Why Sleep Health is More Essential Than Ever in the Wake of Covid-19
Are you sleeping better than you were one year ago?
If not, you’re hardly alone. You may even be experiencing what some experts have taken to calling “coronasomnia.” The pandemic’s toll – all too apparent in lives and livelihoods lost–has extended to virtually every area of our lives, and sleep has proven no exception.
We doomscroll before bed. Confined to our homes and with our routines disrupted, we’re drinking more alcohol, getting more screen time and less exercise, and grappling with an array of mental health challenges–all of which can make a good night’s sleep more elusive. Not surprisingly, studies find that sleep quality has noticeably declined during the pandemic, with sleep problems impacting an estimated 40% of people from both the general population and the healthcare community.
If the physical and mental exhaustion triggered by poor sleep aren’t enough of a wake-up call about the need for improved sleep health, then consider the fact that insufficient sleep puts us at higher risk of Covid-19. That’s not only because poor sleep health is linked to increased blood sugar levels, high blood pressure, heart disease, and increased chances of depression–all of which increase the chances of a more severe Covid case–but also because the less we sleep, the weaker our immune systems are.
What’s more, poor sleep may be a sign of a more serious underlying condition like sleep apnea, a condition which left untreated could seriously jeopardize cardiovascular health.
With the virus still spreading, combatting the pandemic remains at the forefront of the global public health agenda. But boosting our resilience against coronavirus and building a healthier, happier, more productive post-pandemic future depends on a concerted effort to get serious about sleep health.
Sleep and our well-being
At the beginning of the 20th century, people slept nine hours per night on average, according to a study published by the National Institutes of Health. By 2010, people were only sleeping an average of 6.8 hours a night–less than the seven or more hours recommended by the CDC. As the NIH notes, rates of metabolic and cardiovascular conditions have surged in recent decades–and while diet, exercise, and other factors are central to this story, we can’t disentangle changes in sleep health from the larger narrative.
Our “always-on” lifestyles have created unprecedented pressures that compromise the duration and quality of our sleep–and while the marvels of modern medicine mean that we’re living longer and have a variety of tools at our disposal for managing chronic health conditions, the science is clear: Less sleep translates into lower metabolism, more sedentary lifestyles, and, it follows, higher risk for chronic illness.
And, while everyone is talking about coronasomnia, these persistent sleep disturbances may well be related to conditions like obstructive sleep apnea (OSA), which affects an estimated 54 million Americans. Known as the loud killer, as opposed to the silent killer (heart), a recent study confirmed sleep apnea patients are eight times more likely to be infected with Covid-19 and have an increased rate of all-cause mortality.
Taking sleep health to the next level
Given the serious risks linked to poor sleep, a truly comprehensive approach to therapy requires more than simply improving sleep hygiene or using wearable devices to track nightly sleep patterns.
Some estimates suggest that as many as 80% of OSA cases in the United States are undiagnosed–underscoring the need for more awareness surrounding the condition risk-factors. Moreover, it has been argued the need for clinical-grade remote patient monitoring solutions to help doctors to continuously monitor the patients living with OSA, and the impact on cardiovascular health.
Meanwhile, to deal with other side effects of life in the time of coronavirus–like the unprecedented levels of stress and anxiety, for example–getting our zzzs can go a long way. And how well we sleep at night depends on a lot more than what we do in the hour or two before bed. Yes, it is recommended to set a comfortable sleep environment, avoid screen time, and steer clear of anything that can send your mind racing (e.g., reading the news) before bed. But other activities throughout the day–20 minutes of moderate exercise, mindfulness meditation and other relaxation exercises–can improve our mental well-being and help us control the amount of stress and anxiety we feel, both before bed and during our days. And, there is so much more…
This exceptionally difficult year has provided us with a one-time opportunity to reflect on our sleep health, not only as affecting our quality of life, but also as an indicator of more serious health conditions. Just like food and water, sleep is a basic and vital physiological need, to recover from the day and get mentally ready for the next day, including immune response and other key physical functions.
The president of the American Academy of Sleep Medicine (AASM) Dr. Kannan Ramar put it succinctly: “As Covid-19 vaccines are being distributed, it is of utmost importance that patients continue to prioritize their sleep to maintain optimal health.” We may not be sleeping better than one year ago, but with greater awareness, technological innovation, and a few manageable steps to take charge of our sleep health, 2021 can mark the beginning of a new path–one where we will be rested enough to take on.