As a whole, Americans are getting by with less and less sleep—about 35 percent of us are not getting the recommended 7 hours each night. We often give up 1 to 2 hours per night to get more work done or to scroll social media.
But what many Americans may not realize, is that just one night of reduced sleep can take a toll on our health and mental clarity. Sleep loss affects our cognitive abilities, immune health, and our ability to handle stress.
With the outbreak of coronavirus across Asia, Europe, and now the U.S., our health needs to be a priority. With what we know about the virus so far, a healthy immune system can fight off infection. If one does develop COVID-19 (the disease caused by the virus), proper immune function can reduce the severity of the symptoms.
In addition to a healthy diet and regular exercise, getting adequate sleep is the best thing you can do to keep your defense system working for you. This article will cover the importance of proper sleep as we deal with this pandemic. Plus, we include a comprehensive list of sleep hygiene tips to set you up for the best rest possible.
How Much Sleep Do We Need?
To maintain proper physical and mental health, we need a specific amount of sleep per night. This number changes as we age—growing children and teens require more rest than adults. But once we reach 18, the CDC recommends we get at least 7 hours of sleep each night.
For reference, we have included the CDC’s sleep recommendations by age. As we work to protect ourselves against infection, it is essential to know the minimum amount of sleep your body needs.
These recommendations ensure that you experience at least five full sleep cycles (from stage 1 through REM sleep) per night. Each one of these stages contributes to your overall health and well-being and keeps your immune system functioning correctly.
|0 to 3 months||14 to 17 hours|
|4 to 11 months||12 to 15 hours|
|1 to 2 years||11 to 14 hours|
|3 to 5 years||10 to 13 hours|
|6 to 13 years||9 to 11 hours|
|14 to 17 years||8 to 10 hours|
|18 to 64 years||7 to 9 hours|
|65 years+||7 to 8 hours|
Anxiety and the Spread of the Coronavirus
As the virus spreads through the U.S., many of us are experiencing elevated stress levels. We may be worrying over our health or the health of a loved one, the shortage of supplies, or trying to make sense of the various pieces of information coming from the media.
With so much uncertainty and isolation, our nervous systems are bogged down with excessive anxiety right now. When this happens, our bodies become flooded with cortisol and adrenaline (the stress hormones), causing a constant state of fight or flight. When we remain in this heightened state of stress for a prolonged period, it can have a dangerous effect on our health.
As we face this stressful time, we have to find ways to reduce stress and maintain our health. Try connecting with friends and family online, reducing media coverage, or getting reacquainted with a hobby you enjoy. And, most importantly, get a full 7 to 8 hours of sleep every night. Good rest gives us the ability to handle stress more effectively and gives our immune systems a powerful boost.
Why is Sleep Important During This Pandemic?
As we sleep, we cycle through four different stages of sleep, stage 1 (light sleep), stage 2, stage 3 (deep sleep), and REM (Rapid Eye Movement). Each one of these stages is responsible for carrying out specific functions that keep us in good health.
For example, during stage 3, slow delta waves work to clean out the brain, and HGH (Human Growth Hormone) repairs and builds muscle tissue. When we experience shortened or interrupted sleep, we are missing out on time in each one of these stages—depriving our body of what it needs to function correctly.
Two benefits of sleep that are especially important during the coronavirus outbreak are improved immune function and reduced stress levels. Below, we will outline how sleep aids these two vital components of health.
Helps the Immune System Function
When viruses and bacteria enter the body, our immune system works to neutralize those that are harmful. It develops specific antibodies to attack each invader—ensuring they don’t make us sick. Without adequate sleep, our immune system becomes sluggish and cannot identify harmful intruders or develop and deploy antibodies quickly.
Sleep helps activate our T Cells (White Blood Cells), which are responsible for assisting the immune system in destroying potential threats. Additionally, sleep produces a protein called cytokine, which improves cell-to-cell communication within the immune system, allowing it to direct antibodies toward invaders efficiently.
