Millions of us have long suffered from sleeplessness, and COVID has only made matters worse. An uncontrolled pandemic, civil unrest, and political tension don’t exactly sound like a lullaby, and research confirms that people around the world, from Europe to China to Morocco, have experienced worse sleep quality since lockdowns began.
The global restlessness is caused at least in part by anxiety, sadness, and anger from the day carrying over into the evening. But Michael J. Breus, Ph.D., a clinical psychologist who specializes in sleep and sleep disorders, has a few other theories on why we aren’t sleeping like we used to. His insomnia triggers are much easier to solve for than stress, which at this point is pretty inevitable.
Here, the sleep doc shares three habits many of us have fallen into during this unique time that could be messing with our sleep, and what to do about them:
1. A poor diet and too much time indoors.
Even in non-pandemic times, the first thing Breus does when consulting with new patients is to rule out any potential deficiencies.
He’ll test levels of vitamin D, ferritin (which signals potential iron deficiencies), melatonin, and magnesium.* Magnesium, in particular, is a mineral that the vast majority of people are deficient in, in part because industrial agriculture strips a lot of our food of the essential nutrient.
In an age when nutrient-dense food can be hard to come by, magnesium supplements are now popular and something that Breus himself takes daily.* Magnesium helps regulate many body functions—including our relaxation response—so if it’s low, levels will need to be brought back up to normal before you can really gauge sleep quality.*
Vitamin D levels also might be teeter-tottering during COVID since so many of us are spending more time indoors and out of the sun. A vitamin D deficiency can affect sleep quality in addition to thyroid health, gut health, and immunity, so it’s something to pay attention to.ADVERTISEMENT
2. A more stagnant routine.
These days, there are fewer places to be and fewer opportunities to get moving. Smartwatch owners have probably seen this reflected in daily step count: Worldwide, there’s been a sharp decline in physical activity since the pandemic began.
Breus says this is bad news for sleep: “Sleep is recovery. If you haven’t done anything you need to recover from, you’re not going to sleep particularly well,” he tells mbg.
To correct for this, think about how you could safely introduce more movement into your daily routine to tire yourself out before bed. If you’re not comfortable going outside for longer walks or runs, indoor workouts are still an option. Here are a few at-home routines that don’t require any gym equipment. It’s making me tired just looking at them.
3. Lots of caffeine and booze.
Besides causing jitters and hangovers, Breus says these two increasingly popular vices can mess with sleep quality. Alcohol in particular “obliterates” sleep stages 3 and 4, he explains, which is where most of our dreaming happens. Breus has an interesting perspective on why skipping these stages can be harmful, beyond just making us more tired in the mornings.
He subscribes to the theory that the dream world is where we go to safely process our waking lives. “It’s where people who are upset about something can go to work through those emotions,” he says.
From this perspective, “quarandreaming” is important because it helps us cope with this emotionally loaded time. “It’s kind of like releasing the pressure valve a little in the middle of the night and allowing you to process some of it,” Breus adds. “If you can’t process the emotions you’re having, they become fears, they become phobias, they become irregular behaviors and anxieties.”
To set the stage for dreaming, cut back on the booze and caffeine (especially within the hours leading up to bedtime) and give yourself permission to sleep in every once in a while. REM sleep is extended in the second half of our sleep schedules, so we tend to get more of it when we sleep in for a little longer.
The bottom line.
If your sleep has suffered since COVID began, you’re not alone. In addition to reducing the stress triggers that are in your control, paying attention to key nutrients, prioritizing movement, and cutting back on caffeine and booze may help you sleep more soundly—even through times that couldn’t be any less relaxing.