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It’s well-known that human beings have a handful of fundamental needs that sustain life. Depending on who you ask, the five most basic requirements are usually food, clean water and air, shelter, and sleep. While fulfilling all of these everyday demands can be challenging for vulnerable populations in the United States, the need that is often most perplexingly difficult to meet, regardless of life circumstance, is sleep. In fact, roughly one-third of U.S. adults do not get the recommended seven-hour allotment of nightly Zs. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the tumult of 2020 hasn’t exactly served as an effective lullaby.
“2020 is the year that just keeps on giving,” says Dr. Katherine Green, medical director for the UCHealth Sleep Medicine Clinic in Aurora, “and one of the things it has given us is an escalation of sleep problems.” Sleep medicine experts have long known that stress, anxiety, and depression affect sleep quality and/or are drivers of insomnia behavior. It shouldn’t come as a shock then that a global pandemic, civil unrest, a record hurricane season, raging wildfires, and a tense election cycle have combined to create a sort-of constantly ringing alarm clock in so many of our minds.
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What might be moderately more revelatory is how other recent changes—beyond our skyrocketing levels of anxiety and depression—might be affecting our sleep and what we can do to improve it. With roughly 87 percent of Colorado companies allowing employees to work from home either fully or partially and school districts across the state offering (or requiring) remote learning, huge percentages of Centennial Staters are spending all day every day in their homes. They likely aren’t getting as much physical exercise, something that’s proven good for sleep. They might not be getting their usual exposure to natural light, which helps regulate circadian rhythms. “There’s also been a disruption of routine,” says CJ Bathgate, Ph.D., a licensed clinical psychologist at National Jewish Health in Denver. “There’s not enough room in our homes for everyone to have workspace so some are relegated to work in the bedroom, which should be saved for only sleep and sex; we’re drinking more, a practice that prevents restorative sleep; and we can’t get away from our screens at the end of the day like we once could.” Screens, Bathgate explains, are probably an even bigger sleep-killer than most people realize. “They emit blue light,” she says, “and blue light inhibits the cells that produce melatonin. That wave-length of light essentially tells the brain to stay awake.”
Of course, both Green and Bathgate return to the effects of anxiety and depression on sleep, especially as they relate to those who are considered essential workers during these bizarre times as well as to people of color, who make up a disproportionate segment of essential workers, who have been more affected by the virus, and who may also be experiencing mental distress related to the national discourse on racism. “There’s no getting around the grief that I’m seeing,” Bathgate says. “But we can find ways to cope and take care of ourselves.”
When that self-care includes trying to get better sleep, Green suggests mimicking your former routine, at least to some extent. Get up at the same time every day, even if you went to bed late or don’t truly have a reason to get up right at 8 a.m. that particular day. She further recommends setting up “an electronics-free time” before bedtime, taking a morning walk for some get-up-and-go light exposure, avoiding caffeine, nicotine, and alcohol before bed, and sidestepping late-afternoon and longer naps, which can make it difficult to fall asleep at night.
Green adds that it’s absolutely appropriate to bring up your sleep challenges with your general practitioner. “Poor sleep has incredible downstream health consequences,” she says. “Even if you know this is 2020-related, good sleep is important for cardiovascular health, cognitive health, and, with COVID-19 running around, sleep is critical for the body’s ability to fight infection.”