Struggling to sleep?
For the past several months, the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic has altered the way we live. Unfortunately, changes and stress can be detrimental to our sleep. And poor sleep leads to poor health.
So how can we avoid sleep issues?
“When our sleep gets disorganized, that’s bad,” Dr. Zallek said. “That goes for any time. And now we have had to stay put, changing our behavior and how we interact with our homes. Good sleep helps us handle stress, allows us to get things done through the day, keeps our emotions in check and, very importantly, builds the immune system to help fight off illness.”
When you can’t sleep
Insomnia or trouble sleeping is a common issue that can have a variety of causes, Dr. Zallek said, including sadness, loss of employment, illness, physical discomfort, medicines that keep you awake and environmental disturbances.
“Insomnia is often best treated by a good sleep routine. I guide people to do more of the things that promote sleep, and less of the things that disrupt it,” Dr. Zallek said. “But those things can be hard to identify. Many people have trouble sleeping because they do things that are counterproductive to sleep without realizing it, such as napping, using caffeine or supplements, or spending a longer time in bed just hoping to sleep. Some turn to alcohol, but that actually disturbs sleep later in the night, and can even lead to alcohol dependency. Addressing the underlying causes of insomnia, when that’s possible, is the best approach.”
Try the following steps to help:
1. Maintain the purpose of your bed
We all tend to search out comfort and convenience. But when so much time is spent at home, it can become easy to start watching TV or reading from the comfort of your bed or falling asleep on the couch during a show binge.
“Use your bed and your bed only for sleeping. You can confuse your brain when you change when and where you fall asleep,” Dr. Zallek said. “When you get in bed, your brain should know it’s time to go to sleep and begin the process. If sleep is the only thing that happens in bed, your brain will be in the habit of falling asleep much more easily once you’re there.”
2. Follow a schedule
Generally, adults need seven to eight hours of good sleep a night. Six hours or less, and you will not be functioning at your best.
According to Dr. Zallek, we should follow the same sleep schedule – go to bed and wake up at the same time every day. It can be easy to fall into the traps of staying up a little longer or sleeping a little later each day. Again, you start to confuse your brain as to when it is time to sleep.
“People experience this with the Monday morning sleep hangover,” Dr. Zallek said. “They give up their sleep schedule over the weekend, and then it’s hard to wake up for work on Monday. We call this ‘social jetlag.’ It can start to happen on other days when you are not following a good routine.”
And if you take regular naps but are now having trouble sleeping, you should consider avoiding them.
3. Stay active
Many health clubs have had to close their doors temporarily during the pandemic. The good news – you don’t need a gym. You don’t even have to put on workout clothes.
“A brisk 20- to 30-minute walking routine will go a long way toward a good night’s rest,” Dr. Zallek said. “You just need some comfortable walking shoes. Walk away from your home for 10-15 minutes and then go back. It’s that easy. Or, do some steps inside your home if you can’t get out. To avoid restlessness, you should schedule this active time a few hours before you plan on going to bed.”
4. Schedule meals
“Avoid late dinners and those late-night snacks,” Dr. Zallek said. “They can lead to reflux and heartburn. Plus, studies have shown that we burn about five percent fewer calories of the food consumed shortly before sleep. That’s a sneaky cause of weight gain for some people.”
She also encourages limiting caffeine in general, especially after first thing in the morning.
When to seek help
Insomnia or trouble sleeping can usually be solved by changing your sleep routines and training your brain to know when to sleep. If you have persistent trouble sleeping or sleeplessness that affects your ability to function during the day, you should see a provider who specializes in sleep medicine.
Most people with insomnia do not need medication or a sleep test. A sleep specialist can usually help reduce the things that might be leading to insomnia, or work around them with sleep-promoting strategies.
In stressful times like these, sleep can become disrupted and hard to get. Taking a few simple measures may make all the difference.