Why Weight? Go to Sleep!
Content published by the Society of Behavioral Sleep Medicine
By Michael A. Grandner PhD MTR DBSM
Director, Sleep and Health Research Program
Director, Behavioral Sleep Medicine Clinic
Associate Professor of Psychiatry
University of Arizona College of Medicine
This article was originally posted on Medium
As a sleep researcher and psychologist, I have had a lot of conversations over the past several weeks about COVID-19. My work focuses on real-world impacts of sleep health and insomnia, and how these relate to mental and physical health. So in these conversations, I’ve talked about how sleep impacts immunity and mental health, how our sleep patterns have changed, and how we can make the most of our sleep. But one issue that keeps coming up as I talk with friends and colleagues about the impacts of COVID-19 are current and future impacts of the pandemic on the healthcare workers themselves.
Fortunately, I don’t need to be on the front lines. My research lab has moved completely online, my students are all working remotely, and even my sleep clinic is 100% virtual visits for now. But many of us are– or will soon be – faced with long hours, stress, and fear.
This article is written to the nurses, doctors, other healthcare workers, logistics personnel, and all of the others out on the front lines, fighting COVID-19. You are working tirelessly (and tiredly) to keep the rest of us safe and healthy. You need and deserve to be able to keep yourself safe and healthy as well.
Sleep is important for both the brain and body. It is intricately involved in the immune system as well. Compelling scientific evidence exists that describes these connections at the molecular level, as well as at the population level. Sleep deprivation is a pro-inflammatory state, can weaken the immune system, and can increase viral infections.
Healthy sleep not only supports immune health, but it supports cardiovascular and metabolic health. For example, poor sleep can cause aberrations in insulin secretion and glucose homeostasis in just a few days among healthy people. This is important since cardiovascular disease and diabetes seem to be risk factors for COVID-19 complications.
Perhaps most importantly, sleep plays critical roles in mental and physical functioning. Lack of sleep -- even in the short term but especially when extended over days or weeks – can lead to an increase in errors of omission (things missed) or commission (mistakes made) for tasks that people are usually doing well. It also impairs judgment and decision-making capacity. It decreases attention, impairs an individual’s ability to maintain focus, and increases attentional lapses.
The ideal sleep schedule is one that is regular, where you set aside plenty of time for sleep, at around the same time each day. Keeping a regular schedule can help leverage clock time as a circadian signal and help prepare the mind and body for sleep at the night time. If you can keep your sleep schedule somewhat regular, even if it is not ideal, that may help you maximize the amount and quality of sleep available.
For many people right now, this is not an option. If your schedule is erratic or unpredictable, or if you are working interminable shifts and having difficulty figuring out when to sleep, consider the advice commonly given to another group of people suddenly thrust into a situation of long hours, high stakes, and round-the-clock needs: new moms.
Get as much of your sleep at night as you can, but also take naps. If you are not getting enough sleep, take it where you can get it. Naps can be restorative, reduce fatigue, improve brain function, and reduce the impact of sleep loss. In this trying (and temporary!) time, take naps when you can. A short nap of 15-30 minutes might help get you through a shift.
There is also some evidence that melatonin may help. Melatonin may not be a very effective treatment for insomnia disorder, but it can promote healthy sleep and may also help people sleep at times that are outside their normal schedule. There is also a little bit of evidence that it can improve immune function, though it is not clear how it might help in this situation. Melatonin timing and dosage can be tricky. About 5mg within 30-60 minutes of bedtime might be helpful. Higher doses (6-10mg) might have more immune benefits but might also produce more grogginess or other side effects.
Many people are turning to heavier sleep aids, including over-the-counter antihistamines and prescription sleeping pills. These might be helpful short-term sleep aids, but they can also lead to significant side effects – especially in the domains of physical and mental performance. Be wary of decrements in these areas, especially in situations when you have to alert quickly and perform. Also, sleep medications should only be used if you can set aside 8 or so hours for sleep, so they probably should not be used prior to a nap.
When you are able to carve out some time for sleep, insulate that sleep from external disturbances as much as you can. One way to do this is to have a place that you can go to sleep where you will be undisturbed for a set amount of time. At home, this could be a bedroom or spare room or den or office (with a place to lie down). If you’re not at home, this could be a break room or nap room specially set aside for this purpose. Either way, lock the door or at least let everyone know not to disturb you. Consider putting up a simple sign to let people know you are sleeping.
Other ways to protect your sleep might work by decreasing sensory input. This means that where you sleep should be dark, quiet, cool, and comfortable. The darkness will help to create a night-like environment, even if you are sleeping during the day. It will also decrease the sensory input to your eyes, even through closed eyelids, which may make sleep more shallow and wake you up. A simple eye mask can really be effective in these situations.
Enhancing the quietness of the environment is paramount. This can be easily and cheaply accomplished through earplugs. Other approaches, like noise machines and fans, may also help. Whether you opt for an approach that reduces the noise or masks it (like with white noise), keeping disruptive sounds away will be key.
If possible, making the place where you sleep cool and comfortable will also help to protect your sleep. Tactile and temperature inputs that signal discomfort may make sleep more difficult, so try to get comfortable if you can.
