'An international problem': How to solve your pandemic-related sleep issues
EDMONTON -- Trouble sleeping this past year? You're not alone.
One sleep expert with the University of Alberta tells CTV News Edmonton, since the beginning of the pandemic, the average amount of sleep loss in North America has been on the rise.
"The World Health Organization has been telling us for the last five years that there's an epidemic of sleep deprivation in North America," said Cary Brown, professor and sleep researcher with the U of A.
"Then the pandemic hit and things have only gotten worse."
Brown says one U.S. study found an average sleep loss of 40 minutes a night.
She's been researching sleep for 15 years - and attributes the recent collective loss of sleep to several factors, such as changes in work and life routines, and increased levels of anxiety. All resulting in shifting bedtimes, and lower quality sleep.
According to Brown, the rate of insomnia attributed to "COVID worry" ranges between 15 and 50 per cent across a number of different countries.
"It is an international problem."
She says people need to be aware of how much sleep they're getting, as sleep loss can lead to serious health problems.
"When our sleep gets to be less than about six-and-a-half, six hours a night," she said, "it increases our risk of developing certain types of cardiovascular problems, diabetes, some mental health conditions."
HOW TO IMPROVE YOUR SLEEP QUALITY
According to Brown, when it comes to sleep, environment is key.
"With COVID, the amount of sound in the background has gone down. There's not as much traffic, there's not as much sound pollution out there," said Brown.
"Now, because it's quiet and then all of a sudden when we hear a motorcycle revving, or a car starting, or something like that, it startles us out of sleep. Whereas in the past it was kind of just this ambient loud noise."
Brown suggests using a white noise machine, or app, to get a more consistent level of sound and minimize jolts in the middle of the night. She says people should aim for under 30 decibels of noise, whenever possible.
She also recommends ensuring your sleep area has low light levels.
"Most of us don't have very dark environments," she said. "Using technology, the light meter on your smartphone, and read the lux level in your bedroom at night."
The U of A sleep expert says, ideally, there should be under 30 lux of light when you're sleeping.
Another thing to keep in mind, says Brown, is the amount of blue light you take in when it's getting close to bedtime.
Light from devices like computer screens and tablets are on the same colour spectrum as light from the sun - and will prevent your body from producing melatonin, a key natural chemical for putting you to sleep.
You can try to power down your electronics an hour or two before bedtime, but that's not always an option.
One hack to help with that, according to Brown, is to wear special orange glasses that are designed to block out that blue light, while logging in screen time at night.
"They make a huge difference," said Brown, "if you pop those on about 8, 9 o'clock in the evening."
CALMING THE MIND BEFORE BED
A major factor in falling asleep is what's going through your head after it hits the pillow.
Brown suggests mindfulness meditation as a good way to calm the brain. She also says audiobooks can be helpful.
"It gives you something to concentrate on and not stress about," she said. "When we are stressed and worried our bodies produce all kinds of neurochemicals that keep us awake. Things like cortisol and adrenaline."
Another trick, according to Brown, is a technique known as hand self-shiatsu.
"That's where you apply very specific amounts of pressure to specific points for specific periods of time, to your hand, once you're in bed and ready to go to sleep."
The U of A professor has been involved in a study with Veterans Affairs Canada, looking at the technique. She says, so far, the results have been positive.
"Most people told us, 'Sorry, I never finished the technique. I fell asleep.'"
IMPORTANCE OF RECOGNIZING SIGNS OF SLEEP LOSS
Many people who suffer from sleep loss might not realize it.
"There's sort of a social stigma still, almost against sleeping," said Brown. "We should, 'go, go, go all the time,' and that's created problems for us because you can't just automatically catch up.
"If you get into those kinds of habits where you're sleeping five, or six hours a night only, physically you might still be able to put one foot in front of the other, but eventually that will catch up."
Brown worries that pandemic-influenced sleep routines will be carried over beyond COVID-19 and adopt them as a new standard.
With the aforementioned health risks associated with lack of sleep, Brown says it's important to get a handle on your sleep routine as soon as possible.
"The damage to your physiology, to your ability to get effective sleep, it can stay with us, so we do need to attend to this now," she said.
"If I was going to suggest anything to people, is to try to keep as close to a schedule as they can."