake. The natural environmental stimulus that keeps the body clock ticking is morning sunlight, which measures thousands of lux in intensity. Typical ceiling lights provide an illumination of a few hundred lux at best, which is not sufficient to maintain the circadian function.

To keep your circadian system strong, it is important to establish a consistent schedule for the entire family that would include bright light exposure for at least 1 hour at about the same time every morning. The best way is to be outdoors, e.g., backyard, balcony, a park (while practicing social distancing).

The next best thing is to stay within a foot from the window with Eastern exposure and look outside. Alternatively, a bright lightbox (blue or full-spectrum) with a rating of "10,000 lux or equivalent" and a "no UV" specification is a good substitute for sunlight for people without a history of bipolar disorder or a retinal disorder.

2. Sleep Drive.

To maintain the homeostatic sleep drive, a daily dose of physical activity is of paramount importance. Specific solutions vary greatly between individuals. You can pull those old weights out of the back of your closet or roll out that yoga mat. If back pain is a factor, consider gentle moves like lying on the back and bringing the knees to the chest, one at a time. Try upper body movements, or pedaling leg movements in the air. Any movement that is feasible and at least mildly challenging will do.

Research on physical activity and sleep suggests that less vigorous but consistent physical activity is a good predictor of longer and deeper sleep. Hence the key word is "daily." Following a schedule helps keep an exercise routine going!

3. Rumination.

To help confine ruminations to the day time and keep the bed worry-free, a number of strategies may be employed. Scheduling brain-storming sessions during the day for short- and long-term planning fosters a sense of control. A habit of writing down concerns as well as gratitudes in a journal in the early evening helps achieve mental compartmentalization and emotional stability. A consistent relaxation/meditation routine shortly before bed further aids the entry into a nighttime of disengagement, calm and peaceful rest.  

4. The Bedroom.

Lastly, to keep restorative sleep in bed and productive wakefulness out of bed, it helps tremendously to maintain a clear demarcation between a workspace, an entertainment/leisure space, and a sleeping space. Having had the experience of living in a 400-square foot studio for some years, I believe that with some planning and prioritizing such demarcation is possible even within small living quarters. The net result of this effort is that your body is trained to respond to the bed as a signal to fall asleep quickly, not to become alert.

During our usual hectic lives, sleep often gets pushed to the bottom of the priority list. While on lock-down, we now have some time to attend to this important third of our existence and make room for healthy sleep habits that will help us get through the quarantine—and beyond.

LinkedIn Image Credit: Tirachard Kumtanom/Shutterstock

References

Creasy, S. A., Crane, T. E., Garcia, D. O., Thomson, C. A., Kohler, L. N., Wertheim, B. C., Baker, L., Coday, M., Hale, L., Womack, C. R. Wright, K. P., Melanson, E. L. (2019). Higher amounts of Sedentary Time are Associated with Short Sleep Duration and Poor Sleep Quality in Postmenopausal Women, Sleep, zsz093, https://doi.org/10.1093/sleep/zsz093

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