Without proper sleep, the immune system will not function as it should, which could result in harmful pathogens getting past our defensive barriers—making us ill. As the coronavirus spreads, a robust immune system remains our best defense against infection and overcoming symptoms.
Naturally Reduces Stress Levels
When there is an excessive amount of cortisol and adrenaline in the body, the nervous system has to work overtime—putting a strain on other parts of the body, including the immune system.
When we’ve had a full night of sleep, we are better equipped to deal with high stress levels. Sleep helps to lower cortisol levels, boosts our alertness, helps with decision making, and keeps us emotionally balanced.
How to Ensure a Good Night’s Sleep?
A full 7 to 8 hours of rest each night will ensure your body has what it needs to stay healthy and fight against infection. To set you up for great sleep every night, we offer 12 essential sleep hygiene tips below.
Create a Bedtime Routine
A set bedtime routine can help you mentally and physically prepare for bed. You should start this routine about 1 hour before your set bedtime to ensure you have plenty of time to complete each task before climbing into bed.
To prevent disrupting your circadian rhythm, try to keep this schedule consistent. Studies show when we maintain a set sleep schedule, we are more likely to fall asleep quickly and sleep through the night.
You should consider including the following steps into your bedtime routine:
- Wash your face and hands with soap and water to remove any trace of bacteria or germs from your face and neck.
- Brush your teeth, floss, and gargle with an antiseptic mouthwash to keep the mouth moist and remove germs.
- Clean sleep apnea machines or other sleep aids before placing them on your face.
- Change into pajamas made of a soft, breathable fabric to prevent overheating.
- Practice a relaxation technique to alleviate stress (we offer some stress reduction techniques below).
Maintain a Regular Exercise Routine
Although most gyms are closed right now, it is essential that we get regular exercise at home. Consistent physical activity can reduce stress, help you fall asleep quickly, and sleep soundly. Additionally, exercise releases endorphins that increase serotonin levels—improving your mood and outlook. As the virus spreads, exercise can give us the mood lift we need to stay positive and hopeful.
To get a great workout at home, consider one of the many exercise apps available, or go for a walk outdoors. Fresh air and sunshine also can help to reduce stress and anxiety—just be sure to follow social distancing guidelines when outside.
Sleep on a Supportive Mattress
Sleeping on a mattress with indents or sagging can force your body into awkward and uncomfortable positions that throw your spine out of alignment. If your spine is not in a neutral position during sleep, you are likely to wake with aches and pains.
To ensure the best sleep possible, you need a bed that hugs the curves of your body and promotes a healthy spinal position with pressure-free support. Mattresses with the ability to contour—such as memory foam—will provide you with a weightless sleep so you can experience truly restorative rest.
Our bodies need to experience adequate time in all four sleep stages to guard against infection. Since most of the rebuilding happens during sleep stage 3 and REM, it is crucial right now that we feel comfortable and supported enough to slip into a deep sleep.
It is also helpful to sleep on a mattress made with eco-friendly products. Traditional mattresses often use dangerous chemicals to pass flame resistance tests. When these chemicals are brought indoors, they omit toxic VOCs which irritate our skin and airways. But eco-friendly mattresses rely on safe, natural flame retardants, so they have little to no VOC emissions. If you suffer from allergies or any other respiratory issue, be sure to look for a mattress with a CertiPUR-US® or GreenGuard certification.
Use Comfortable and Inviting Bedding
To make your sleep space more inviting, choose bedding that is soft and comfortable. You want a cozy fabric that will also prevent overheating.
Cotton is a popular choice for bedding because it is so breathable. Also, sheets and bedding made with Tencel® have a luxurious softness that is more breathable than cotton. This fabric is also naturally sustainable and grown without the use of pesticides.
Find a Comfortable Sleep Position
If the head is slightly elevated during sleep, the airways will open—reducing excessive snoring and obstructive breathing due to sleep apnea. Raising the head to a 20º to 30º angle will reduce pressure on the trachea, so saliva and air can flow more freely as you sleep.
