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Discover: Pooped, groggy and tuckered out, pandemic impacting people’s sleep

We spoke with the sleep experts at the Cleveland Clinic about why so many people have disturbed sleep and what you can do to get a better rest
If the pandemic has been impacting your sleep, you’re not alone. (Adobe Stock)

Are you tired, pooped or unproductive? Do you feel cranky, groggy or generally exhausted and worn-out? How can you ensure some good shut-eye in the middle of all that is going on in 2020? Has the bad news, the unclear messaging, the rising debt and deficit got you down?

Are you sleeping in?

Everyone hears about the new normal. But, what if your world has been messed up by an extended temporary lay-off, job loss, or any of the unexpected twists the pandemic has delivered? Has your sleep been affected? Are you staying up late and getting up at noon? 

Poor quality and quantity of sleep impacts all other aspects of our lives.

The respected Cleveland Clinic has published several articles on sleep preparation, sleep positions and waking. The clinic’s statement on the value of sleep is as follows: “Not only can not sleeping be frustrating, but getting a good night’s sleep is vital to maintaining your overall health and mental well-being. Seven or more hours of quality sleep each night recharges your body physically, but can also help flush toxins from your brain and allow your mind to fully rest — which assist in your mental alertness, decision-making, and overall clarity the next day.” Immune defence and recovery from illness are two other core elements of sleep. Fatigue is a definite concern for all of us, on the job, and on the road. We know fatigue can kill.

In March 2020, a survey in the United States asked how the novel coronavirus pandemic was affecting respondents’ sleep. It is now summer 2020 and the turmoil continues for many, despite openings of various segments of the economy. 

Numbers are surging across the United States, while masks are now common sites on people’s faces across Canadian cities and provinces. Financial instability is rippling through commerce and in personal lives. Tension is high for individuals and families. Relationships in some cases are coming unraveled. 

Can you recall what it was like before March? Were we all running on fumes?

Dr. Saundra Dalton-Smith is a medical doctor, motivational speaker and the author of Sacred Rest, which discusses what Dalton-Smith says are the seven different types of rest humans need to feel happy, rested and productive.

“Before COVID-19, we were already a sleep-deprived, burned-out culture in need of rest,” she said. “With over 75 per cent of those surveyed noticing changes in the quality of their sleep and 48 per cent attributing anxiety as the major cause of their sleep disturbance, the 2020 survey by Sleep Standards confirms we need rest now more than ever to help revive our immune systems, relieve our anxieties and recover our lives from this virus.” 

So what can we do?

The United Kingdom’s Dr. Katharina Lederle, a chronobiologist, is a sleep and insomnia specialist. She agreed to answer questions related to what we are experiencing right now.

Lederle has a scientific background in how sleep and the body clock work. This knowledge allows her to help people make sense of their sleep experience and recommend ways how to improve it if necessary.  

“SARS-CoV-2 and the changes it has caused to how we live our life (including work) are affecting the sleep of many people,” she said. “They experience sleep disruption, and struggling to fall or stay asleep.” 

Is this because of worry and uncertainty? 

“Yes,” Lederle said. “The brain likes routines because then it can easily anticipate what will come next and prepare the body accordingly. It uses past events to predict the future. However, when things suddenly change — and worse of all there is no clear idea how the future will be — the brain has nothing to go by and struggles to prepare the body. This results in anxiety and insecurity. And when we don’t feel safe, we struggle with sleep.”

Has the pandemic shifted your habits? So what are people doing instead of sleeping? 

“It depends on the reason why they don’t sleep well,” Lederle said. “Sure, some might be staying up late watching TV or similar. But, if it’s anxiety that keeps you awake then that’s entirely different. Then it’s helpful to learn skills to handle the anxious thoughts and bodily sensations more effectively. A mindful awareness can help here.”

Clearly, before the pandemic, we all seemed a little sleep deprived. Are some of us doing better now? 

“Some people are getting more sleep. They don’t have to get up early for the commute or gym anymore, or they don’t have to catch an early flight while in lockdown.” 

Some people are still “early birds” though many of us are naturally so in the period around summer solstice. 

“Night owls,” said psychologist and behavioural sleep medicine specialist Dr. Michelle Drerup, often are in conflict with a world that rewards the larks. BC Hydro’s recently released statistics on electricity demand confirms we are sleeping in and another report shows daytime TV watching is up. Way up! Netflix, Crave, and other platforms see surging numbers of viewers after dark and well into the wee hours. 

Many reports suggest adults are not functional until 10 a.m. and teens are invisible until well into the afternoon. This delay has shifted BC's early morning power spike to later in the morning. 

