To Get a Better Night’s Sleep, First Fix Your Day

For many of us, the fearful days of the pandemic have resulted in sleepless nights. But there are ways to get our nights back on track – by changing our day-to-day business.

According to a March 2021 survey of more than 2,000 adults commissioned by the American Academy of Sleep Medicine, more than half of Americans said they experienced more sleep disorders during the pandemic. About 57% said they had more problems falling or staying asleep; 46% slept less at night and 36% said they had more troubling dreams.

“The stress and isolation of the pandemic, the reduction in physical activity, none of it is good for sleep,” says Daniel J. Buysse, professor of psychiatry at the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine.

Chronic inadequate sleep has been linked to health problems such as diabetes, obesity, and high blood pressure. Cognitive functions like attention and reaction time are also affected when we don’t get enough sleep. Mood sinks.

How well you sleep at night depends on what you do during the day, say sleep medicine experts. They generally recommend that healthy adults sleep between seven and nine hours a night. And there are steps you can take to make a good night’s sleep that much more likely.

Really wake up

A good night’s sleep begins with a regular wake up time, which varies no more than an hour, even on weekends, says Fariha Abbasi-Feinberg, medical director of sleep medicine at the Millennium Physician Group in Fort Myers, Florida. Anything else would “mess up your circadian rhythm,” she says, referring to the 24-hour cycle of physical and mental changes.

Get bright light asap in the morning that tells your body it’s time to wake up and suppresses the sleep-inducing hormone melatonin, she says. It’s even better if you can do it outside. If there isn’t enough natural light available when you wake up, Dr. Buysse to use a full spectrum light box or visor for half an hour to an hour.

Get more exercise and turn off your pandemic brain

Having regular times for meals, exercise, and starting and finishing work helps keep the body’s clock steady, which helps with sleep. “We’ve lost all boundaries of when I go to work, when I leave work, when to be with my family,” said Emerson M. Wickwire, professor of psychiatry and medicine at the University of Maryland Medical School. “The brain is ‘on’ for many more hours than ideal.”

Many people, especially those who work from home, don’t get enough exercise during the day, notes Dr. Abbasi-Feinberg firmly. But the body and brain need a clear distinction between active days and inactive nights in order to get the best sleep, she notes. Exercising in the morning can increase alertness during the day. If you do exercise later, do so at least four to six hours before bedtime, says Dr. Abbasi-Feinberg. Exercise increases body temperature, and a higher body temperature can interfere with sleep.

Watch what you drink

Dr. Abbasi-Feinberg advises her patients to avoid caffeine from the afternoon onwards. The advice isn’t surprising, but Dr. Abbasi-Feinberg says people often underestimate the amount of caffeine in sodas. And for some sensitive people, the amount of caffeine in chocolate can interfere with sleep.

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Also, be careful about timing of drinking, says Jennifer L. Martin, professor of medicine at the University of California at Los Angeles. Alcohol can make people feel drowsy at first, but since it’s metabolized, “it’s very alarming,” she says. This effect occurs about three or four hours after you drink it.

“If you have a glass of wine or two or three with dinner, you can have trouble falling asleep,” she says.

Avoid naps – or keep them short

If you’re prone to having trouble falling asleep before bed, avoid napping during the day even when you’re sleepy, says M. Safwan Badr, professor and chairman of the department of internal medicine at Wayne State University School of Medicine in Detroit. “Napping is like having a peanut butter sandwich before dinner,” he says. “It spoils your appetite” for sleep.

If you feel like you can’t get through the day without a nap, keep it down for 20 minutes or less, says Dr. Buysse – “enough to recharge a person’s vigilance, but not so much that you steal sleep the following night.”

Work on reducing stress

Isolation from the pandemic has strained many of us – and it doesn’t help our sleep. Connecting with loved ones during the day, preferably in person when it is safe to do so, combats isolation and helps reduce a stress response in order to stay awake and be alert, says Dr. Buysse.

Rattling worries, to-do lists, and other brooding thoughts are often the enemy of sleep. Dr. Wickwire recommends dealing with them by keeping a journal where you write down any concerns you have and anything else that comes on your mind. Do this at least a few hours before bed to give your thoughts time to calm down.

With practice, he says, you will learn that “you don’t have to concentrate on it anymore and that these thoughts are waiting for me in the morning”. End your entry with a “gratitude list,” says Dr. Wickwire. Research has found a link between expressing gratitude and better sleep, he notes.

Write to Andrea Petersen at andrea.petersen@wsj.com

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