The health crisis, economic disruption, and social isolation due to the ongoing pandemic have unsurprisingly resulted in sleep problems for many of us. Sleep neurologists were the first to notice a surge in sleep problems and sleeping pill misuse early in the pandemic. There’s now growing research to support their observations.
Termed COVID-somnia and coronasomnia, this problem refers to a wide range of sleep problems resulting from the anxieties brought on by the pandemic. Such problems include insomnia, hypersomnia, night terrors, and the abuse of sleep medication, as explained in an article from NeurologyToday.
COVID-somnia is not only affecting people in recovery from the COVID-19 virus but also those whose lives have been disrupted in other ways: due to job loss, social isolation, and constant fear. Untreated COVID-somnia can have dire consequences on public health, which is why we need to talk more about it, including how to address it.
COVID-somnia — what the numbers say
A systematic review and meta-analysis by the American Academy of Sleep (AASM) Medicine concluded that the prevalence of pandemic-caused sleep problems was over 35% looking at a sample from 13 countries. And according to a recent survey — also carried out by the AASM — more than half of Americans have experienced sleep problems since the start of the pandemic!
There’s no denying COVID-somnia is affecting many, but what exactly are the reasons?
Well, we’ve known for a long time that disease outbreaks coupled with control measures stress people out, wearing down their coping mechanisms. We also know that prolonged stress is a major risk factor for mental illnesses like anxiety and depression — both of which disrupt sleep.
The prevalence of mental health problems rose sharply during the pandemic, to an estimated 30% in the general population. Unsurprisingly, sleep problems rose as well.
But psychological stress isn’t the only reason people are losing sleep or experiencing night terrors, drowsiness, and other sleep problems. Physical stress is too! The biggest group to report having trouble sleeping are actually coronavirus patients. A COVID-19 infection leads to pain, coughing, and trouble breathing — all uncomfortable symptoms that make sleep difficult.
But not everyone has been affected negatively by the pandemic. One interesting finding, however, comes from Netherlands Sleep Registry (NSR) in a study published in December. It found that people with pre-pandemic insomnia saw improvements in their sleep, while 20% of pre-pandemic good sleepers experienced the opposite.
Why COVID-somnia worries experts
Indira Gurubhagavatula, MD, MPH, chair of the AASM COVID-19 Task Force, said in a press release that “Sleep is essential for overall health, well-being and safety, and there are many options for patients to receive sleep care safely.” She also urged those affected to avoid delaying care for their COVID-related sleep disorders because this could lead to more serious health problems.
Unfortunately, even before the pandemic, sleep hasn’t been taken seriously. As explained in an article by freelance medical writer Susan L. Worley, “People have come to value time so much that sleep is often regarded as an annoying interference, a wasteful state that you enter into when you do not have enough willpower to work harder and longer.”
But not making sleep a priority can have dire consequences — and our attitude towards it, as well as difficulty getting healthcare during these times, exacerbate the issue.
Loss of sleep not only affects attention and mood, which makes functioning during stressful times difficult but can also affect immunity. Research shows that people who don’t get enough quality sleep are more likely to become sick and take a longer time to recover from viral infections.
The reason for this has a lot to do with sleep’s effect on cytokines, signalling molecules that regulate immunity. Sleep deprivation tends to decrease the production of these molecules, which can make it harder for your body to fight infections.
Misuse of sleep medication is another problem that can put further strain on individuals, families, and the healthcare system. These drugs are normally meant for short-term use (two to four weeks) because they’re highly addictive, and their long-term use can lead to cognitive impairment and accidents.
What to Do About COVID-somnia
If you’re going through an acute bout of sleeplessness due to the pandemic, your doctor may prescribe hypnotics or anxiolytics for short-term symptom relief. But these medicines are meant to help with acute states of stress only. Besides, they don’t really help you achieve deep slow-wave sleep on top of being highly addictive with long-term use.
For chronic insomnia, hypersomnia, night terrors, and other sleep problems start with practicing good sleep hygiene. Sleep hygiene involves healthy daily routines and optimizing your sleep environment like:
- Sticking to a sleep schedule
- Having a daily routine
- Being physically active
- Limiting caffeine and alcohol before bedtime
- Cooling down the bedroom
- Limiting napping
Sleep hygiene is generally considered first-line therapy in mild or new cases of insomnia. But sleep hygiene alone won’t help in severe cases. Cognitive-behavioral therapy, meditation, and antidepressants are known to help people when their insomnia is a result of anxiety and depression — which is pretty much everyone nowadays. Talk to your doctor about these options, and keep in mind that your sleep is just as important as staying safe.
The COVID-19 pandemic has taken a toll on our physical health, the economy, social connections, and the quality of our sleep. Sleep neurologists and researchers noted a sharp rise in sleep problems in the general population, with some surveys showing every other person is struggling to sleep.
Most new cases of insomnia during the pandemic are due to coronavirus infections, however, as uncomfortable symptoms can make it difficult to sleep. But those experiencing fear, anxiety, and depression due to our health crisis find their sleep suffers as well. Some consequences of this include greater misuse of sleeping pills, poor functioning, and a weakened immune system.
Prioritizing sleep has never been more important, so don’t allow sleep problems to make matters worse.
Hurley D. Sleep Neurologists Call It ‘COVID-Somnia’—Increased Sleep Disturbances Linked to the Pandemic. NeurologyToday. July 9, 2020. https://journals.lww.com/neurotodayonline/fulltext/2020/07090/sleep_neurologists_call_it.1.aspx
Jahrami H, BaHammam AS, Bragazzi NL, Saif Z, Faris M, Vitiello MV. Sleep problems during the COVID-19 pandemic by population: a systematic review and meta-analysis. J Clin Sleep Med. 2021;17(2):299-313. doi:10.5664/jcsm.8930
Treating sleep disorders is safe and effective. American Academy of Sleep Medicine. Accessed May 20, 2021.https://aasm.org/treating-sleep-disorders-is-safe-and-effective/
Kocevska D, Blanken TF, Van Someren EJW, Rösler L. Sleep quality during the COVID-19 pandemic: not one size fits all. Sleep Med. 2020;76:86-88. doi:10.1016/j.sleep.2020.09.029
Worley SL. The Extraordinary Importance of Sleep: The Detrimental Effects of Inadequate Sleep on Health and Public Safety Drive an Explosion of Sleep Research. P T. 2018;43(12):758-763. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6281147/
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