Sleep to Protect Immune Health & Performance
Carolina Campanella, Ph.D. | April 10, 2020
‘Stay Indoors!’ This now-familiar appeal to control the spread of Covid-19 has been explained in great detail by public health experts. However, while social distancing can help save lives, it can also feel quite challenging. Much has been written about its impact on our social well-being, mental health and daily lives, but another integral function that may suffer during the pandemic is our ability to sleep.
Sleep is critical to all aspects of our lives and plays an important role in regulating our immune response. Not getting enough sleep can increase our body’s inflammatory response and even make us more susceptible to colds. Sleep also helps us regulate our emotions and influences how we interpret the actions of others – very important skills to support our well-being as we navigate the daily news cycle while wondering whether that one coworker is being passive-aggressive by not making eye contact or if it’s just the angle of their laptop camera!
Finally, sleep is crucial for supporting cognition. This includes our ability to make decisions, be creative, focus, react quickly to urgent situations, and learn new things – all critical for maintaining productivity as we work (as medical professionals, in other essential roles, or from home), homeschool our kids, or just function throughout the day. To function at our best, most adults need approximately 7-9 hours each night, while children require even longer.
Here are some strategies you can implement in your home and daily routine to support quality sleep during the Covid-19 pandemic and beyond.
Create a Sleep Sanctuary
Quality sleep rests on a sleep-conducive environment. This goes beyond just the space you sleep in at night, to include the patterns of light you expose yourself to throughout the day and making sure that you disassociate your work space from your sleep space. For a more comprehensive guide, read our article on how to create a sleep sanctuary.
Structure Your Days
Without the structure of going to work or school, it becomes easier to let daily routines slide. If your work commute now entails a short walk from your bedroom to the dining room table, and if you no longer have to worry about getting your kids ready for school, it becomes easier to justify staying up later at night. Likewise, when your weekdays and weekends start to blur together, this can also impact your ability to sleep.
Try to structure your day through anchoring activities like meals, a regular start and end time to the work day, and consistent bedtimes. Our brains love and seek out routine, and maintaining consistency – particularly around sleep and wake times – can help regulate your circadian rhythm. If you have children, a structured day can be particularly beneficial in helping them sleep at night. However, given that school usually starts too early for children, it’s not necessary to maintain the exact same schedule as when they were in school. As long as you maintain structure throughout the day it’s okay to let kids sleep in a little as quality sleep helps support their learning and memory.
Limit Caffeine Intake after 2pm
Caffeine, as we all know, is a stimulant that can combat feelings of sleepiness during the day. So, it stands to reason that drinking caffeine near your bedtime will probably impact your ability to fall asleep at night, which will then impact how you feel when you wake up in the morning. Experts recommend restricting your caffeine intake after 2pm if you work a typical schedule (not shift work). One study found that although people did not perceive the effects of caffeine in the afternoon, it still had a significant negative impact on their sleep.
Remember to Decompress!
The longer the pandemic lasts, the more uncertain things may seem, which can increase feelings of anxiety. Moreover, being physically isolated from people in our social network can increase both stress and loneliness. Managing this stress is all the more important now, as stress affects our ability to fall asleep, and can also impact our immune response and increase our susceptibility to colds.
The first thing you can do to protect yourself from new stressors during the pandemic is to stop watching and reading the news before bed; try catching up on current events in the morning instead. A digital detox in the evening is generally helpful, as reposts on social media can increase feelings of stress while also delaying your bedtime due to blue light exposure. Try closing out your evening with some meditation, yoga, breathing exercises, or even a game night. Schedule daily video chats to stay connected with your social network. Exercise can also help reduce feelings of stress and improve your mood, in addition to regulating your circadian rhythm, all of which can lead to better quality sleep at night. Exercising too close to bedtime, however, can raise your core body temperature — making it harder to fall asleep.
Your core body temperature – like your sleep/wake cycle – follows a 24-hour clock. It reaches its lowest point in the middle of the night when you are asleep, and increases from morning to late afternoon when you are alert. You can encourage your body to embrace sleep by suddenly lowering your core body temperature; for example by taking a warm shower around 90 minutes before going to bed, or by wearing socks to bed. This facilitates the dilation of blood vessels in your extremities, redistributing warmth away from your core to reduce your core body temperature, which makes you feel sleepy. Drinking a warm decaffeinated beverage, like herbal tea or warm milk, can help as well.
Take One Night at a Time!
We are living through a strange and stressful time, and your sleep is probably going to experience some disruptions. As you prioritize looking after yourself and your loved ones, adopting these strategies can help protect your sleep. Read more about how to create a healthier sleep environment at home in our article: Create Your Sleep Sanctuary.
Edited by Radhika Singh