An adjustable base is the best way to achieve this elevation. These advanced bed frames allow you to raise or lower the top and bottom portion of the bed to find your ideal sleep position. If you don’t have an adjustable base at home, you can also use a wedge pillow to elevate your head.
Reduce Blue Light Exposure at Least 2 Hours Before Bed
Your internal clock, the time of day you feel sleepy versus alert, is influenced by sunlight. This cycle is called our circadian rhythm, and our melatonin production is linked to it. When exposed to sunlight, our body doesn’t produce melatonin (the sleep hormone), and we remain alert during the day. When it is dark, melatonin production increases, and we become drowsy.
When we expose ourselves to blue light from electronic screens such as smartphones and laptops at night, this light can trick our bodies into thinking it is daytime—preventing the production of melatonin and making it difficult for us to fall asleep. Therefore, experts recommend we avoid electronic screens for at least 2 hours before bed.
Limited News Coverage at Night
News coverage of the coronavirus is constant. Most of us want to stay informed and understand how best to protect ourselves, but this exposure needs to have a balance.
Try to limit your news consumption down to 1 hour a day. It is also helpful to avoid watching or reading the news right before bed. If you take in something particularly troubling, it could spike anxiety levels and keep you from falling asleep.
Avoid Caffeine After 2 p.m.
You are most likely aware that drinking caffeine before bed can disrupt your sleep, but many people may not realize how long caffeine remains in the body.
We can experience the effects of caffeine anywhere from 4 to 6 hours after consumption. Therefore, experts suggest drinking coffee no later than 2 pm—this will allow the stimulant enough time to run its course.
Keep Your Bedroom Cool, Dark, and Quiet
Try to keep your bedroom relatively cool—between 65º and 70º. This temperature will prevent you from waking in the middle of the night due to overheating.
You will also sleep better if your sleep space is quiet and dark. You may want to consider using blackout curtains or an eye mask to keep unwanted light from disrupting your sleep.
Declutter Your Sleep Space
If your sleep space is cluttered with items such as paperwork, laundry, or exercise equipment, it can be challenging to fall asleep. Your bedroom should be a place to relax and reduce tension—if you have stress triggers, such as mail or bills, laying around, it will only serve to increase anxiety and prevent sleep.
Destress Before Bed
Trying to fall asleep while you are plagued by stress will only cause you to toss and turn—missing out on much-needed sleep. Before lying down, try to alleviate any tension with a relaxation technique. You can do this by reading, journaling, performing a breathing exercise, or practicing progressive muscle relaxation.
Progressive muscle relaxation can be done by tensing specific muscle groups as you breathe in, and then relaxing those muscles as you breathe out. To complete this process, you would start at the top of the body, such as your facial muscles, then work your way down. Or you could begin at the bottom of the body, such as the feet, and move your way up. As your body relaxes, your mind will follow suit, and you will soon drift off to sleep.
Choose a Healthy Bedtime Snack
It is natural to want a snack before bed, but, more often than not, we reach for junk food such as ice cream and chips. These snacks can disrupt our sleep by causing indigestion and heartburn.
It is also difficult to fall asleep when your body is trying to digest a large meal. However, some foods induce sleep—giving you a light, healthy snack that can help you fall asleep quickly.
Foods such as honey, almonds, oats, and turkey contain tryptophan, an amino acid that promotes niacin. Niacin works to produce serotonin, which is necessary for melatonin production. Bananas also contain magnesium, which helps to relax muscles naturally.
As we shelter in place and try to slow the spread of the coronavirus, we must remain physically and mentally strong. In addition to a healthy diet and exercise, proper sleep gives the body what it needs to not only ward off infection but also to manage the onslaught of anxiety that is overwhelming our nervous systems right now. This crisis will eventually pass, but in the meantime, we have to be diligent about protecting our health and mental well-being.
This article is for informational purposes and should not replace advice from your doctor or other medical professional.