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Battling ‘coronasomnia’: Issue is a first for many experiencing insomnia from pandemic fallouts

 (Molly Quinn/The Spokesman-Review)
(Molly Quinn/The Spokesman-Review)

One pandemic trend has gained a new name – “coronasomnia” – tied to more people in the U.S. dealing with sleepless nights as COVID-19-related stressors mount.

Seeing a spike in insomnia cases, sleep specialists suggest several strategies to avoid slumber deficits, which can bring their own health consequences over time.

Coronasomnia as a term pops up in news articles and medical and research circles. It’s real, said Devon Hansen, assistant professor and researcher at Spokane’s Washington State University Sleep and Performance Research Center, with Elson S. Floyd College of Medicine.

“I absolutely have heard of it; it makes complete sense with what’s going on and, honestly, is to be expected,” Hansen said. “Sleep, we know, is one of the first things that will go negative if people start to experience any sort of depression, anxiety, stress.

“With the pandemic, there is a lot going on that doesn’t just affect you personally, but also your family members. It’s a lot of stressors at one specific time. Usually, people maybe have the luxury of saying they can handle one stress at a time, but this was like piling on 25.”

With a cognitive behavioral therapy specialty for insomnia, Hansen is working with University of Washington researchers in a multiyear insomnia study using a sleep measurement device. In preliminary data, Hansen said she noticed a higher rate of sleep disturbances after early pandemic shutdowns.

Dr. Kimberly Mebust, a Puget Sound MultiCare neurologist and sleep medicine specialist, also saw a spike in insomnia cases after spring shutdowns. Typically, people at some point experience insomnia, from impacts ranging from stress or excessive caffeine to sleep apnea or restless legs syndrome.

“The definition is difficulty falling asleep, staying asleep or both, and then having some distress or difficulties coping the next day,” Mebust said.

But this period of coronasomnia is different, she said.

“I think the change we see with the coronavirus pandemic and insomnia is that this is something that is happening to all of us, and there are certain stressors,” Mebust said. “I think this is much more impactful than what we’ve seen in general concepts about insomnia in the past.”

She cited fears about pandemic survival, at-risk family members, economic issues and job losses. Other pressures might include at-home work and school, food insecurity, housing costs and news of illnesses or deaths.

There are well-being impacts because life is different, Mebust said, from mask wearing to social distancing. “There’s that fear of the unknown and what’s going to happen.”

However, sleeping well helps boost the immune system – key in fighting colds and flus along with the coronavirus, she said. It improves mood and supports cognitive function. In contrast, long-term insomnia can impact memory, contribute to cognitive errors and affect physical health.

“If they don’t sleep well, it changes their metabolism and makes them more prone to weight gain,” Mebust said. “Weight gain can cascade into an increased risk for high blood pressure and diabetes.”

She talks to patients about good sleep hygiene, including a comfortable bedroom and consistent schedules.

“We want to make sure that people are giving themselves some time to decompress, so regular exercise, enough bright sunlight and getting outdoors will be helpful and making sure they’re not getting overexposed to media – particularly in the evening time.”

Hansen said among factors related to insomnia, coping with stress is important. “I definitely think for a lot of people, this is their first experience with a sleep disturbance because before they were able to cope effectively.”

If insomnia lasts three months or more, see a doctor, Mebust said. People also can ask for a referral to a sleep specialist. It’s important to rule out other issues, such as sleep apnea, which can increase cardiovascular risk over time. For home remedies now, Hansen and Mebust offer these tips:

Keep consistent sleep times. Schedules might be more flexible, but try to maintain the same times each day for going to bed and waking up. A consistent wakeup time is key for setting your body’s internal clock to start the day’s activities, Hansen said.

Create a screen-free buffer zone. Turn off the television and put screens away at least one hour before bedtime, when you also reduce household lighting and engage in low-stimulating, relaxing activities such as enjoying music, a puzzle or reading. “We know that if we get blue light exposure from our screens, that basically tells your brain to stay awake,” Hansen said.

Take advantage of time off. Mebust suggests using holiday time for rest and self-care and to focus on a consistent bedtime routine. Avoid oversleeping, which can throw off a normal sleep schedule.

Get up if sleepless for 30 minutes. Leave the bedroom for relaxing activity until feeling tired again, Mebust said. “We don’t want them to turn on the TV or watch their phone because the light from those devices will make it hard to go back to sleep. Instead, do quiet activities and relax before feeling sleepy and going back to bed.”

Add exercise and mindfulness. These can be short and simple, such as a walk and timeouts for deep breathing or meditation. “Research has shown us that a best time of day for the sleep-promoting effects of exercise are in the late afternoon, like 4 to 6 p.m.,” Hansen said. However, she said any time you squeeze in movement will help toward sleep later in the day.

Go easy on caffeine, alcohol and sleep meds. Caffeine intake can turn into a vicious cycle, so consider less or go without, Hansen said. Alcoholic drinks can turn against you. Enjoy a glass of wine or one drink, Hansen said, but a pattern of multiple drinks nightly to aid sleep is a red flag. “As your body starts to metabolize the alcohol, it actually starts to fragment sleep.”

Relying heavily on alcoholic drinks impacts dreaming patterns and can reduce muscle tone in the airways, affecting snoring and sleep apnea. Sleep medicine can help but should be used sparingly, Mebust said.

Seek sunlight or light therapy. Sunlight exposure in the morning helps set your internal body clock for when your days starts, Hansen said. Seasonal-affective lights, sold online and in local shops, can help for use early in the day.

Avoid naps and late dinners. Naps in a sense steal from the buildup to nightly sleep, Mebust said. Many sleep specialists also suggest eating dinner about three hours before bedtime to give your body time to digest. Eating late can disrupt the quality of sleep.

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