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Sleep After the Pandemic: Ways to Find Some “Shut-Eye.”

Sleep concerns have become reality for many people during and after the pandemic.

Sleep is an important topic for many people today The COVID-19 pandemic continues to impact people from all over the world. Sleep difficulties have become more pronounced for people, regardless of age.

Sleep is critical to physical health and effective functioning of the body and immune system, which seems more important now than ever. Sleep also is crucial to emotional wellness, helping to keep our mental health in balance, particularly for mood and anxiety concerns.

There are many reasons that people today have a hard time sleeping.  A few common ones are described below:

School, work, and activity schedules can interfere with optimal sleep.

During the pandemic many people were forced to develop new routines. As things slowly return to normal, people are adjusting again. For many people these routine changes involve school, work, driving, and social activities. Many more people are working (or learning) from home. However, working and learning at home can make it harder to set healthy boundaries around daily activities. Unfortunately, by staying involved with home and work right up to bedtime, it is more difficult for our bodies to prepare for sleep.

Certain medications interfere with getting a good night’s sleep.

Medical conditions that contribute to poor sleep include sleep apnea, allergies, eczema, and itchy conditions. Medications that adversely affect sleep include steroids and decongestants (often used in allergy and asthma treatment), and stimulant medications (medications used to treat ADHD).  Long-acting stimulants can be particularly problematic at times.  Sometimes, even medications that are designed to help people sleep can even interfere with sleep (some antidepressants and antihistamines such as Benadryl).

Many people with mental health concerns also have sleep problems.

Oftentimes, once our bodies are still, our minds continue to be active.  Many people lie bed worrying about something that could happen the next day or in the future.  They may even worry about not falling asleep.  Some people go back over their day, remembering all of the mistakes that they made or bad things that happened.  Some people cannot lie still after having a busy day, fidgeting and demonstrating restlessness for many minutes.  Unfortunately, what we know is that all these strong emotions interfere with sleep.  

“The best bridge between despair and hope is a good night’s sleep.”

— E. Joseph Cossman, Entrepreneur and Author

Whether you’ve had sleeping problems before COVID-19 or if they’ve only come on recently, there are sleep hygiene suggestions that can improve your sleep:

Set Your Schedule and Routine

A routine can create a sense of normalcy, even with all of the changes we’ve been through. It’s easier for your mind and body to acclimate to a consistent sleep schedule. For example:

  • Set a Wake-Up Time: Set your alarm and have a consistent time to get up daily. Believe it or not, sleeping in can interfere with this goal.
  • Arrange for a Wind-Down Time: This is an important time to relax and get ready for bed. It can involve things like light reading, stretching, and meditating along with preparations for bed like putting on pajamas and brushing your teeth.
  • Bedtime: Pick a consistent time to actually turn out the lights and try to fall asleep. Try not to vary greatly during weekends.
  • If you nap, nap consistently. Also, limit naps to just 10-20 minutes, as longer naps can create a mental fog, and interfere with our nightly sleep schedule.

Reserve Your Bed for Sleep

It is important to associate your bed with sleep. For this reason, they recommend that sleep and sex be the only activities that take place in your bed. If you can’t sleep after 20 minutes, get up and do a relaxing activity, and when you are tired return to your bed. It is not helpful to sleep in a chair or the couch in front of the television.

Understand the Light Connection

Light patterns help our bodies and brains know when to be asleep and awake. You may need to have consistent light patterns along with environmental consistency.

  • If you can, take time to experience natural light. For those of us in northern climates, this is certainly a challenge. Many people find outdoor time is most beneficial in the morning, but if the best time is during your lunch hour, try to get some lunch then.
  • Let the light into your home or office during the day.
  • Take it easy on the screens. Avoid screens, such as computers and phones, for an hour before bed.
  • Many people find that a UV light in the morning can help provide the light that they need.

Stay Active

It’s easy to overlook exercise with everything happening in the world, but daily exercise is very good for sleep. However, excessive activity right before bedtime can adversely affect sleep.

Good sleep can happen, but it can take consistent efforts in sleep hygiene, exercise, and nutrition.

