In times of crisis, restless or even sleepless nights become a distinct possibility. We may lie awake in bed worrying or have trouble turning off the constant stream of 24/7 news coverage. None of this behavior is productive during any crisis, and less so amidst a health crisis.
The arrival of World Sleep Day at the end of a week that appeared to be a tipping point in the current coronavirus pandemic is a timely reminder of the importance of restorative sleep. As people scramble for supplies, try to figure out alternative work arrangements, and look after loved ones, getting a good night’s sleep may not seem urgent. However, when trying to ward off a disease that is far more likely to attack those with weakened immune systems, healthy sleep habits should be a priority for all of us.
Sleep’s effect on the immune system
We have always known that good sleep was essential to general health. In recent years, however, research has piled up, showing that sleep is even more crucial than we thought.
Summarizing that research in his book Why We Sleep, Matthew Walker asserts that sleep is the most important in the “health trinity” of diet, exercise, and sleep—and that it is “the most glaring omission in the contemporary health conversation.”In particular, Walker says, poor sleep “demolishes” our immune system.
One of the first sleep deprivation studies conducted outside of a sleep lab focused on 11 pairs of identical twins with different sleep patterns. The study design allowed researchers to separate the behavioral and environmental components from genetics, which account for 31-55% of our sleep patterns. Chronic poor sleep, the study concludes, virtually “shuts down” elements of the immune response. Even when given a vaccine, sleep-deprived people display a lower antibody response and are more likely to contract a virus when exposed to it.
The CDC highlights the role of sleep in managing stress
On its web page for the coronavirus, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention devotes considerable space to how to manage anxiety and stress during a public health crisis. In addition to precautions such as social distancing and frequent hand-washing, we must also attend to our emotional and psychological wellbeing. Unfortunately, sleep is often one of the first casualties of such a crisis.
To counteract the debilitating effects of stress, the CDC recommends the following practices:
· Avoid excessive exposure to media coverage of COVID-19.
· Take care of your body. Take deep breaths, stretch, or meditate. Eat healthy, well-balanced meals, exercise regularly, get plenty of sleep, and avoid alcohol and drugs.
· Make time to unwind and remind yourself that strong feelings will fade. Try to do some other activities you enjoy.
· Connect with others. Share your concerns and how you are feeling with a friend or family member. Maintain healthy relationships.
· Maintain a sense of hope and positive thinking.
Resources from the World Sleep Society
The World Sleep Day talking points provided by the World Sleep Society remind us that, even in the best of times, modern society is not good at prioritizing healthy sleep. Poor sleep threatens the health and quality of life for up to 45% of the world’s population. Insomnia affects at least 30% of all adults. Moreover, although sleep disorders are preventable or treatable, less than one-third of sufferers seek help.
Good quality sleep consists of three elements: duration, continuity, and depth. If your sleep is lacking in one or more of these elements, your health will suffer. For example, you may be sleeping for seven hours. But if your sleep is shallow and fragmented, you may still show symptoms of sleep deprivation.
Healthy sleep requires a multi-pronged approach. Follow the 10 Commandments of Sleep Hygiene for Adults.
When we fall into crisis mode, it is tempting to let good sleep and other healthy habits slide until things return to normal. However, the fact is that we have no idea how long this “new normal” will last. Now is the time to tend to our health and to the health of those around us. Practicing good sleep habits will put us in a position to think more clearly about decisions that affect our families, our businesses, and our communities.