‘COVID-somnia’ keeping people awake at night

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Jane Schwartzman has always had trouble with insomnia, but at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, it got worse.

“Early in the pandemic, when we were all under quarantine,” the Silver Spring resident had much more difficulty falling asleep, and would wake up during the night.

Schwartzman said that part of the problem was that she was looking at more electronic devices at the start of the pandemic.

“You’re not supposed to look at a phone, computer, tablet or iPad before you go to sleep. It overstimulates your brain. And often what would happen is that you go to sleep mentally too stimulated, so it’s hard to go to sleep, and then when you wake up, the first thing you do is grab your phone and start reading again, which is also bad,” Schwartzman said.

The American Academy of Sleep Medicine (AASM) released the results of its online “Sleep Prioritization Survey” for 2021. The AASM surveyed 2,006 adults in the U.S. and found that 56 percent of survey respondents reported an increase in sleep disturbances since the beginning of the pandemic, a phenomenon dubbed “COVID-somnia.”

The highest percentage, 70 percent, were those who fell in the 35-44 age range. More men than women were likely to report COVID-somnia sleep disturbances, 59 percent vs. 54 percent.

Trouble falling or staying asleep was the most common COVID-somnia disturbance, 57 percent, followed by less nightly sleep, 46 percent, and worse quality sleep, 45 percent.

A study published by The Lancet found that sleep problems were often associated with depression and anxiety.

According to the AASM, getting less than seven hours of sleep on a regular basis can lead to weight gain, diabetes, high blood pressure, heart disease, stroke, depression, impaired immune system and an increased risk of accidents and errors.

“Dysregulation of daily schedules, heightened stress, lack of or irregular light exposure, and the consumption of more media content can all contribute to disrupted sleep,” said Natalie Dautovich, environmental fellow with the National Sleep Foundation. “Working from home, especially within the bedroom environment, can lead to bedtime becoming intertwined with work and any associated stress.”

An article published in the Journal Sleep Review found that prescriptions for sleep medications increased approximately 14 percent in the first two months of the pandemic.

According to an article published in the journal Sleep Vigil, changes to people’s schedules and circadian rhythms may be contributing factors to COVID-somnia, as well as emotional and psychological distress, uncertainty and unemployment brought about by the lockdown.

COVID-19 infections are also a possible cause of sleep difficulties, according to the study, as the disease can cause inflammation, difficulty breathing and other symptoms that may make it difficult to sleep.

Dautovich gave a number of suggestions for improving sleep.

“Maintaining a regular bed and wake time, with bright light in the morning and minimizing light exposure in the evening, can help to re-establish a regular sleep schedule. If you have been experiencing difficulties for more than a couple of weeks, consider contacting a health care provider as there are many effective options for treating sleep problems,” Dautovich said.

Schwartzman said she cut back on electronic devices before bed and made other habit changes.

“Exercise; more exercise, I should say. That was the best thing to do, along with careful diet,” Schwartzman said.

Schwartzman said that the rise in COVID-19 cases due to the delta variant hasn’t impacted her sleep patterns of late.

“No, I’m not worried about it,” Schwartzman said.

Getting a full night’s rest is important, Dautovich said.

We now know that sleep is the critical foundation for our mental and physical health. Promoting healthy sleep habits benefits our current body, mind, and social functioning and protects against future decline,” Dautovich said.

COVID-19 hasn’t impacted everyone’s sleep. Howard Samtur of Silver Spring described himself as a “contact sleeper.”

“As soon as my head hits the pillow, as soon as it makes contact, I fall asleep, without the aid of anything,” Samtur.

To illustrate this, Samtur told a story of camping in Yosemite National Park.

“A bear came to our camp, he was rattling around with our pots and pans, rummaging through our backpacks, and I slept right through it,” Samtur said. “So the pandemic hasn’t kept me up either. Baruch Hashem.”

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