Limit Caffeine 

This recommendation is probably seems like a no-brainer for many people.  However, limiting caffeine is often easier said than done. When you don’t sleep well, you are tired.  As a result, you may reach for the caffeine to make it through the day.  The more you use caffeine, particularly after 12 pm, the harder sleep will be during the night.  It can become a vicious cycle.

Caffeine is present in many popular drinks, including fruit drinks, tea, and regular coffee.  It is important to always read the labels, particularly if the food or drink advertises “more energy.” It reaches a peak level in your blood within 30 to 60 minutes. It has a half-life of 3 to 10 hours (depending on several factors). That means, that by midnight, there could be caffeine in your system from lunch!  If you struggle with sleep or anxiety, researchers recommend that you consume no more than 150 mg per day as an adult. That is the amount of caffeine is 12 ounces of regular coffee.  It is recommended that children not have any.

What is even more confusing is that if you consume caffeine frequently, you may not notice a strong effect from drinking it. But, the caffeine can still interfere with sleep.  So to rephrase, even though it doesn’t help you stay awake anymore, it can still make it hard to sleep. Caffeine during the day makes it harder to go to sleep at night, but it also prevents you from having a sound, deep sleep at night.

Below are some examples:

ProductServing SizeCaffeine (mg)
Coffee, brewed1 cup (8 oz)95
Black and Green Tea1 cup 40-55
Monster16 oz173
Pepsi One12 oz54
Caffeine levels are estimates based on both the USDA National Nutrient Database for Standard Reference 

Avoid Cortisol Triggers and Fatty Foods Prior to Bed

Cortisol is a stress hormone.  It helps our bodies fight real or imagined threats.  Cortisol also controls energy production, building muscle strength, and resisting infections. Cortisol levels rise and fall over the course of a 24-hour period, and if they are elevated at night it makes it difficult to sleep. 

Foods that rank high on the so-called glycemic index (mainly, sugary foods and refined starches) cause cortisol levels to rise, according to the American Nutrition Association.  If our cortisol is high, our sleep is often slow.  Eating fatty foods before bed can also negatively impact sleep quality, according to a study in the Journal of Clinical Sleep Medicine. Steer clear of chips, cookies, ice cream, or pizza.  Try fruits, veggies, cheese, or warm herbal tea or milk.

Think Low-Glycemic During the Day if You Have Sleep Struggles

The Glycemic Index (GI) is a relative ranking of carbohydrate in foods according to how they affect blood glucose levels. Carbohydrates with a low GI value are more slowly digested, absorbed and metabolized.  As a result, they cause a lower and slower rise in blood glucose and, therefore usually, insulin levels.  People who struggle with sleep often benefit from less variability in glucose.  Lower glycemic foods help moderate cortisol levels, supporting sound sleep at night. Food that have a low glycemic index include vegetables, fish, poultry, and eggs.  The more you eat these healthy foods during the day, the better that you will sleep at night.

Eat regular snacks throughout the day rather than big meals before bed

Even though the evenings can go quickly, particularly when families have outside interests, it is better to eat smaller amounts prior to bed.  Several smaller snacks in the afternoons and evening hours are better than a large dinner late at night.  It takes many hours to digest a large meal; consuming it too close to sleep time means the body will remain active when what you want is for it to relax.  Large meals can reduce quality of sleep, as the body is active, rather than resting. 

Alternatively, missing a meal during the day or going for more than 5 hours between daytime eating can also increase the risk of sleep problems. That’s because the body’s cortisol levels will rise and stay elevated if too long passes between bouts of energy intake. Provide your family healthy snacks throughout the day.  Some families pack their children several snacks (or a second, smaller lunch) if they are in after-school activities or at daycare until later in the evening.

Consider fish oil or omega-3 fatty acids

Omega-3 fatty acids are most commonly derived from fish oils, including tuna and salmon, and they have been linked to numerous health benefits. Research suggests that having higher levels of omega-3 DHA is associated with better sleep. Sleep problems in children are often associated with poor health and behavioral and cognitive problems, the same health issues associated with deficiencies of long-chain, omega-3 fatty acids. People who take 600 mg of omega-3 fatty acids have been reported to have over an additional hour of restful sleep than people who do not consume this nutrient.  If you do not like the idea of a supplement, eating fish (like salmon) weekly can also help.

Here’s hoping that you get some well-deserved rest.


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