COVID-somnia? A Northern Va. doctor on pandemic-related sleep loss

Lots of people have been losing sleep worrying about the pandemic — 44% of those surveyed earlier this year said so, according to the American Academy of Sleep Medicine. A Northern Virginia doctor has perspective on that and advice.

To the question “How often have you lost sleep at night due to worries about COVID-19?,” 11% responded “always” or “almost always,” while 16% responded “often” and 17% said “sometimes,” for a total of 44% experiencing issues. Meanwhile, 21% responded “rarely,” and 32% said “never.”

Failing to get the recommended seven hours of rest each night is hard on your body and physical health, and Dr. Jason Singh, a board-certified internal medicine physician at Kaiser Permanente in Manassas, warns that poor sleep also can affect mental health.

Dr. Jason Singh is an internal medicine physician at Kaiser Permanente in Manassas. (Courtesy Kaiser Permanente)

Noting the long established link between high anxiety and poor sleep, Singh said doctors even have a nickname for what people have been experiencing in the pandemic: COVID-somnia.

Conversely, he said, being well rested can boost brain function and improve mental health.

“Sleep is your brain’s way of preparing you for the next day by creating new pathways to help you learn and remember things. It also enhances your focus, your creativity and decision making abilities,” Singh said. “When we’re lacking sleep, we tend to be more irritable, more forgetful and fatigued. And this can strain on your relationships and job performance.”

Productivity can suffer as well: “We know that if you’re sleep-deprived, you take longer to finish tasks or react to things while also putting yourself at more risk to making errors at work.”

To counter the effect, Singh recommends:

  • Creating and maintaining a routine to sleep at the same time each day.
  • Eating a healthy balanced diet.
  • Limiting alcohol and caffeine intake, particularly at the end of the day.
  • Reducing screen time, particularly before bedtime. “Prolonged exposure to backlit screens before sleep, we know, influences circadian rhythm, and that can lead to negative consequences on sleep health,” Singh said.

You can find additional tips for getting the best rest on the academy website.

People experiencing trouble sleeping even after making lifestyle changes might consult with their doctor and consider an over-the-counter medication such as melatonin, which is a natural hormone.

“Melatonin is incredibly helpful in situations like this, where we want to help encourage sleep and calibrate to a proper sleep cycle,” Singh said.

Also, consider whether there may be an underlying problem that needs to be examined.

“Sleep disturbance can also be a symptom of mental health issues. If you’re having anxiety or depression, it’s really important to seek help and come talk to your doctor as well,” Singh said. “A lot of the time, folks may not realize the sleep is not the primary problem. It’s a secondary problem, of something else that is going on. And so it’s really important for us to uncover that.”

Kristi King

Kristi King is a veteran reporter who has been working in the WTOP newsroom since 1990. She covers everything from breaking news to consumer concerns and the latest medical developments.

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