Updated: Oct 28, 2020
Insomnia impacted millions of people before the coronavirus, but now sleep has become such a huge issue that experts have coined a new term, "coronasomnia", to refer to the stress and sleep loss attributed to the pandemic.
Sleep is a critically important component of overall health, and when we are deprived of quality sleep, many other aspects of our health suffer including immune, hormonal, and metabolic functioning.
There are a variety of reasons why people are struggling with sleep right now.
1. Stress & Anxiety - There seems to be a never ending barrage of bad news that we are exposed to this year, all while living isolated from loved ones and working to maintain a new normal that is anything but.
This year the threat of falling ill to the coronavirus is only one of several major threats to our sense security. We have also dealt with:
grief over everything from missed plans to loss of loved ones
the pain associated with police brutality and increased awareness of systemic racism
clashes between protestors and police
burnout in helping professions like police officers, teachers and health care workers
navigating educating our kids during a pandemic
natural disasters ranging from forest fires to hurricanes
When our nervous system perceives so much potential threat for so long it becomes overly activated. The signal the brain sends the body goes a little something like, "DANGER HERE! NO TIME FOR REST! MUST SURVIVE." The result is a feeling of being tired all day and wired at night, unable to ever full rest and recover.
2. Depression - Rates of depression have surged during the pandemic. There is a well established connection between depression and insomnia. We are social beings that require safe connection with other human beings to thrive, and arguably to stay alive. The lack of both safety and connection during the pandemic, along with a reduced sense of control over many of the perceived threats has had a devastating impact on our mental health and sleep.
3. Loss of a Regular Schedule - Human beings are creatures of habit and sleep can be negatively impacted by a loss of routine. The pandemic has lead to wide variations in our usual schedules since we no longer even have to get dressed or leave the house to go to work, take the kids to school or even get food. Many parents are trying to navigate working from home while trying to keep kids on task with online learning. Changes to our normal schedule have increased our stress and effected our sleep.
4. Increased Screen Time - Screens have been a huge part of the pandemic survival strategy for many. Americans are getting by on Netflix binges, "connecting" through social media and Zoom meetings. When we are exposed to screens before bedtime it interferes with our body's natural sleep clock. The reason why our sleep suffers from increased screen time is the short-wavelength, artificial blue light that is emitted by these device can lead to being more alert when you should be winding down for rest. It can also reduce the quality of sleep, reduce the total amount of REM sleep, and decrease alertness in the morning.
So what do we do about our coronasomnia?!?!
We may not be able to change what is going on in the news but that doesn't mean we can't turn our sleep troubles around. Here are a few practical tips that can get you started:
Set a sleep schedule. Set an alarm in the morning and get up even if you don't have to leave the house. Establish a consistent bedtime and start to wind down 1-2 hours before. Notice how your sleep is impacted if you stay up too late at night or hit snooze too many times in the morning.
Develop a relaxation ritual. Pay attention to practices that really help you to feel relaxed and incorporate these things into a regular evening practice designed to help you prepare for sleep. If you are clueless about relaxation because you are always go-go-go, try some things and see what works for you. You may involve things like a stretching routine, diffusing lavender essential oil, listening to relaxing music, soaking in a hot bath or reading a relaxing book before bed. Try using the free app Insight Timer which provides thousands of free guided meditations and relaxing sounds to help you sleep.
Reserve your bed for sleep only. Set a rule that the bed is for sleep (and sex) only. Avoid bringing your laptop into the bed for work because it brings the stress energy of work into your sacred area for rest.
Mind your light exposure. Resetting our circadian rhythm is possible and understanding how light impacts it is key. During the day try to get outside and have light exposure. At night avoid screens and consider getting black out shades or wear a sleep mask to inform the body it is time for rest.
Try supplements. There are tons of natural sleep aids that can help you to improve insomnia. One of my favorite natural sleep support supplements is MindYourMind. This blend of herbs and nutraceuticals encourages an easy transition to sleep and a restful nights sleep. Another staple in my sleep supplement protocol is magnesium. I recommend Natural Calm powder taken right before bed. Hemp oil containing cannabinoids like CBD, has also shown promise in helping to support sleep by helping with anxiety.
Watch your beverages. Drinking too much, too late can interrupt sleep for bathroom breaks, regardless of what it is. Alcohol and caffeine are notoriously bad for sleep. Try to go without and watch how your sleep is effected.
Avoid eating before bed. Laying down to rest after a large meal is not a great sleep strategy. This can lead to indigestion and reflux, as well as disrupted sleep. Try to avoid eating 3 hours before bedtime.
Prioritize safe connection and healthy relationships. We need each other and we do better when we are loved and supported. In order to have the best sleep of your life, your nervous system must experience safety and connection. Staying in touch with loved ones may not look like it always has, but we can and must connect, whether through zoom calls or distanced gatherings, in order to feel and function at our highest level.
Support hormone balance. A variety of hormone imbalances can impact sleep. Melatonin, estrogen, progesterone, testosterone, oxytocin, cortisol, thyroid, and insulin are all hormones that when imbalanced can cause insomnia. Bringing hormones into balance can have a tremendous impact on sleep.
Try the tips above and then share what's working to save your sleep in the comments below!
If you still need help, connect with Elevate Functional Medicine to help you identify and correct the root cause of your sleep disorders.
Rabia Vaughns, MMS, PA-C is a certified physician assistant who specializes in functional medicine, integrative medicine and lifestyle medicine, helping people overcome chronic illness using a personalized approach to healing. She is also a co-owner of Elevate Functional Medicine.