Does COVID-19 alter your sleep? And could melatonin, which is taken for sleep, slow the virus spread? James Hamblin, M.D., through his The Mysterious Link Between COVID-19 and Sleep article published in The Atlantic, reports there is some evidence suggesting the supplement may help — but it might be sleep itself that holds the real key.
Who is James Hamblin?
James Hamblin, M.D. is a board-certified preventive medicine physician. He is also a writer and senior editor for The Atlantic, a Yale School of Public Health lecturer, author of Clean: The New Science of Skin and co-host of Social Distance, and more.
Does Melatonin Have a Role in Fighting COVID-19?
Before going into how COVID-19 can affect sleep, Hamblin talks about melatonin, which has been, and is currently being, studied as a potential treatment for COVID-19.
The familiar role of melatonin is its role in regulating your circadian rhythms. Every night, when it gets dark outdoors, melatonin:
- Secretes out of your pineal glands of your brain
- Flows into your blood
- Induces sleep
Melatonin wasn't an obvious factor in stopping any pandemic, but it is showing promise of potentially halting COVID-19. While searching for a COVID-19 treatment, one Cleveland Clinic data analyst, Feixiong Cheng, became curious about how melatonin might be able to do this, and published research on it, reports Hamblin.
Cheng also heard from different scientists all over the globe who thought there just may be something to melatonin stopping the virus. The scientists noted, along with the well-known effects melatonin has on sleep, it also plays a role in the calibration of the immune system. It acts like a moderator, helping to keep your self-protective responses from going crazy, which seems to occur with COVID-19, turning a mild case into a life-threatening one.
Cheng continued to piece thousands of patients' data together, and found melatonin continued standing out. Individuals who took it had substantially lower chances of developing or dying from the virus. Other researchers were seeing the same patterns.
But, was it really melatonin that was benefiting COVID-19 patients, and improving their outcomes, or was it even deeper than that? Cheng suspected it wasn't melatonin at all, but rather sleep that was responsible.
How COVID-19 Can Alter Your Sleep
COVID-19 has the capability to alter an individual's delicate processes within their nervous system, often in an unpredictable manner. It sometimes creates long-term symptoms.
And, according to the British Sleep Society, there has been sleep disruption patterns all over the world during this pandemic, with nearly three-quarters of individuals in the UK having experienced sleep changes, and less than half experiencing restorative sleep.
Some of the ways COVID-19 can affect your sleep are:
- Increasing Anxiety and Stress
The pandemic today is leaving most people having to juggle work and homeschooling, deal with economic hardship, loneliness, boredom, and more. There are various factors in people's lives resulting from this virus that have led to a huge spike in stress levels, and a major decline in sleep hours. This loss of sleep, particularly over time, can negatively impact your overall health.
You might be:
- Stressed about money
- Concerned over the health of a loved one
- Anxious about what the near future will look like
Regardless of the cause, more of the stress hormone "cortisol" is being produced by your body when you're anxious and stressing out. It keeps your mind turning with racing thoughts, and your body aroused, leading to insomnia and fragmented sleep.
- Disturbing Your Day-to-Day Schedule
In many areas, offices, schools, and gyms are still closed, causing daily life routines to become a distant memory. If you're stuck at home and out of work, you no longer have a routine for waking up, getting dressed, or eating meals. This can interrupt the circadian rhythm or natural sleep-wake cycle of your body because you're spending less time outdoors each day in the natural sunlight.
Stress and anxiety, coupled with a lack of routine, fuels pandemic-instilled coronasomnia. Daily routines have been stripped away for many, and for others, lives have become too routine. People can't go out. They can't go to restaurants, movies, bars, or to many of their regular places they once were able to in order to connect with others.
Human beings require this stimulation and variance in activities. When your life becomes too repetitive, this lack of activities and stimulation can contribute to poor sleep.
- Generating Feelings of Isolation
All this social distancing and being quarantined can isolate you from friends and family, triggering depression symptoms, and various sleep issues.
Being stuck in your home more often can also lead to sleep pattern complications. It can interrupt wakefulness light-based cues. Exposure to light and sunlight help keep your circadian rhythm on a schedule.
- Causing More Screen Time
Chances are, now that you're stuck indoors more often, it will lead to much more screen time, whether you're video chatting with family and friends, working online or just binging on Netflix. Your television, computer, tablet, and phone emits blue light which interrupts your body's natural melatonin production at night. Melatonin is a type of hormone that helps with regulating your sleep-wake cycle.
