Too many sleepless nights
Lubna Abdel-Aziz, , Friday 5 Mar 2021
With the pandemic entering its second year, so many of us are currently experiencing sleeplessness due to the drastic changes in our lifestyles

When was the last time you jumped out of bed, feeling rested, refreshed, perked up and chirruping away “Oh what a beautiful morning”? Those days seem to be behind us, at least for now.

With the pandemic entering its second year, so many of us are currently experiencing sleeplessness due to the drastic changes in our lifestyles.

Never has the rate of anxiety and stress been higher. It is an abnormal situation; “not anything any of us have experienced before. The last time it happened was 100 years ago” says Dr Steven Altchuter, psychologist and neurologist at Mayo Clinic.

It is a drama without an end so far, and lack of sleep is one of its disastrous consequences.

If you are having insomnia, you are not alone; much of the world is too. This is a phenomenon that has hit the world at large. Insomniacs rose from one in six, to one in four. In China, it rose from 14 per cent to 20 per cent. Italy and Greece have reached 40 per cent, a dangerous benchmark.

Coronavirus has given us “the perfect storm” for sleep problems. Shall we say, with a sly smile, “Stress and Sleep don’t mix.”

The pandemic has given birth to a second pandemic and the scientific community has already assigned a medical term for it: coronasomnia. It is very real, very widespread, and very detrimental to people across all age groups.

Health professionals at the University of California declared: “We must emphasise that ‘coronasomnia’ is more dangerous than regular insomnia which millions experience, during times of stress — for days, weeks, months, but with coronasomnia, there is no end in sight.”

Insomnia has been tackled ad infinitum and its dangers are well documented, but the coronavirus pandemic has introduced new challenges to the medical community that admits there is little room for expansion on treatment other than the usual methods.

The BBC presented several programmes following a survey by King’s College, London, showing that nearly two-thirds of the public reported negative impact on their sleep, revealing just how unsettling the pandemic has been.

This surge in insomnia demonstrates fear and anxiety. “Are we ever going to return to our normal lives? Is this the new norm?” It is that unknown factor that is troubling most of us, filling our hearts with fear and sadness. Grieving for lost ones triggers the worry, you may be next. There is still so much unknown about the pandemic or how long it will last.

Our hopes are dashed with news of new spikes, new strains, new mutations, leaving us dispirited and distrustful. Is the vaccine a sure thing? Who knows? Such uncertainties keeps our minds racing and our bodies tossing and turning.

Social distancing, school closures, widespread lay-offs, financial worries — how disruptive, how distressing. With stress levels skyrocketing and sleep hours plummeting, how much can a bear bare?

Now comes the real danger, sleeplessness affects our immune system. What we need most to combat Covid-19 is a strong immune system. Once chronically deprived of sleep “our immune system is lowered which makes our susceptibility to the virus higher”, says Dr Michelle Drurup. “What is more is that it makes vaccines less effective.”

We are in shock. How vicious is that never-ending circle? It scrambles our lives, deprives us of sleep, kills our immune system, and makes vaccines ineffective.

We need some sense, some hope, some cheer into our lives before it is too late — by getting a good night’s sleep.

Routine is a most important factor in getting good sleep, according to Dr Kevin Morgan of Loughborough University, a sleep master by all accounts. “Routine is the guardian of our sleep.” Variations are counter-productive. He proposes we get up every day at our normal time, shower, get dressed, even if we’re not going anywhere, eat meals at the same time and go to bed at a fixed time. Keeping track of time is a major requirement.

How easy is that when you are “home alone”?

Some scientists are against naps, others prefer to limit them to 20 minutes. All advise against working in bed, using laptops, I Pads, TV, or any electric gadgets at least one hour before bedtime. The blue light from the screen can suppress the natural production of melatonin, thus interfering with the body’s sleep-promoting process.

Excess screen time can have a detrimental impact on sleep. Why? It stimulates the brain in ways that make it hard to wind down.

Our eyes need exposure to outdoor light because of the hormone in our body called melatonin. Melatonin levels are reduced indoors and “it’s the only way the body has of knowing if it is light or dark.”

So much to deal with just for a good night’s sleep, but its benefits are fundamental. Sleeping empowers our immune system, heightens brain function, enhances our mood, improves our mental health, and guards against a number of diseases.

Our circadian rhythms are worthy of our attention as they have fallen under the radar since the outbreak of the pandemic.

Our world has been turned upside down and inside out, but we still retain some control.

In order to have a healthy seven- to eight-hour sleep, turn off the TV, the phone, the laptop, lights and avoid alcohol to weather the perfect storm.

“That we are not much sicker, much madder than we are is due exclusively to that blessed and blessing of all nature’s graces — sleep.”

Aldous Huxley (1894-1063)