Make Sleep a Priority, Particularly During Covid-19!

July 16, 2020

We’ve all heard the expression: “You can sleep when you are dead.”  Sleep science shows us that is wrong- particularly now.  Sleep is central to your health and performance. Though we remember little from our time asleep, while we sleep our brains are firing and our bodies are actively repairing.  Astute people are waking up to the importance of investing in sleep to take better care of themselves- by making sleep a priority.

How much sleep do you need? The widely accepted baseline for adults is 7.5 to 9 hours of sleep per night. Depending on which study you read, somewhere between 50%-70% of American adults are not getting enough sleep.  If you think you can function on fewer than six hours, think again.  Only 5% of the population has the genetic mutation to do so.

Our brains are wired to ignore signs of sleep deprivation so many of us get used to insufficient sleep without feeling the damage we’re doing. When you get enough quality sleep,  here’s what you receive in return for the extra time invested: 1) enhanced immune function and disease resistance helping you live longer, 2) increased energy and strength, 3) improved weight loss and blood glucose regulation, helping you lose weight, 4) upgraded coordination and flexibility, and 5) boosted hormone levels.  Within your brain, more quality sleep allows you to 1) perform at your highest level with enhanced memory and learning skills, 2) retain what you learn and 3) improve emotion regulation so you can keep your cool under stress.

All of these benefits are especially needed today.  Communities and researchers across the globe are beginning to study how the COVID-19 pandemic and subsequent social distancing has impacted psychological and emotional well-being. The practice of quarantine has been essential in limiting the spread of the coronavirus all over the globe. Although it is necessary, the risks of quarantine is that it causes feelings of social isolation and loneliness.

A study by Dr. Jutta Joormann released Monday in Psychology Today highlights the alarming impact of quarantine, particularly on children and young adults.  The research team found that children in quarantine exhibited signs of PTSD that far exceeded those found in non-isolated children.  Further, the anxiety symptoms acquired during quarantine can persist as long as six months after the isolation is ended.

One obvious answer is to encourage healthy sleep in quarantined youth. Our brain can play a critical role in helping us function effectively during the stress of isolation. It is commonly understood that adequate rest is critical for many physical functions, as discussed above, but what may be less known is that sleep is particularly important for controlling or regulating our emotions. While we sleep our brain processes the events of the day and stores some memories. Many of our memories are paired with strong emotions which could potentially negatively impact us in the future. However our brain, supplied with good quality sleep, is able to digest and decrease the strength of these emotions now and in the future.  In this way our brain preserves our mental well-being and prevents us from being weighed down by the challenges we face in our daily lives.

Also, children may be more sleep-deprived than their parents.  Teens often sleep for too short a time and then the time they do sleep is often poor quality.  Lack of sleep was a problem before the coronavirus hit and is especially critical now because it may be putting children at high risk for experiencing mental health difficulties such as anxiety and depression during the social isolation of Covid-19. 

Research shows that loneliness tends to be impacted by and result in lower sleep quality.  Children showing greater social isolation in combination with greater fatigue were at high risk for displaying more severe symptoms of depression as well as more general and social anxiety than well rested children during and after lockdowns.

Here are some tips for a better quality sleep for you and your family that may help you optimize your physical and mental performance:

  • Stay busy- boredom can lead to a sense of emotional isolation
  • Exercise- breaks the boredom and can help your body fall asleep more quickly at night. In addition, combined with quality sleep can reduce or delay dementia
  • Stick to your same bedtime even on weekends
  • Avoid looking at screens (TV, iPad, laptop) for an hour before bedtime
  • Avoid caffeine after 2 pm
  • Lastly, according to sleep scientists, reserve your bedroom for rest and romance

In closing, it seems appropriate to mention that Dr. William Dement, the pioneer of sleep science and founder of the world’s first sleep clinic, died a few weeks ago. He passed away the morning of June 17- of course, in sound sleep.  Dr. Dement got his start studying sleep in the 1950s during graduate school at the University of Chicago, when most scientists thought the topic was a “snooze.” He and his wife moved to California and he launched the Stanford Sleep Medicine Center in 1970. His course, “Sleep and Dreams” was one of the most popular undergraduate classes at Stanford.  Sleep, in every way, was a high priority for Dr. Dement.  Sleep should be a high priority for and your family as well, particularly now, during Covid-19!