Data from time of day usage and interviews with adults confirm the following: 

  • Nearly 45 per cent are eating their breakfast later;
  • 24 per cent are showering less often, and for shorter periods of time;
  • About 60 per cent are watching more TV or streaming than they were pre-pandemic;
  • 50 per cent are cooking more, and 40 per cent are baking more;
  • 30 per cent are going to bed later, and;
  • Of the 40 per cent who are sleeping in later, 60 per cent are sleeping in at least an hour later.

It is as if we are living in a world of weekends that keep looping like “Groundhog Day.” Circadian rhythms vary from person to person, but now there has been quite a shift. It has some concerned. 

Is worry keeping you awake?

What do we do about worry? How do we avoid worry in the pre-sleep period? 

“Instead of avoiding it, embrace it,” Lederle said. “Worrying is normal and actually serves to help us survive. The more you accept that it is happening, the less resistance will build up which in turn will help you to experience more calmness.”

Bringing our daily stress to bed with us — which is exactly the place it doesn’t belong — researchers are saying it is even more common now. 

“This is something you should try to avoid whenever possible, as it can cause a variety of sleep problems,” Dr. Nancy Foldvary-Schaefer, who treats patients at the Cleveland Clinic, said. “It may take practice, but committing to stress-reduction behaviors at the end of your day is very important. The more active you are in kicking stress out of bed each night, the more likely your overall sleep quality will improve.”

What can we do to ensure better quality and quantity of sleep? Lederle offered some guidance. “Recognize how vital a healthy sleep is for your everyday life, not just during the pandemic. Take small steps to support your sleep. Go for a walk if you can or stand by a well-lit window preferably in the morning hours. Keep regular sleep times. To reduce stress levels from building up, take mini-breaks during the day, don’t wait for the evening. And with everything you do now, have a think how you can carry it forward.”

For some people chronic insomnia — a sleep disorder in which you have trouble falling and/or staying asleep — is a cycle they just can’t seem to break free of.  Stephen Podrucky, formerly of Sudbury and now a resident of Iroquois Falls, experienced sleep challenges long before COVID-19. What did he do?

“I struggled with insomnia from my late teens into my early thirties,” Podrucky said. “Getting on the schedule of a ‘normal person’ working a 9-to-5 was always an issue. I finally found a sleep clinic in Sudbury … and after about a year of appointments and tests my issue was solved.” Professional sound advice is available through many platforms including consultations and even sleep labs where you are monitored and patterns examined in Non-REM (Rapid Eye Movement), REM and all the stages that result in dreaming and the secretion of multiple and vital hormones, enzymes and neurotransmitters. Without these, Foldvary-Schaefer said it will “affect your judgement and emotional response to otherwise normal daily activities.”  

Is there a way to improve my sleep?

The Cleveland Clinic HealthEssentials tackles the larger issue of sleep improvement in the article “If You’re Having Trouble Sleeping, Here’s What To Do” and their suggestions including expert tips from sleep specialists to get your sleep back on track. 

First and foremost is that your bed should be a place of relaxation and rejuvenation. 

“You may unknowingly associate your bed as a place of discomfort, rather than one of comfort,” Foldvary-Schaefer said. 

The key is to remove any negative association with your sleep space by forming healthy pre-sleep habits. In summary, Dr. Foldvary-Schaefer offers these tips for developing better pre-sleep practices: 

  • Give yourself time to transition and quiet your mind before bed;
  • If you’re not asleep after 20 minutes, get up;
  • Write down what’s on your mind on a piece of paper and revisit it in the morning;
  • Develop your pre-sleep ritual — enjoy a nightly cup of caffeine-free herbal tea;
  • Avoid overstimulation — Avoid browsing a screen of any kind in bed, and;
  • Practice yoga or meditation.

Of course if you have underlying medical conditions that prevent you from sleeping (restless legs syndrome, hormonal changes caused by menopause, diabetes, depression, etc) seek treatment by a physician or specialist. 

Neil Pasricha in “7 Ways to Calm Your Mind and Improve Your Sleep” suggests we use our phone’s scheduling tools to remind us to get ready to go to bed. But put down that device!  “Stop all electronics an hour before you go to bed,” he said. 

Someday, we will be back at work and there will be a new normal. Satisfying sleep in adequate quantity and quality will be essential then. How will we transition to the conditions? Before your sleep becomes a persistent problem do some research and find what works best for you. 

Consider the value of a bedroom as sanctuary, and that approximately 1/3 of your life is this essential ingredient to functioning and waking life satisfaction and success.

Hugh Kruzel is a freelance writer in Greater Sudbury.