If the chaos of 2020 didn’t cause you to lose at least a little sleep, it probably means you were: a) living in an underwater cave; b) a blissfully unaware toddler; or c) my dog.
For most of us, the fear, anxiety, and grief caused by the pandemic impaired our sleep so consistently that neurologists gave the condition its own name: COVID-somnia.
“It’s the uncertainty that’s so difficult,” said Teryl Lathbury, owner of Smokey’s Kitchen in Truckee. “Nobody knows what’s going to happen tomorrow, or next week, or over the holidays.”
COVID wasn’t the only thing impacting our sleep this year. Oura Ring, makers of a sleep-tracking ring, used aggregated data to estimate that on election night, Americans lost a collective 183 million hours of sleep.
Here in Truckee/Tahoe, the threat of wildfire also unsettled nerves, particularly with campgrounds filled to capacity and the woods overrun with illegal campers. Lathbury, who lives in Tahoe Donner, had go-bags packed. “But we worried about only having two evacuation roads out of the subdivision,” she said.
In a cruel twist of irony, sleep loss makes us less able to handle the very things causing us to lose sleep in the first place. We’re exhausted, more irritable, less able to concentrate, and our bodies are less equipped to fight infection. If there was ever a time we needed to be on top of our game, this year was (and still is) it.
If you turned to a sleep aid for help, you weren’t alone. When COVID hit, Makheila MacDonald, wellness advisor at New Moon Natural Foods in Truckee, noticed a distinct uptick in the number of customers looking for herbal products to help them sleep.
“More women than men asked for help,” said MacDonald, “mostly ranging from their mid-20s to 50s.”
Some people looked beyond herbal solutions. Express Scripts, the pharmacy benefit management company, reported that prescriptions for insomnia rose 14.8% in the month before lockdown last March.
“Cannabis sales are booming,” said Andy Johnson, owner of Tahoe Harvest Collection delivery service in Truckee. “And we have many customers requesting products for insomnia.”
Liquor sales also rocketed — no doubt for a multitude of reasons, but at least partly due to the misguided belief that alcohol helps you sleep. (It doesn’t. Alcohol ruins REM sleep and causes frequent awakenings.)
Though sleep aids have a place, many of them — even herbs — have potential downsides (see sidebar.) To increase your odds of a good night’s sleep, start by instilling habits that work with your body’s innate circadian rhythm rather than against it.
1. Stick to a sleep schedule, even on weekends. This is the single most important thing you can do to improve your sleep.
2. Get some daylight. When the pandemic forced people to work from home (or lose jobs entirely), many people also lost the sunlight they got on their morning commute. Sunlight is a powerful regulator of circadian rhythms, so aim for at least 30 minutes outdoors every day, ideally in the morning.
3. Ditch electronics two hours before bed. You’ve heard it before — the blue light from our devices and overhead lights delays melatonin and signals the body to stay awake. Blue light-blocking glasses and apps can help, but new findings show that the mental stimulation we get from using our devices before bed is partly responsible for keeping us awake. You can use electronics to your benefit and improve sleep if you use them for listening to calming music, a guided meditation, or a relaxing podcast.
4. No caffeine after noon, no naps after 3 p.m., for obvious reasons.
5. Keep your bedroom cool, around 65 degrees. Your body temperature needs to drop two or three degrees to fall asleep. This drop, along with dimming light, signals the brain’s master clock to initiate melatonin production.
6. Exercise, but not close to bedtime. Working out within two or three hours of bedtime elevates body temperature and makes falling asleep harder.
7. Take a hot bath before bed. Besides helping you relax, baths lower your body temperature after you get out. Even a quick shower can help.
8. Avoid late-night meals. This lessens indigestion and is healthier for your blood sugar, weight management, and cellular repair.
9. Meditate. Even 10 minutes a day can help lower blood pressure, anxiety, and reactivity. Meditation has many forms, and can be done anywhere, anytime. To get started, try an app such as Headspace, Waking Up, or Calm.
10. Get help. For chronic insomnia, see a specialist. The National Sleep Foundation is a good place to start. The American College of Physicians now recommends Cognitive Behavioral Therapy for Insomnia (CBT-I) as the first line of treatment, based on research showing that CBT-I is safer — and more effective — than medication.
Rx Sleep Meds
Not a single sleep medication, past or present, induces natural sleep. They work by sedating the cortex, which reduces the deep brain waves critical for memory consolidation. Even the newer meds cause next-day grogginess, agitation, impaired reaction times, and rebound insomnia.
Ambien, in particular, can cause bizarre — and often dangerous — “Ambien zombie” sleepwalking behavior. Recent research shows an increased risk of cancer and death in people taking sleep aids, possibly due to car accidents, falls, and higher infection rates.
THC might slightly increase time spent asleep, but escalating doses are needed to maintain results, and stopping THC causes rebound insomnia. CBD shows more promise than THC, but research is lacking. Many people find relief from these products, individually or in combination.
Numerous herbs, including lavender, lemon balm, chamomile, valerian, and passionflower, can support better sleep. Many are considered safe but be aware that herbs are largely unregulated and are not always benign. Do your research and consult reputable sites like Dr. Andrew Weil’s (drweil.com). Many herbs should not be taken long term, during pregnancy or nursing, in conjunction with certain pharmaceuticals, or if you have liver or kidney problems.