Have you ever had trouble falling asleep at night or had problems staying asleep for long periods of time? I know I have! I remember when the World Health Organization declared that COVID-19 was a global pandemic on March 11, 2020. During the first 2 weeks of the pandemic, my brain would not turn off when it was time to go to sleep. I asked myself so many questions:

  • Will my parents get sick?
  • Will I get sick?
  • Will I lose my job?
  • Will my sister be safe working in the hospital?
  • How are we going to recover from the damage this virus has caused?

The sleepless nights went on for weeks, and those sleepless nights made the days harder to get through. After almost a month went by, I knew that I needed to take matters into my own hands or else I would be miserable.

You may have had a similar situation to me especially at the beginning of this pandemic. Researchers conducted studies on several populations including university students and staff in Italy and the general population in France and found that individuals reported worse sleep quality, insomnia symptoms, and overall sleep problems since COVID-19 began. We are all navigating through this pandemic together, and we need to control what we’re able to control to push through.

After suffering from sleep problems this spring, I decided to do more research into sleep to see what I could control. By learning about what sleep is and what happens if you don’t get enough sleep, hopefully you will incorporate ways to improve your sleep and find ways to get more shut-eye.

What is sleep?

We all know that humans and most animals require sleep and we will spend about ⅓ of our lives sleeping, but what is sleep? While sleep is a time for our bodies to rest and rejuvenate, sleep is also a time our brain and organ systems remain active.

In humans, sleep is divided into natural cycles of activity in the brain: non-rapid eye movement (NREM) and rapid eye movement (REM). The amount of time in each cycle can vary depending on sleep problems and age, but we will describe the average adult’s NREM and REM sleep cycles.

  • When you first fall asleep, you enter into the NREM stage 1. This cycle lasts about 1-7 minutes, and you can easily wake up from a loud, disruptive noise.
  • NREM stage 2 begins and lasts approximately 10-25 minutes in the first cycle, and lengthens with each successive cycle.
  • NREM Stages 3 and 4 are called slow-wave sleep and are deep sleep stages. Stage 3 lasts a few minutes while NREM stage 4 lasts up to 40 minutes.
  • REM Sleep begins after NREM stage 4, and the first REM cycle lasts 10 minutes. Each REM cycle prolongs in length, and the last REM cycle lasts about an hour. Dreaming and memory consolidation occur during REM Sleep.
Cycle of sleep

What happens to our body when we sleep? Scientists have seen that heart rate decreases once you fall asleep and continues to decrease throughout the night until the lowest point is reached after 6 hours. Blood pressure also falls until 1.5 to 2.5 hours into sleep. Heart rate and blood pressure can briefly increase when body movements occur.

Secretions of hormones in the endocrine system such as human growth hormone occur during sleep. A decline in respiratory activity also happens when you’re sleeping.

Sleep is not a time for our body to shut down, but instead vital processes are occurring while we’re sleeping. If we don’t get enough sleep, these processes can’t occur. We’ll explore the effects that poor and small amounts of sleep have on our bodies and everyday lives.

What happens if you don’t get enough sleep?

The New York Times Bestseller “Why We Sleep: Unlocking the Power of Sleep and Dreams” was published by Dr. Matthew Walker in 2017. Walker is a Professor of Neuroscience and Psychology at the University of California, Berkeley, and also is the Founder and Director of the Center for Human Sleep Science. Walker’s research group has made many groundbreaking discoveries of why sleep is essential for humans.

Walker compares our brain to an email inbox, and our memories are like incoming emails. When we don’t get enough sleep, our brain shuts down, emails are blocked and memories can’t enter and form. Sleep is needed in order for us to remember what we learned throughout the day and for us to make and remember memories. Studies also found that we can be awake for 16 hours before our brain sees a decline in function. When we’re awake for 19-20 hours, our brains function the same way it would if we were drunk.

Our brain acts like a carwash and washes away a toxic protein, ꞵ-amyloid, when we sleep. When we don’t get enough sleep, we experience an increase in ꞵ-amyloid. Walker’s group also found that you’re at a higher risk for developing dementia later on in life if you don’t get enough sleep now.

In “Why We Sleep,” Walker discusses the effect of sleep loss on our cardiovascular system. Every year, 1.5 billion people are forced to reduce their sleep by one hour for 1 night each year. Researchers have found that when we “spring forward” in March, hospitals report an increase of 24% of heart attacks the following day. In the autumn when we “fall back” and gain an extra hour of sleep, there is a 21% decline in the number of heart attacks reported. This finding shows that even losing an hour of sleep for a single night can have devastating effects.

Sleepless night

Walker writes about Dr. Michael Irwin’s study of studying the effects of sleep deprivation on our immune system. Irwin, a Professor of Psychology and Psychiatrist at the University of California, Los Angeles, examined a group of healthy men who slept for 4 hours (3 AM to 7AM). He found that these men decreased 70% of the natural killer cells that are circulating in their immune systems compared with men who slept for 8 hours.

Natural killer cells are like the FBI to your immune system. They identify harmful substances, such as a cancerous tumor, and destroy them. If you don’t get enough sleep, your natural killer cells decrease and your immune system can’t fight off the dangerous substances. The impact of just one poor night of sleep can be detrimental to our immune systems just like our cardiovascular system. Imagine what would happen if getting short amounts of sleep happened for a longer period of time?

We know that when we don’t get enough sleep, our brain and body systems are impacted, but what can we do if we have poor sleep habits or we’re not able to get enough sleep? We’ll explore some tips that I’ve incorporated into my nighttime routine to improve my quality of sleep during this pandemic.

How Can You Improve Your Sleep Habits?

Have a normal sleep schedule

Although it may be very tempting to stay up on the weekends and sleep earlier on the weekdays, aim to sleep at the same time every night and wake up at the same time in the morning. This will help to establish your body’s internal clock, and your body will come to expect sleep at a specific time.

Exercise in the morning

Exercises can increase the amount of slow wave sleep (NREM Stages 3 and 4) that you receive and decrease stress. While moderate walks are acceptable an hour before bedtime, I prefer high-intensity exercises in the morning to start my day.

exercise in the morning

Make sure that my room is cold before sleeping

Our body needs to drop its core temperature about 2-3?F to initiate and stay asleep. I keep my room at a low temperature in order to fall asleep faster.

Turn off electronics before bed

Blue wavelength lights emitted from our cell phones, laptops and TVs influence our hormone secretions, heart rate, alertness, body temperature and ability to sleep. When you’re scrolling through social media before you go to bed, the blue light emitted from your phone will make it harder for you to fall asleep. Instead, turn off your phone and enjoy another activity before sleeping. This can be winding down with a good book, journaling or talking with your spouse.

Leave your bedroom if you can’t fall asleep

I’ve experienced many nights where I lay in bed but could not fall asleep for over an hour. I found that leaving my bed to sit in my living room while reading a book helped me feel sleepy. If you’re having a hard time falling asleep, don’t just lay in bed. Get up and do another activity in another room. Wait until you feel tired, and then go back to bed.

If you’re feeling anxious, write down your thoughts

At the beginning of this pandemic, I discovered that journaling my thoughts reduced my anxiety. I became aware of what I was thinking, and it helped me to see what I could and could not control. Praying and meditating also helped me feel at peace.

write down your thoughts

Sleep is essential for everyone and affects our brains, body systems, and our future lives. While it may be hard to get enough sleep during stressful times in our lives like the COVID-19 global pandemic, you can incorporate sleep habits listed above to help you find rest. Here’s to more nights of restful sleep for you!

Do you have a nighttime routine? Have you incorporated a habit that helps you fall asleep at night? Share with us in the comments!