Getting a good night’s sleep of seven to eight hours on a regular basis can help you feel rested and ready to go. Yet, when stress levels are high and the to-do list is long, getting quality sleep may seem like an elusive goal.
Here’s a wake-up call: Your body works hard during sleep, restoring and replenishing. Your brain rewires cells to create connections for learning and concentration, and even performs some housekeeping—clearing out toxins that build up while you’re awake. Beyond your brain, sleep affects your heart, lungs, immune system, metabolism and mood. It’s no wonder that poor sleep increases your risk for health problems like high blood pressure, heart disease, diabetes, depression and obesity.
Dr. Chirag Patel, at Sanford Health, specializes in pulmonology and sleep medicine. He says that because the COVID-19 pandemic is constantly on people's minds, it can lead to more vivid dreams or nightmares.
“Anything that occupies your mind for a large portion of the day can sometimes spill over into night time,” Dr. Patel says. “Sometimes you have dreams about the subject; sometimes you may have dreams that are not related to the subject directly but may still be nightmarish or anxiety-inducing.”
Dr. Patel also says that because people are now at home more, they're sleeping more. This allows for more REM sleep—the stage of sleep where dreams occur—which is why vivid dreams may be more prevalent.
Improving your sleep
Activities that you find relaxing, such as exercise, meditation or reading can benefit the quality of your sleep.
Dr. Patel also recommends trying to avoid exposure to constant news.
“I think it's important to keep in touch with what's going on, but outside of maybe a few headlines of the day, I think focusing too much energy on that can be detrimental in terms of your mental health,” says Dr. Patel.
While limiting your coronavirus coverage exposure, Dr. Patel stresses the importance of staying safe.
“It's still very important for everyone to do their part to social distance; go out only when essential, wear face masks and wash your hands,” Dr. Patel says.
Along with improving your mental health, Dr. Patel says there are certain habits you can form before bed time that can help you sleep better and hopefully stave off nightmares:
- Turn off the technology. Stay off your phone and away from any screens starting at least an hour before bed time.
- Avoid anything too stimulating. This includes watching an anxiety-inducing news story or action movie.
- Avoid excessive alcohol intake. “One drink is probably fine, but multiple drinks can cause fragmented sleep,” Dr. Patel says.
- Limit your amount of caffeine. Six or seven hours before bed time is a good time to stop caffeine intake.
- Stop smoking. Smoking can hurt the quantity and quality of your sleep.
- Follow a healthy diet. Dr. Patel recommends more fruits, vegetables and low-sugar foods, along with focusing on your baseline diet and adjusting from there.
- Maintain a regular sleep schedule. Even if you're working from home, Dr. Patel recommends a normal sleep schedule. This includes avoiding afternoon naps if it affects your ability to sleep at night.
Overall, Dr. Patel says the best thing you can do to promote a better night's sleep is doing what you can to limit your exposure to anxiety. If you've taken all the normal precautionary measures and still can't sleep, however, Dr. Patel says it would be reasonable to talk to your physician.