(Sartak Navjivan/Unsplash) HEALTH The Pandemic Has Disrupted Our Sleep in Unexpected Ways, Research Reveals CARLY CASSELLA 16 JUNE 2020
Over the past few months during the global pandemic, people have been complaining of changes in their sleep, whether it be trouble falling asleep, staying asleep, or having vivid dreams, and scientists are now digging into the phenomenon.
As you can imagine, stay-at-home orders and lockdowns have thrown our nightly shut-eye completely out of whack, although not always in a predictable way.
Preliminary research in Europe and the United States suggests that while social isolation rules have left many people with more time for nightly rest, the actual quality of sleep might be worse for some.
A survey of 435 adults in Austria, Germany and Switzerland suggests that on the whole, people are sleeping about 15 minutes longer each night, but, on average, people report their sleep quality is getting worse.
The study was conducted over a six week period, from mid-March until the end of April, during a time when the countries surveyed enforced some of the strictest pandemic measures. With schools and most shops closed, and travel and socialising limited, public life came to a virtual standstill.
Under less exceptional circumstances, humans have a tendency to prioritise social time over sleep, and while working from home during social isolation has helped some get more shut-eye, there might also be an unseen toll on mental and physical health.
"Usually, we would expect a decrease in social jetlag to be associated with reports of improved sleep quality," says sleep researcher and cognitive neuroscientist Christine Blume from the University of Basel in Switzerland.
"However, in our sample, overall sleep quality decreased. We think that the self-perceived burden, which substantially increased during this unprecedented COVID-19 lockdown, may have outweighed the otherwise beneficial effects of a reduced social jetlag."
On a positive note, however, by relaxing our social schedules, adults generally have more time for sleep, and Blume says that from a health perspective, this should be celebrated.
A smaller study in the United States found that during the pandemic, university students taking remote classes had adopted a more regular sleep schedule and were getting roughly half an hour more shut-eye each week day. Even on weekends, the group of 139 students were still getting approximately 24 minutes more sleep on average.
In fact, after the stay-at-home orders went into effect, researchers say over 90 percent of the students they surveyed were getting the recommended 7 hours or more of sleep per night, compared to the previous 84 percent.
"Our findings provide further evidence that poor sleep behaviours are modifiable in university students," says physiologist Ken Wright from the University of Colorado Boulder.
And that's no small matter.
Insufficient sleep and irregular sleep schedules are known to contribute to major health problems, including heart disease, stroke, weight gain, diabetes, depression, anxiety… really, the list just keeps going on.
And while not a lot of good will come from COVID-19, it could be the perfect opportunity to study effective sleep interventions.
An international group of neuroscientists recently announced they would be examining how the world is sleeping during the pandemic.
"This is an unprecedented time for research, but when it comes to sleep, not a lot of people have access to data on what people were doing before," says Wright. "We did."
If you're one of those people sleeping more than usual but feeling unrefreshed, Blume and other sleep scientists suggest getting up and out of the home during the day.
Research shows a person's quality of sleep can be improved with exercise and access to the outdoors, so it's worth giving it a try for at least a bit – provided you comply with any local pandemic restrictions in your neighbourhood.
The two studies are available as Current Biology pre-proofs here and here.