Another important way to protect your sleep is to prepare your mind and body. It can be difficult to go right to sleep at night after a long and stressful day, especially if that day is concluded by immersing yourself in the news and data about the epidemic. Plan on having enough lead-in time (perhaps 30 minutes) without adding new things to worry about. Turn off the news and stop checking emails and social media, in order to set you up to be able to sleep.
If a colleague is sleeping and you don’t need to wake them, don’t. And if a patient is sleeping and you don’t need to wake them, don’t. Sleep is an important part of the process of healing and recovery. Also consider the sleep of your family or others that live with you. If you’re coming home late, let them sleep.
Many adults usually don’t sleep alone. They usually sleep with a partner or spouse in the same bed. Some people will sleep with other family members or children in the bed as well. Cultural and practical issues aside, there are reasons why you may want to sleep in a separate room for a while.
And there is a growing concern about sleep apnea. This is a condition that is highly prevalent in the population and is often treated with Positive Airway Pressure (PAP) therapy. Unfortunately, for those infected with the virus, there is a concern that the PAP machine may inadvertently aerosolize the virus in the room. So if you or a partner are using a PAP machine (CPAP or otherwise), this may influence the discussion about sleeping somewhere else.
Worries, anxieties, and fears may interact with irregular schedules, excess caffeine, and altered rhythms to make sleep difficult. Developing a chronic insomnia disorder would make this situation much worse. Fortunately, there are some things you can do that will prevent this temporary sleeplessness from blossoming into a chronic insomnia.
The first and most important thing to remember is to get out of bed if you cannot sleep. If you are laying in bed for more than 20-30 minutes unable to sleep – either at the beginning of the night or after waking up – it is important to get out of bed. This will prevent a “conditioned arousal” to the bed, where you will inadvertently program your mind and body to be awake as it is desiring to fall asleep. Decades of research in insomnia has shown that chronic insomnia is often a problem of conditioned arousal, where an individual loses sleep for one reason or another but spends so much time in bed awake that they inadvertently train themselves to be awake in bed. So, if you are in bed and unable to sleep, get up and do something else for a little while and then try again.
This rule applies for any situation, including naps. The amount of time you have to spend out of bed (or wherever you are trying to sleep) can depend on the situation, but you should only try to sleep if you think that either sleep is imminent or at least possible.
Sometimes, sleep is not possible. There may be times where you have to perform procedures, make judgments, conduct interviews, and do other work when you are very tired. Obvious signs of sleepiness include excessive blinking, rolling eyes, and head-bobbing. Know that in these situations you are prone to errors of omission or commission, poor judgment, emotional dysregulation, and impaired attention and ability to maintain focus. This is likely inevitable and, hopefully, will be countered by skill, experience, and support systems.
There are a number of things that you can do when you must be awake and cannot nap, but might also be impaired. Caffeine is probably the most used psychoactive substance in the world. Caffeine will take about 30 minutes to reach peak effects and it may be able to prolong wakefulness for 4-6 hours after consumption. Caffeine can also decrease fatigue and increase ability to maintain attention. Unfortunately, it will not rescue poor decision-making, though. Bright light and movement can also help, to a degree.
Other safeguards can be structural. Double and triple check anything that has high stakes. Maybe get a second set of eyes on particularly important documents, orders, or procedures. Providers and staff should serve as each other’s safety net, catching any errors and quickly (and non-judgmentally) redirecting. And if you’ve been working more than 18 hours in a row, please do not drive home. Get a ride from someone else or a ride-sharing service. Even if your work performance has not noticeably declined, your driving ability is likely to still be impaired.
Sleep in the time of coronavirus can be a stressful and unpredictable endeavor. During this stressful time, remember these take-home points:
It is highly likely that your sleep will be compromised during this time. Keep these ideas in mind as you navigate this stressful situation, and do what you can. Stay safe!
Special thanks to Victoria Bliznak and Anna Maltby for providing helpful ideas and feedback.
Target Audience: Adults in the general public
As the coronavirus spreads throughout the United States, Americans have been urged to stay at home to help reduce the spread of the virus. For some, especially those who have lost work, staying at home can be an extreme hardship. For others, it’s a bit easier. But for all of us, almost overnight, there has been a significant change to our daily routine. This change in routine, combined with stress from the uncertainty of our situation, can lead to poor sleep. However, in this time when so much feels out of our control, there are things we can do to make our sleep less vulnerable to our new reality.
First, it is good to consider the importance of sleep. With everything else to worry about, why think about our sleep at a time like this? Good sleep feels relaxing and peaceful. But beyond that, sleep influences our immune system. Getting enough sleep is important since sleep deprivation makes us susceptible to infections. Lack of sleep can also have a significant effect on mood. In one study, researchers brought healthy young adults into a laboratory. For one week, they were only allowed to sleep only five hours a night. Over the week, these individuals showed increased tension, anxiety, confusion, and changes in mood. At a time when we are facing stress, sleep can improve our mood and better equip us to handle new challenges.
