Is Your Sleep as Messed up as Ours These Days?

Two local sleep experts share why you’ve got insomnia or weird dreams, plus tips on how to get a better night’s sleep.

These days, tossing and turning instead of getting a good night’s sleep has become the norm for many. | Photo by Getty Images.

For me, getting a good night’s sleep in the time of coronavirus has been challenging. Some nights I toss and turn until 3 a.m., other nights I go into hibernation mode and sleep for 14 hours straight. And then there are the super strange dreams — everything from giraffes flying down Broad Street to forgetting to wear my wedding dress on my big day. If I can find one consolation in all of this, it’s that I’m not the only one whose sleep is disrupted right now. A recent limited study conducted by SleepStandards revealed that the coronavirus outbreak has negatively impacted the sleep of nearly 77-percent of Americans. Whether you are experiencing disrupted sleep, prolonged sleep, or vivid dreams, it looks like many of us are in this — tiredly — together.

To help us figure out where our sleep issues are coming from, we turned two local sleep experts: Thanuja Hamilton, board-certified sleep medicine specialist with Advocare Pulmonary and Sleep Physicians of South Jersey, and Philip Gehrman, associate professor of Clinical Psychology in Psychiatry at the University of Pennsylvania’s Perelman School of Medicine. Plus, they share tips on how to get more Z’s amidst coronavirus chaos.

If you’ve got insomnia…

…you’re likely stressed. Living through a global pandemic has brought on stress, fear, and even grief for many people. And typically, this emotional toll affects sleep first. Both of our experts agree that anxiety — over how to pay the bills, children’s schooling, getting infected, the health of loved ones, or being stuck inside and feeling isolated — is the main cause of your insomnia. It’s likely due to increased levels of cortisol, our natural stress hormone that’s released whenever we perceive danger and prepares the body for fight or flight. Since coronavirus anxiety doesn’t seem to be subsiding for most folks, we mentally remain on high alert, which can keep you up at night or wake you up with racing thoughts.

If you’re over-sleeping…

…it’s likely because your overall schedule has changed. Some people are working from home, and therefore, don’t have to wake up as early to get ready or deal with their daily commute. Others are unfortunately out of work and might not have familiar structure to their day. Our experts say that not maintaining a regular bedtime and wake-up time can turn the luxury of sleeping in on weekends into a daily occurrence.

If you’ve been having vivid dreams…

…it’s stress. Again. Gehrman says that stress and emotional distress can infiltrate our subconscious and impact the content of our dreams. In other words, “altered dream content may just reflect our overall emotional state,” he says. This is especially true if you’re watching or reading the news right before bed, or thinking or worrying about mainly one thing that day. But Gehrman also says that we may not actually be having weirder dreams, but remembering our dreams more than usual. “When we’re in a state of tension, stress, or anxiety, we often don’t sleep as deeply,” Gehrman says. “This can mean that our brain is still sufficiently alert to store the content of our dreams in memory, whereas normally we sleep too deeply for that to occur.”

Additionally, Hamilton points to eating habits as a possible cause. Foods that are acidic, greasy, and sugary, as well as caffeinated or alcoholic drinks, can not only cause indigestion, but can disrupt your sleep and even affect dreams.

Make simple changes to your daytime and bedtime routines

To help you get a better night’s sleep, our experts offer the following tips:

  • Keep your daytime activities on a somewhat regular schedule. That includes setting an alarm for roughly the same time every morning, maintaining meal times, and keeping your bedtime consistent.
  • Soak up the sun early in the day, if you can. Hamilton says doing so can help keep your circadian rhythm in check, while also boosting our immune system.
  • Make time for exercise. Not only is moving your body good for your overall health, but it releases endorphins, improves your mood, and expends energy to help you sleep better at night. Activities as simple as talking a casual walk in the evening or doing a few yoga stretches can help you feel more in tune with your body.
  • Shut down electronics, turn off the news, and avoid caffeine and alcohol at least one hour before bed. Doing so can help reduce pre-sleep anxiety and insomnia.
  • In the evening (not right before bed), write down a list of the things on your mind. You might end up writing about things that are currently stressing you out, or things you are grateful for. Whatever it is, you end up taking the steam out of your thoughts and put them on paper, which can mitigate insomnia.
  • Try an evening meditation. Local offerings from wellness practitioners like Luna Maye, Kiera Smalls, Danielle Mercurio, and Adriana Adelé are a good place to start if you don’t already have a meditation practice in place.

Or, try these at-home remedies

If you need some extra help, Hamilton says creating a bedtime routine can have a calming effect on your mental, emotional, and physical states. You should figure out what soothes you, and try to replicate that process nightly as much as possible. Possible remedies to include in your routine include drinking chamomile tea, lighting lavender- or bergamot-scented candles (that you remember to blow out before you fall asleep!), use of essential oil roll-ons or diffusers, a warm bath or shower, and curling up under a heavy comforter or a weighted blanket.

Some foods and drinks naturally contain sleep-assisting hormones. The Cleveland Clinic recommends trying to snack on unsaturated fats like peanut butter, walnuts, almonds, and pistachios. Johns Hopkins Medicine advises trying a glass of tart cherry juice before bed: “Tart cherries are a natural source of the sleep-inducing hormone melatonin,” they say. They also recommend eating complex carbohydrates, such as whole-wheat toast or a bowl of oatmeal before bed, explaining that “these foods will trigger the release of the sleepy hormone serotonin, and they don’t take long to digest.”

If you feel you need to try a sleep aid, Hamilton recommends trying the lowest dose of melatonin, the body’s natural sleep hormone. Take it an hour or two before bedtime since that’s when our body secretes it, and use it two or three times per week, if needed. Even though it’s non-habit forming, you can develop dependence or tolerance with anything you take nightly.

This post was updated on November 24th, 2020. Additional reporting by Gina Tomaine. 

Want to hear more from us? Join Be Well Philly at: