Sleepless Nights and “Coronasomnia”: How Sleep Affects Our Health

Having trouble falling asleep at night? You’re not alone.

Doctors and providers are noticing a troubling trend among their patients. With everything that’s going on in the news, it’s easy to see why so many people aren’t getting the recommended seven to eight hours of sleep each night.

The term “coronasomnia” has started popping up in the medical community as researchers try to make sense of how the crisis is affecting physical and mental health across the globe. Sustained lack of sleep can lead to depression, anxiety, hypertension, shorter tempers, and lapses in productivity. If millions of people can’t get to sleep, it could lead to a range of devastating consequences.

Chronic Insomnia on the Rise

Insomnia was a major public health crisis before the pandemic. Around 10-15% of people worldwide were suffering from chronic insomnia. We’re not talking about the occasional bout of sleeplessness. Chronic insomnia is defined as difficulty falling or staying asleep at least three nights a week for three months or longer.

It’s not exactly clear how many people live with this condition in the U.S. Some conservative estimates show that 10% to 30% of adults live with it. For other studies, this figure is closer to 50% to 60%. Insomnia is also more common among seniors and older adults. Studies have shown it affects 30% to 48% of older people.

Studies also show that around 23.8% of teenagers and more than 50% of pregnant women experience symptoms related to insomnia, including troubling falling or staying asleep.

Alon Avidan, a neurologist who directs the UCLA Sleep Disorders Center, says it’s clear the problem is getting worse. “Patients who used to have insomnia, patients who used to have difficulty falling asleep because of anxiety, are having more problems. Patients who were having nightmares have more nightmares. With COVID-19, we recognize that there is now an epidemic of sleep problems.”

Prescriptions for sleep medications rose 15% between mid-February and mid-March in the United States, according to Express Scripts, a major pharmacy benefit manager. At the UCLA Sleep Disorders Center, the number of patients complaining of insomnia is up 20-30%, and more of them are children.

Why?

Insomnia is often a symptom of depression. It’s often linked to anxiety and stress as well. Many people experiencing insomnia during the pandemic report feeling as if something were wrong in the world or a lingering sense of dread. From worrying about their personal finances and loved ones to national distress and prolonged existential concerns, there are so many reasons to toss and turn at night.

For many people, it’s the continuous uncertainty that keeps them up at night. As physician Abhinav Singh, director of the Indiana Sleep Center, says, “The unpredictability of when it’s going to end is starting to weigh on people.”

Insomnia is also related to a state of hyperarousal. This can be physical, mental, or both. The person may have trouble falling asleep if they are overwhelmed with physical and mental stressors.

Working from home and sheltering in place can contribute to hyperarousal. Instead of going into a room to relax and unwind, our living spaces have turned into makeshift offices and classrooms. Many Americans can’t go to sleep next to stacks of unfinished work.

This has upended normal routines across the country. From caregiving and personal wellness to sleep patterns, many of us are still trying to get used to this new lifestyle. Some people can also lose track of time when staying inside all day. They no longer have the experience of going to and from work to break up the day.

Poor health can also lead to insomnia. Individuals worried about getting infected with the virus tend to have trouble falling asleep these days. Others may be neglecting their health due to the pandemic, which can contribute to depression and anxiety.

Tips for Preventing Insomnia

  • Experts recommend cutting back on stressful news, social media, and screens all together, especially during the pandemic. Health, political, and economic news can change on a dime, which can lead to hyperarousal and sleeplessness.
  • Sleep physicians say family time and exercise are two of the best remedies for insomnia. They also suggest avoiding caffeine, alcohol, and drugs. Even if they help you go to sleep at night, they will reduce the overall quality of your slumber.
  • For others, focusing on self-care and taking on new hobbies has eased their insomnia. Some are shifting their focus to gardening, buying flowers, camping, hiking, and completing home improvement projects, instead of worrying about issues beyond their control.
  • Keep in touch with your doctor and stay in contact with your patients throughout the pandemic. Focus on improving your health as opposed to fearing the possibility of infection.
  • Create a designated sleeping space and keep your home office or classroom separate. Going into another room can make a world of difference when you’re stuck at home.

Chronic insomnia may be on the rise, but do your best to create some sense of normalcy amid these trying times.

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