Sleep and Your Health: Getting the Sleep You Need During the Pandemic

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By Lisa Larkin, MD, FACP, NCMP, IF
Founder and CEO, Ms.Medicine

Mask? Check.

Regular handwashing? Check.

Sleep?

Huh?

That’s right. If you find yourself losing sleep and feeling more anxious during these times, you’re not alone. One recent study found that 77% of Americans report losing sleep because of stress, anxiety or loneliness during the pandemic. But doctors say that getting enough sleep is just as important for our health as proper diet and good hygiene. Here are four things to know about sleep, including ways to get the sleep you need to stay healthy.

Why is Sleep so Important? And How Much Do I Need?

There are volumes of research on why the body needs adequate sleep to stay healthy. From improving concentration and productivity, to increasing the body’s immune system, a good night’s sleep has lasting benefits. Studies have also shown that poor sleepers tend to be at higher risk for obesity, cardiovascular disease, Type 2 diabetes and depression. The National Sleep Foundation recommends that adults get 7 to 9 hours of quality sleep each night to stay healthy.

What If I Can’t Fall Asleep?

Toss. Turn. Toss. Turn. We’ve all done it. But what’s the best way to fall asleep? Experts suggest one of the best ways to ensure you’re getting enough shut eye is to stick to a routine – go to bed and wake up at the same time – even on weekends. Other suggestions include allowing your body the time it needs to wind down before turning in. Turn off all electronics and put away any work at least 30 minutes before bedtime. Consider taking a warm bath, practicing meditation or listening to a soothing audio track to help your body relax. Also, make sure your bedroom is at a comfortable (most people prefer a cooler) temperature. Lastly, be sure to cut back on caffeine after noon, and limit alcohol (it can disrupt sleep).

Should I Take a Sleeping Pill?

There are dozens of sleep aids (both over-the-counter and prescription), as well as many other medications not necessarily indicated for sleep but are often used because they cause drowsiness. But a few sleepless nights might not mean you need medication. If you follow the advice above and find you’re still experiencing insomnia, talk to your primary care provider before picking up an over-the-counter aid or asking for a prescription. Many medications carry dangerous side effects – especially for women—including extreme drowsiness, sleepwalking, and memory issues. Other treatments, such as Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT), have been shown to be effective in helping patients with chronic insomnia.

What About Napping?

Ah, the afternoon nap. Kids fight them; adults crave them. But can taking a nap help you actually “catch up” on missed sleep? And are regular naps helpful or harmful? The research varies. Most experts agree that catching a few Z’s if you’re feeling especially sleepy or had difficulty getting in a full 7 – 9 hours can help you feel refreshed. And occasional daytime napping to catch up on a lost sleep – think college students pulling an all-nighter before an exam and then “catching up” on sleep the next day—is fine. But if you find you’re napping frequently and for long periods of time, you might want to talk with your doctor to determine why—and to make sure there isn’t an underlying condition that’s making you so sleepy during the day. Additionally, napping for too long can interfere with a good night’s sleep; thus defeating the purpose. If you find you’re having trouble sleeping, know you’re not alone, especially during these stressful times, and take steps to develop a healthy sleep routine. Talk to your doctor if your sleeplessness becomes chronic (more than a few weeks) to discuss treatments that might be right for you.

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