We are in the midst of a sleep epidemic in America. Even before Covid-19 upended our lives, 68% of Americans reported struggling to sleep at least once a week, 41% used over-the-counter sleep aids several times a week, and 10 million used prescription sleep aids.
Now, with millions facing unprecedented levels of stress due to the virus-induced lockdowns, a good night of sleep has become even harder to come by.
Evidence that people are struggling with sleep is apparent in the 15% increase in prescription sleep medications and the 34% increase in anti-anxiety medications in March 2020 compared to the same time last year.
The impact of health concerns, job losses, and social isolation are clearly taking a toll on our well-being, as more than a third of Americans say the pandemic is having a "serious impact" on their mental health.
The irony is that while the external environment is making it more difficult than ever to get a good night of sleep, we need it more than ever. Healthy sleep has been shown to strengthen the immune system, improve resilience to stress, and enhance cognitive function, all attributes that can help us navigate the current situation in a more productive way.
The good news is that this period of disruption to our normal routines - with no late night social activities, no early morning commutes, and no travel plans - presents a unique opportunity to reset our sleep habits, which can help us feel better, function better, and be better humans when we need it most.
These 10 tips for better sleep are recommended by sleep experts, and we expand on each with a clear action to implement these changes in your life during Covid-19.
1. Stick to a sleep schedule
Go to bed and wake up the same time every day, including weekends. If you only remember one of these tips, this should be it. The current restrictions on your social life, work schedule, and travel plans represent a great opportunity to make this a priority. Most people have an alarm for the morning, but fewer set an alarm for bedtime to ensure they get to sleep at the scheduled time, which is just as important. There are some great sleep apps available to help you track your sleep habits, including Sleep Cycle and AutoSleep. Try setting a clear bedtime and wake time, and use one of these apps to track how well you stick to your plan for a week. You'll probably notice some interesting patterns that can help you improve your sleep even more!
2. Get some exercise
Plan at least 30 minutes of strenuous exercise into your day, just make sure it's at least 2 or 3 hours before bedtime. Most online fitness platforms are offering free trials right now, so it's a great time to mix it up and try a new workout at home. Or, when you need to get out of the house, make time to get outside for a walk, run, or bike ride.
3. Avoid caffeine after lunchtime
Caffeine takes as long as 12 hours to completely leave your bloodstream, so that early afternoon coffee or tea can prevent you from sleeping later at night, not to mention that caffeine can increase your levels of anxiety during the day. Without the normal temptation for a post-lunch coffee meetup with coworkers or a Starbucks run during your commute, it's a great time to cut back on caffeine - try some caffeine free tea instead!
4. Avoid alcohol before bed
Alcohol may help you feel relaxed, but it prevents you from getting REM sleep, the deep, restorative stage of sleep that helps you feel refreshed and sharp in the morning. These stressful times can certainly increase the urge to have a drink, just make it early in the evening and keep it to 2 drinks per day max.
5. Avoid late afternoon or evening naps
Long naps (over 30 minutes) after 3pm can make it harder to fall asleep at night. When your bedroom has also become your office, it's hard to separate work and home, so try to create a dedicated space for work to remove the temptation to crawl into bed after your 8th Zoom meeting of the day. If you're feeling sluggish, try going for a walk or getting a little exercise to re-energize.
6. Don't eat large meals late in the day
Large meals and especially high carb intake too close to bed can disrupt sleep, so try to finish eating dinner at least 3 hours before bedtime to give your body time to digest. With no scheduled evening activities or dinner parties to attend, this is a great time to shift your dinner earlier in the evening and be conscious of your late night snacking.
7. Get some sun during the day
Daylight is key to regulating sleep patterns, so get outside in natural sunlight for 30 minutes each day, preferably in the morning.
8. Create a dark, cool, tech-free bedroom environment
The optimal temperature for sleep is lower than you might think, somewhere between 60-67° F. Bright lights and especially the blue light emitted from our phones, computers, and TVs can prevent the body's natural melatonin release which signals to our brains that it's time to sleep. With the barrier between work and home all but gone, it's even more important to create a bedroom sanctuary that's conducive to good sleep. Start by setting the right temperature, turning down the lights, and shutting down all screens an hour before bedtime.
9. Take time to relax before bed
A relaxing activity like reading, meditating, taking a hot bath or shower, or listening to music can help your mind and body relax and get primed for a great night of sleep. Try a cup of Branch Tea, which is made to help you craft your perfect nighttime ritual, along with your favorite relaxing activity to wind down from your stressful day. By creating an enjoyable ritual, you'll make it repeatable and make it more likely to embed this healthy habit.
10. Don't lie in bed awake
If you're having trouble falling asleep, get up and do something relaxing until you feel sleepy. The anxiety of not being able to fall asleep can make it harder to fall asleep. In fact, one of the main strategies used in cognitive behavioral therapy for insomnia is "sleep restriction", or limiting the amount of time people spend in bed when they are struggling to sleep. This may sound counterintuitive, but for people with chronic insomnia, this helps to build "sleep pressure" which can help to re-regulate your natural circadian rhythm and help you get back on schedule.