Many people spend their nights now tossing and turning, struggling to unglue from the constant scroll of coronavirus news updates.
But, while there is no body or life hack to make you impervious to the touch of disease, we do know that sleep is key to helping our bodies stay healthy. “Sleep is an essential part of protection from and response to any infection,” said Douglas B. Kirsch, a neurologist and former president of the American Academy of Sleep Medicine. But still, he hears you: “Sleep is hard when anxiety levels are high, such as in the case of a pandemic.”
There are some answers as to what you can do now. You may not like them.
Create and maintain a very consistent sleep practice and schedule that works for you.
The more consistent your wake-up time, the more consistent your body functions.
The National Sleep Foundation recommends sticking to a sleep schedule, and here’s a simple way to do it: Set a regular bedtime. Pair it with a set time to wake. (As many people aren’t currently commuting, this might be easier than normal.)
Set yourself up for success by doing the little things: use blackout curtains if you’re sleeping while it’s bright, ditto to earplugs or a sleep mask (Wirecutter, a company owned by The New York Times that judges products, recommends this sleep mask, but even a light pillow or T-shirt works in a pinch).
No matter what you do, make your bedroom very comfortable and very dark.
Are you easily awakened? Use a fan or a repeated track on Spotify for white noise.
Still, if you’re tired, get sleep while you can. “If you’re tired during the day, get your rest then,” said Janet Mullington, a professor in the department of neurology at Harvard Medical School.
Set a hard curfew for all electronics.
Stay on schedule with the help of a strict electronic curfew: Try 90 minutes without social media, email and even TV before lights out, said Dr. Breus.
“It may be tempting to stay up late binge-watching your favorite shows because you don’t have to go to work in the morning, but it is more important than ever to prioritize your sleep,” said Kristen L. Knutson, an associate professor at Northwestern University’s Center for Sleep and Circadian Medicine.
If you can’t do 90 minutes, start with 15. Also, probably don’t watch “Contagion.”
Stay informed, but don’t look at the news right before bed.
Limit your types of media consumption too, particularly avoiding things in the evening that increase anxiety. This might be the hardest but most sane advice: “Only look at coronavirus news once per day, preferably not near bedtime,” said Dr. Kirsch.
Turning off notifications on your phone might also be helpful. You can set your phone to automatically turn off notifications in the evenings, by scheduling do not disturb hours.
“Isolation can increase the desire to stay electronically connected even more,” said Lisa Medalie, a behavioral sleep medicine specialist at the University of Chicago, who adds that it’s vital to keep disciplined, which helps minimize distractions and regain control.
You can use the time before bed to put away fears, too, as part of giving order to the day. “Setting up plans of action for the day, both for kids and adults, can help alleviate some of that uncertainty,” said Dr. Kirsch. “We tend to keep our anxieties bottled up and they burst out in the dark. Try to clear out the mental cabinet ahead of time.”
Bottom line: protect your sleep by protecting your bedtime rituals. Block off this chunk of time. The more minutes you can buffer before bed, the better. Do you really think you’re going to sleep better after mainlining Twitter?
Move your body and raise your heart rate every day.
This is a must, not only because it makes you tired and ready for bed. Exercising also helps with something else we’re all dealing with, whether we’re sick or well: anxious, nervous energy. Dr. Kirsch said, “This can be as simple as a neighborhood walk or doing an exercise video at home.” (If you do go on a walk, stay six feet away from other people.)
Working out at home might be the best — and safest — way to get your heat rate up. Here are some things you can do in isolation.
Treat anxiety with gratitude, breathing, meditation and maybe medication.
Many people think stressful thoughts as they fall asleep. That feeds a cycle of anxiety. Make an on-paper or mental list of things to be grateful for instead.
Try 4-7-8 breathing. In a comfortable position, with your eyes open or closed: inhale for four seconds, hold your breath for seven seconds, exhale slowly for eight seconds. Then repeat as necessary.
