How to Maintain Healthy Sleep Habits During the COVID-19 Pandemic

Nine tips to help achieve better sleep while in quarantine.

man can't sleep during the COVID-19 pandemic
man can't sleep during the COVID-19 pandemic

With the coronavirus outbreak forcing us to adjust to a new normal in our daily routines, many people have also experienced disruptions to their nighttime habits, resulting in poor sleep during the COVID-19 pandemic. Factors such as increased anxiety and depression, a significant uptick in screen time, and a lack of exercise all play a part in our sleep quality — which in turn further affects how well we function, how we feel, and our immune system.

“Having a strong, healthy immune system gives us a little more of a barrier against developing a COVID infection, so it’s important to prioritize sleep,” says Dr. Daniel Barone, a neurologist and sleep medicine expert at the Center for Sleep Medicine at NewYork-Presbyterian/Weill Cornell Medical Center and an associate professor of clinical neurology at Weill Cornell Medicine.

Let’s face it. Anxiety, a less structured day, and staying at home are part of our new reality. But there are ways to deal with these challenges to try to achieve better sleep hygiene. Health Matters spoke with Dr. Barone to learn ways we can improve our sleep during the COVID-19 pandemic. Here is his advice:

Identify your sleep disruptors.

Take some time to evaluate your sleep and look for potential disruptors. Are you having a hard time falling asleep because you’re anxious? Do you tend to take long naps during the day? Do you work on the computer or watch TV late into the night? Jot down your daily activities and take note of any patterns that might be out of the ordinary and disrupting your sleep.

Be consistent with your sleep schedule.

It’s important — now more than ever — to keep to a consistent wake time and sleep time every day. “When you’re working from home and adjusting to this new way of life, it becomes very tempting to sleep in later than usual, take an afternoon nap, or stay up later,” says Dr. Barone. “These things by themselves aren’t terrible, but added together they become a vicious cycle in which you’re not getting to sleep at night, you’re tired during the day so you take a long nap, and the cycle begins again when you can’t fall asleep at night.”

Try to be as consistent as possible with your sleep schedule during the COVID-19 pandemic: Wake up and go to bed at the same time each day. Keep a strict work schedule so you’re not tempted to take a long midday nap and you are able to turn off your computer at the end of a regular workday. This consistency will keep your body in a regular rhythm.

Begin your day with sunshine.

Getting sunlight in the morning is a very natural way for the body to wake itself. It helps to regulate your circadian rhythm (your body’s sleep-wake cycle) and, over time, improve sleep quality. If you can’t get outside in the morning, open your curtains and blinds, sit by a window, and soak up the sun’s early rays.

Resist naps or opt for shorter ones.

Because we’re at home more , it can be very tempting to take more naps. “We have what is called ‘sleep pressure,’ which builds up over the course of a day,” says Dr. Barone. “But when you take a nap, especially in the late afternoon, you alleviate some of that sleep pressure, which can make it harder to fall asleep at night.”

Avoid doing work in places that might make you sleepy, like on your bed or couch. And if you are really in need of a nap, Dr. Barone recommends taking one as early in the day as possible, ideally before 1 p.m. and for no more than 30 minutes. Any longer and it could eat into that sleep pressure.

Make time to exercise.

With gyms closed and people not leaving the house as much, exercise routines have been adversely affected. But it remains important to make a point to get moving. Not getting enough exercise and activity throughout your day can greatly impact sleep. Plus, regular exercise is a terrific stress-reliever. “Exercise early in the day, every day, and outside if possible,” says Dr. Barone. By exercising outside, the sunlight tells your brain that it’s time to wake up. If you exercise later in the day or in the evening, you run the risk of activating the body and waking it up, which can make it harder to fall asleep later on.

Turn off screens an hour before bed.

With social distance guidelines still in effect and the majority of people working, and conducting all their meetings, from home, screen time has understandably increased. While we may not have control over our screen time during the day, we can take measures to reduce it at night. That blue light from our phones, computers, and TVs mimics the sun and can keep us awake, so Dr. Barone advises turning off all screens at least 30 minutes — more if possible — before bed.

Instead of watching TV late into the evening, read a book or magazine, listen to a podcast, or do some light stretching to help your body wind down.

Set boundaries around media consumption.

Beginning and ending your day consumed with the news can worsen anxiety and worry, which can steal away your sleep. To reduce stress, schedule when you’ll check the news. Try for a midday news check-in. If you’re more of a nightly news person, cut it back to no more than an hour.

Add an evening meditation to your bedtime routine.

Meditation is one of my favorite ways to relax and prepare for sleep,” says Dr. Barone. Meditation helps to reduce stress and anxiety, and countless guided meditations are available on free apps. Or simply focus on your breathing, deepening your breath as you do so.

Try not to rely on sleep aids.

“I’m not a big believer in over-the-counter sleep aids,” says Dr. Barone. If you are looking for additional sleep support, he suggests melatonin, a natural sleep hormone that regulates the sleep-wake cycle. “Start with 3 milligrams about 30 minutes before bedtime,” he suggests. Melatonin is non-habit forming and may give you the boost you need to drift off to sleep.

If sleep issues during the COVID-19 pandemic begin to really affect your life, Dr. Barone advises to talk with your doctor. An evaluation by a sleep specialist may be needed.

Additional Resources

Daniel A. Barone, M.D. , a neurologist and sleep medicine expert at the Center for Sleep Medicine at NewYork-Presbyterian/Weill Cornell Medical Center and an associate professor of clinical neurology at Weill Cornell Medicine, treats patients with all forms of sleep disorders, including sleep apnea, restless leg syndrome, insomnia, and narcolepsy. He is certified by the American Board of Psychiatry and Neurology and is a member of the American Academy of Neurology and the American Academy of Sleep Medicine. He is also the author of Lets Talk About Sleep.

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Daniel Barone, M.D.

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