To consider ways to improve our sleep, it is helpful to understand one part of our sleep biology: the sleep wake circadian rhythm. This biological rhythm is roughly a 24-hour rhythm (circadian translates to “about a day”). It aligns closely with our day and night cycle. The circadian rhythm regulates the timing of sleep and wakefulness. Other bodily functions also have a circadian rhythm. For example, body temperature, certain hormones, and the digestive system also vary on a 24-hour rhythm. For the best sleep and health in general, we want a strong circadian rhythm.
The circadian rhythm is our internal biological clock, but it is also influenced by our environment. Daily routine, light exposure, and activity can all affect our sleep quality. We can make changes in our behavior in these areas to enhance our sleep.
Here are several suggestions to keep your sleep wake circadian rhythm strong:
Wake up at a consistent time: For those who are no longer working or are working at home, it may be tempting to turn off the alarm clock. However, having a consistent wake-up time can ensure that your sleep wake circadian rhythm remains strong. As sleep need builds across the day, you will feel sleepy in the evening when your sleep wake circadian rhythm is also dipping. Going to bed when sleepy (when you feel like you’re about to nod off, as opposed to just having low energy) and maintaining a consistent rise time will help you determine the amount of sleep your body needs, and help establish a consistent bedtime.
Pay attention to your evening light exposure: Blue light from your phone and computer screens at night can shift your sleep wake circadian rhythm later. This can result in difficulty falling asleep. Use the night shift setting or blue blocker controls on all of your electronic screens in the evening. Try making the last hour before bed technology-free. This will also help you avoid any distress before bed from seeing the news.
Routines can help: Try to keep regular times for meals and have a regular bedtime routine to help wind down. If it’s safe, spend some time each afternoon outdoors, and consider taking a walk.
If you’re not getting enough sleep, consider getting more: The American Academy of Sleep Medicine recommends that adults get at least seven hours or more of sleep every night. For those who sleep well but haven’t been getting enough sleep due to a busy lifestyle, staying at home can provide the perfect opportunity to get a little more sleep. If that is your goal, try to add in more sleep gradually and in small amounts. Try going to bed a little earlier if you are sleepy, taking care to keep your sleep schedule consistent in the process. Avoid long (>30 minutes) naps, which can weaken the circadian rhythm.
Self-quarantine and social distancing are new experiences for most of us. Despite the difficulties we face, there are opportunities to create positive changes in our sleep and health that may remain even after the coronavirus pandemic has come and gone.
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Cathy Loomis, PhD, DBSM
Outreach and Public Education Committee
Society of Behavioral Sleep Medicine
“Mind, Body, Sleep” SBSM Blog Post January 2020
California becomes the first state to officially promote later school start times and better sleep habits among teenage students. By July 1st, 2022, public middle schools will start no earlier than 8:00am, while high schools will start no earlier than 8:30am.
The Society of Behavioral Sleep Medicine (SBSM) interviewed Julie Dahl, APRN, the president of the Minnesota Sleep Society. Julie explains the science behind the start school later movement in our podcast interview. Click here to listen to the podcast. Highlights from the interview are noted below.
According to American Academy of Sleep Medicine (AASM), it is recommended that “teenagers, 13 to 18 years of age, should sleep 8 to 10 hours per 24 hours on a regular basis to promote optimal health and daytime alertness during the critical transition from childhood to adulthood.”
Additionally, the National Sleep Foundation recommends 7:00am to be the earliest wake-up time for teenagers. “7:00am for teenagers is like 4:00am for adults.”
Julie points out that teenagers can be night owls by nature. It is quite normal for growing teens to want to sleep late and sleep more in the morning.
During a 3-year research study, which involved over 9000 students from eight public high schools across three different states, researchers found the following results:
Later school start times are also associated with improvements in sports performance, reduction in sports injuries, and reduced need for sleep on the weekends.
Julie suggests that the practice of a later school start time should be combined with a sleep education program. She encourages parents and teenagers to watch for signs of lack of sleep, such as grumpiness, poor grades, and/or difficulty waking up in the morning. Parents may want to help their teen(s) make sure to allow enough time for sleep and arrange family priorities around sleep time. Julie encourages teens to “wind-down” both body and mind about 1 to 2 hours before bedtime.
Julie shares some great resources during our interview. Click here to view these resources. For parents, this FAQ sheet and the Evidence Summary section of the Minnesota Sleep Society Teen Sleep Loss Toolkit, may be useful. To advocate for later school start times in your area, visit Start School Later.
Wahlstrom, K., Dretzke, B., Gordon, M., Peterson, K., Edwards, K., & Gdula, J. (2014). Examining the impact of later high school start times on the health and academic performance of high school students: a multi-site study.
National Sleep Foundation: https://www.sleepfoundation.org/articles/school-start-time-and-sleep
Minnesota Sleep Society: https://www.mnsleep.net/
Start School Later: https://www.startschoollater.net/about-us.html
Yishan Xu, PhD
Licensed Clinical Psychologist (Mandarin & English)
Psychotherapy & Assessment Group Practice
Mind & Body Garden Psychology Inc
Thank you Julie Dahl, APRN for your time and contribution to this post.