- Promoting Intense Dreams
Many individuals are experiencing more intense dreams than they did before the pandemic hit. This is caused by the anxiety and stress COVID-19 is causing, and how people's brains are processing everything. These intense dreams can lead to more stressed-out waking hours.
And, while anxiety over this pandemic certainly has impacted people's sleep, more recently, there have been more complicated symptoms, specifically in individuals who have recovered from the virus. People are reporting changes in:
- Brain fog
- Debilitating headaches
- Muscular weakness
- Insomnia (most common)
It's suspected these symptoms are a part of the long-term effects of COVID-19 that will be seen for years to come.
Sleep's central function is maintaining adequate channels of brain cellular communication. Sleep works like an anti-inflammatory cleansing process, removing accumulated waste products. When you don't get sufficient sleep, these by-products buildup, and impair communication (which seems like what's occurring in some individuals with post-COVID encephalomyelitis). In COVID-19's early stages, you're very tired, but as the virus continues, individuals find it difficult to sleep and the communication problems compound one another.
So, the main goal here, then, is to break out of this cycle, or prevent it from occurring at all. And, since sleep's benefits do extend throughout your body, the most basic question is should people just get more sleep?
Tips on How to Get Better Sleep During the Pandemic
So, what can you do to obtain better sleep during the COVID-19 pandemic? Here are some tips:
- Maintain a Normal Day-to-Day Routine
If you work out of your house, maintain the same schedule you would if you worked outside your home. Don't stay up late at night or sleep in. As painful as it might feel, set your alarm clock, and when it rings in the morning - get up and out of bed.
Just like you would in the office or at work, give yourself a lunch break during the day, and a small break or two. During these breaks, get outdoors, and soak up some sunshine. Take a walk.
- Keep Screens Out of Your Bedroom
As mentioned earlier, your cellphone, computer, and tablet emits a blue light. This blue light signals your body to not release melatonin and stay awake. While it might be difficult, keep your electronics out of your bedroom at night. Instead, try reading a book before you go to sleep. Keep your bedroom a relaxing place, where you can unwind, and rejuvenate your mind, body, and soul.
- Practice a Relaxation Technique
Incorporate some type of relaxation techniques into your bedtime routine, like:
- Progressive muscle relaxation
- Deep breathing
It can relax your body and mind, and prepare you for sleep. During the night, if you wake up, practice an audio meditation, which could also help keep you from getting inside your own head with your thoughts, which can lead to tossing and turning.
- Establish a Routine Sleep Schedule
Many individuals have experienced dramatic changes to their day-to-day and nighttime routines during this COVID-19 pandemic. If you work from home, it might be hard for you to establish a distinct separation between leisure time and work. If you've been laid off or furloughed, you might have lost all regular daytime structure, and go to bed and wake up at various times.
While you don't need to replicate your previous schedule before this pandemic hit, establishing a new day-to-day routine, and maintaining a regular sleep-wake schedule, is essential in order to improve your sleep.
Get up each morning at the same time, and go to bed each night at the same time. Establishing a structured day will help you set the internal clock of your body, and optimize your sleep quality.
- Give Yourself a Break From Watching the News
While you do need to stay informed on what's going on in the world today, you don't need to spend hours glued to the news. The news, especially during these times, is oversaturated, and it's far too common these days for people to sit there and spend hours scrolling the newsfeed. Give yourself a break. Avoid scrolling the news in the evenings in particular.
- Expose Yourself to Light
Ensuring you're obtaining enough exposure to light in the morning is an underrated part of your circadian rhythm. It's also something a lot of individuals are missing in their daily morning routines. When you left for work each morning, before the pandemic, light exposure was a simple thing for you to do on your way to the office, but for those people who no longer can go to work, it's going to take a little more commitment to gain some light exposure. You might have to force yourself to get outdoors each day for a little sunshine.
- Eat Healthy
Many people turn to comfort food when they're:
But comfort foods tend to be high in refined carbohydrates and sugars, making it more difficult to fall asleep at night and stay asleep. You'll also want to limit your caffeine and alcohol intake, which can also help improve your sleep quality.
Make sure you get your exercise throughout the week. It helps to decrease stress, and keeps your body in its normal rhythms. Be sure, however, you complete your exercises a few hours before it's time for you to retire to bed, which will allow your body time to slow down and cool down.
- Avoid Taking Naps
While short power naps won't hurt, if you're taking naps that last for hours later on in the day, it can throw your sleep cycle off.
Whatever your responsibilities and commitments during this hard time are, it's essential you make time for activities in your life. Spend some time in nature, play with a pet, or take up painting. By adding a little joy in your life, it can help lower your stress and anxiety levels, and allow you to relax more, which can help you to get a better night's sleep.