Many Americans suffer from sleep disorders: Either they don’t get enough; their sleep is consistently interrupted, causing poor quality sleep; or they’re sleeping a proper amount, but still feel tired so they nap or sleep more, which causes them to experience problems related to having too much sleep. According to the American Sleep Association, 50-70 million U.S. adults have a sleep disorder

Now with the COVID-19 pandemic, even more people are struggling to get a restful night of quality sleep. The worry, uncertainty, loss of control or income, and more are creating anxiety leading to disruptive sleep patterns. Add to that the stress of whether to send kids to school or do virtual learning, and many of us having our own virtual work environments thrown into the mix, and it’s causing even greater sleep issues.

Why quality sleep in proper amounts is important

When we don’t get the right quantity and quality of sleep, it can negatively impact our personal relationships with family, friends or colleagues, our work or school productivity or output, and our overall decision-making. But perhaps the biggest thing a lack of proper sleep negatively affects is our physical and mental health.

“Sleep is essential. It resets all the hormones and restores your body back to its normal, regulated state. It can help power your immune system protecting you against illness,” said Maggie Van Abel, APNP, at Ascension NE Wisconsin-St. Elizabeth Campus, a Be Safe Wisconsin partner. “Proper amounts of sleep also make vaccines more effective. It improves your brain function, where without it you may have some memory impairment or concentration issues. Reaction time is also not as good when you don’t have enough sleep.”

Van Abel specializes in pulmonology and sleep medicine. One issue she has been seeing with a lot of people across the spectrum since COVID began is concerns about sleep. “People cannot fall asleep, they cannot stay asleep once they fall asleep, they’re having poor quality of sleep and are feeling tired all the time, and I really do think it does have something to do with COVID and what the uprooting of things has done to people’s sense of normalcy,” she said, adding that sleep deprivation can also affect our moods. “Right now with COVID, and so many people dealing with issues of stress, anxiety, depression and isolation, quality sleep is even more important. The lack of sleep can really drag a person down, causing irritability and making depression worse for some people. It really just aggravates the things that are already going on.”

The biggest contributor that Long Nguyen, DO at ThedaCare Physicians-Wautoma believes is making people anxious and losing much-needed sleep is the loss of social interaction during the pandemic. “We’ve been told for multiple months that we should socially distance, and it’s tough when you don’t get that same physical satisfaction of hugging a friend or family members, or touching others. The social distancing is probably one of the biggest causes of anxiety and loss of sleep that I definitely notice in myself, and the patients I see.”

How can we ensure quality sleep?

The exact amount of sleep a person needs varies from person to person. The goal is to get enough sleep to boost your immune system, Van Abel said, adding that most adults should get around seven or eight hours of sleep a night, while school-aged children and teenagers probably need closer to 10 hours of sleep each night.

“Again, it’s not just about the quantity of hours a person is sleeping, it’s about the quality also. A lot of things can interfere with the quality,” said Nguyen. “One is anxiety, like so many of us are experiencing now; the second is a person’s thoughts just rolling around running non-stop; the third is when a person wakes themselves up multiple times a night but doesn’t realize they’re doing it.”

“There are medications people can use to get better sleep, but it’s only putting a Band-Aid on the problem,” said Nguyen. “You always want to get down to the cause of why you’re not sleeping well. In the short term, medications can help you get a better rest, but they’re not meant to be taken forever.”

Finding the optimum means of falling and staying asleep, and getting not only the right amount of sleep but the best quality of sleep possible, can be simple. Nguyen and Van Abel offer these suggestions:

  • Unplug from electronics – phones, tablets, laptops, even TVs – when going to bed. The light from those devices causes brain stimulation that will trigger your circadian rhythm to decrease melatonin (the hormone that makes you feel tired), which, in turn, makes it more difficult to sleep. Bright lights overhead can also decrease melatonin. They don’t allow a person to get drowsy, fall asleep and go into the REM stage of sleep that we need to recuperate from the day and re-energize for the next day. Avoid taking electronics with you in the bedroom. Dim the lights in the house and shut off all screen and technology tools at least an hour before you lay down in bed.
  • Our bodies love routine. Pick a time to shut everything off, where you lay in bed without any TV, tablets or phones. It will help re-train your body and get back into a rhythm of certain cycles, so you can enjoy better sleep.
  • Exercising before bedtime should be avoided. Some people may think working out before bed will tire them out, helping them fall asleep faster and get better quality sleep, but that is a myth. While exercise can be great for sleep, it should be reserved for daytime or early evening hours. Physical activity within an hour or two of going to bed will elevate the heartrate and cause you to be stimulated, which could interfere with your ability to fall asleep or stay asleep.
  • Don’t eat or drink between 30 to 60 minutes before going to bed, especially heavy meals or alcohol. Otherwise, you may have to get up to use the bathroom during the night.
  • It is critical to have a good sleeping surface – that means a comfortable mattress that fits your style of sleeping no matter if you’re a back sleeper, side sleeper, or stomach sleeper, and something that doesn’t give you pain or exacerbate existing pain – as well as having comfortable sheets and blankets. Room temperature is also important. Sleeping in a cooler environment, around 65 degrees, promotes good sleep.

If you go to bed and find that you cannot fall asleep, or if you wake up during the night and cannot get back to sleep because of worries, get up and do something relaxing in dim light that is quiet and away from the bedroom. Go back to bed when you feel ready to fall asleep.

Following these tips, and making them become habit, should help with your overall sleeping. If not, you may want to consult with your doctor.