Consider meditation or progressive relaxation before bed or while falling asleep. There are many free podcasts; try this one from UCLA’s Mindful Awareness Research Center, which promotes regulated breathing.
Dr. Kirsch suggested taking a few moments throughout the day to separate for a few moments and take some deep breaths: “Even people who are not typically anxious may be struggling. Sleep is difficult when anxiety is high, thus trying to manage anxiety levels during the day can also benefit nighttime sleep.”
Also, if you are suffering from anxiety, speak to a clinic or a doctor or a mental health professional, or at least try to get one of those. Debilitating anxiety is a medical condition.
Don’t eat before bed. Don’t drink yourself to sleep.
You may have a new routine now. Another cup of coffee — or an early happy hour over Zoom — helps burn the midnight oil. Yes, coffee is good for you in moderation — up to 400 milligrams of caffeine per day — but more than that can lead to shakiness, nervousness, and irregular heartbeat.
And while alcohol makes you sleepy, it doesn’t promote quality rest. Alcohol “leads to sleep fragmentation,” said Dr. Kirsch.
Don’t eat right before bed. Symptoms of heartburn or GERD are unpleasant enough, but can be indistinguishable from anxiety, leading to even more anxiety.
Feel out of control around food or drink? Start a food diary, just so you know what you’re actually consuming.
Take a hot shower or bath 90 minutes before bed. Wash your sheets!
Getting warm and then cooling off helps produce melatonin. One method to maintaining an electronic curfew is to combine it with a hot shower, both of which get you primed for a restful night.
And while you’re taking care of your body, take care of your space. If possible, use HEPA filter air cleaners for your bedroom, wash your sheets twice a week, and give your home, particularly your bedroom, a nightly clean. Here is a guide on how to clean your home for coronavirus. You’re probably spending more time than ever there; this can promote peace of mind and might lower anxiety.
What if you’re feeling sick?
If you’re battling infection, your body needs a lot of rest to heal quickly. To start, increase your total sleep time by two hours, said Dr. Breus.
Optimize rest conditions: Use a bed wedge or extra pillows to keep your chest raised to avoid additional congestion and postnasal drip. And that nightly shower or bath can keep your body cool and create a better sleeping environment. Change clothes and sheets frequently to control bacterial or virus spread.
“Focus on adequate sleep, stay hydrated, and manage symptoms to recover,” said Dr. Medalie. “During this time of uncertainty, work on what you can control: your sleep habits.”
Want additional sleep tips? Read our guide on how to get a better night’s sleep.
So, why does sleep matter anyway?
Here’s what we know about why sleep is important.
The American Academy of Sleep Medicine recommends seven to eight hours of sleep a night.
A 2015 study found a direct link between shorter sleep times and an increased risk of getting a cold for healthy adults ages 18 to 55; specifically those sleeping less than five hours or between five and six hours had a greater likelihood of catching a virus than those sleeping for seven hours a night.
The science is simple: a good night’s sleep supports the release and production of cytokine, a protein that helps the immune system quickly respond to antigens — foreign substances which cause the body’s immune response to kick in — according to Dr. Medalie.
Even in the best of times, Americans average under seven hours of sleep a night. It’s a seemingly smaller deficiency than the recommended eight, but it weighs heavily. Missing as little as 16 minutes tonight could harm your cognitive functioning tomorrow, since shifting sleep rhythms can slow or speed up our body’s internal clocks, which basically has the same effect as not getting enough sleep. Fatigue, irritability and mental confusion are all deprivation symptoms.
Say you sleep for only four hours a night for six days in a row. In 1999, researchers from the University of Chicago monitored a group of 11 healthy young men who did just that and found this chronic deprivation not only simulates the effects of aging, causing the body to develop higher levels of the stress hormone cortisol, and higher blood pressure, it can halve a healthy young person’s usual number of antibodies to a flu vaccine.
Skipping one night of shut-eye can harm memory and bias behavior. Not only will you physically and mentally feel worse, reaction times plummet, and chances of depression, anxiety, and weight gain rise, since sleep loss disrupts energy intake and expenditure.