If you've been having difficulties falling (and staying) asleep in the last year, you're not alone. Many of us have found it much harder to get a good night's rest since the world was first upended last March 2020. One study found that online searches for "insomnia" rose by 58% in April and May of the same year, when many of the first stay-at-home orders were first implemented. The phenomenon has been so widespread that sleep neurologists have coined this surge of sleep disturbances "COVID-somnia."
Lack of sleep can have a profound effect on nearly every aspect of wellbeing, including immune and respiratory health so addressing insufficient rest is critical in leading a healthy and happy life. The good news is that habits are the easiest to break while they're still fresh. Start repairing your relationship to sleep today with these science-informed tips.
Create Firm Boundaries Between Work and Life
As many of us have shifted to working partially or exclusively from home, the boundaries between career and personal life have often degraded. The loss of external cues signalling that work has started and finished, such as commuting or changing into 'work' clothes, can leave our brains struggling to discern when work has ended, and relaxation has begun.
Angela Drake, a professor of clinical health at University of California, told the BBC that this loss of differentiation "disrupt[s] our body's clock" and recommends sticking to a routine to reset your circadian rhythm. Waking up at the same time every day, changing into 'work' clothes, limiting daytime naps, and resisting the urge to work in bed are all important practices to keep firm boundaries between work and life. To make sure work is the last thing on your mind by the time bedtime rolls around, try implementing an 'end of day' ritual into your routine that cements the end of the workday, such as an evening walk, a shower, or an online yoga class.
Look At Your Consumption
In regular times, an afternoon coffee or an evening cocktail may not be enough to derail your night. However, with higher levels of overall stress, these external factors can carry more weight in affecting the quality of your sleep. Healthline recommends limiting caffeine and cutting it entirely after 2pm, as well as taking a break from alcohol, which can be disruptive in obtaining a deep rest. Additionally, the Sleep Foundation advises those struggling to stay asleep not to eat too close to when they intend to rest to prevent acid reflux symptoms keeping them awake. If you're looking to promote high-quality sleep in the long-term, according to the Cleveland Clinic, a diet of complex carbohydrates, lean proteins, heart-healthy fats, and fresh herbs will help keep you from tossing and turning.
Reduce Blue Light Exposure
It's no secret that these days we're online more than we're off. Going off the grid is just not realistic in a time when millions of Canadians are spending the majority of the day on their devices for work, play, and social connection. That being said, this prolonged exposure to the blue light emitted by our devices can seriously impact the quality of your sleep. The long-term effects of consistent blue light exposure are not yet fully understood; however, research shows that blue light can suppress melatonin's secretion, a hormone that regulates the circadian rhythm.
The best way to combat the negative effects of blue light exposure is to turn off all your devices around an hour before you intend to go to sleep, giving your brain a chance to slow down and adjust to nighttime. If you don't think you can give up your bedtime Netflix habit, install a blue light filtering app on your device, to prevent your brain from staying wide awake when you're trying to wind down. Moreover, increasing your exposure to natural sunlight in the daytime can be an effective tool in boosting energy and regulating your circadian rhythm, keeping you from being wide awake in the evening.
Try External Fixes
Sometimes all you need to fall asleep is just a little bit of distraction. If you've cut your coffee, booze, and blue light intake and still struggle to get to bed — or maybe you've just got a noisy roommate — give noise machines a shot. A 2012 study in the Journal of Theoretical Biology discovered that listening to pink noise is a highly effective strategy in achieving a stable night's sleep. Other people find that weighted blankets can be an effective fix for anxiety and insomnia, creating a calming effect similar to that of a hug. Studies have also shown that lavender oil and sleep masks can both improve the quality of sleep and reduce bedtime anxiety. Integrating these external fixes into your sleep routine can help make bedtime feel more intentional and may induce a sense of calm that can be difficult to achieve after a stress-filled day.
Talk To Your Doctor
Just because many of us are experiencing increased sleep loss doesn't mean that it isn't a serious issue that can have a drastic impact on your life. Neurology Today defines chronic insomnia as "not being able to fall asleep within 30 minutes more than three times a week for more than three months." If you meet this diagnostic criterion and no conventional fixes are making a difference, it may be worth broaching the subject with your doctor.