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Here's Why Your Sleep Has Taken a Nosedive Lately

Your quality of sleep might be suffering. Here's why.

In a previous post, I mentioned 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. Quaran-dreaming was a real phenomenon—and may still be for many people. Early on in the pandemic, we saw studies showing a 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 UC Boulder study? They not only reported getting more sleep, but 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 sleeping more overall. What’s happening here? Seems pretty clear that lockdown freed many people from social jetlag—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 biorhythms—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 asleep, 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 biorhythms 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 ( 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.

Sweet Dreams,

Michael J. Breus, Ph.D., DABSM

The Sleep Doctor™