SANTIAGO – With the pandemic spreading and quarantines in place since March, daily routines have been lost and habits have changed significantly. For many, that means altered sleep patterns. The upcoming time change in September could cause even more sleep disorders, experts say.
In June, Los Andes University’s Sleep Medicine Program revealed that between 60 and 70 percent of Chileans experienced one or more sleep disorders as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic and related responses. The program’s specialists say that routine interruptions, less exercise, economic and family issues, lack of social life, added to overwhelming uncertainty, have resulted in poor sleep.
“Insomnia and many other sleep disorders have always been problems for many people,” said Dr. Evelyn Benavides, the program’s neurologist, “but everything the pandemic has brought has produced increased or unbalanced sleep-related issues.” This is “a global health problem,” she said.
The neurologist added that sleep is important because that is when some of the body’s most basic and vital functions take place – functions that are indispensable for physical and mental activity and acuity. Among the negative consequences of sleep deprivation are mood swings, low academic and work performance, increased risk of developing cardiovascular diseases, and weight gain.
More Stress From The Upcoming Timeshift
As Chile closes in on its upcoming time change on Sept. 5, experts say this shift could intensify sleep disorders. Chile Today spoke with Dr. John Ewer, a researcher from the Interdisciplinary Center of Neuroscience at Valparaíso University, about this.
“This is a bad time change because people lose one hour of sleep, and that has negative effects on performance. It has also been linked to a significant increase in heart attacks, which is probably related to the high levels of stress from being at work when otherwise you would be asleep,” Ewer said. He added that the body never gets used to this change.
The specialist also noted that Chile sets the hour under the wrong time zone. “We follow Brazil’s time zone when we should match Peru’s.” Ewer said Chileans already have a chronic sleep deficit because they have to wake up “one or two hours before their body tells them to.” He said adults prefer to have light during the afternoon, but the cost outweighs the benefits.
The doctor said it is clear that the anxiety caused by the pandemic is also worsening the quality of sleep, a problem that the time change will accentuate. “Even if we sleep the same number of hours, the quality is poorer, because we feel more anxious, we go to bed later and we are exposed to screens all day,” he said.
Screens have a blue light component that affects our sleep hormone, melatonin, delaying its release. “We are staring at screens until late at night, and that means that in the morning our body tells us we need to wake up, but we are too tired. Therefore, even if we sleep in, the quality of the extra sleep is very poor,” Ewer said. He added that reading from a screen, compared to paper, will delay the onset of sleep between 20 and 30 minutes.
On the importance of sleep, Ewer echoed Benavides: “if you do not sleep, you die. If you sleep too little, you get sick. That is how important sleep is.”
Global Anxiety And Dreams
Coronavirus-related anxiety is also harming individuals’ sleep patterns. Exposure to screens and constant social media scrolling also disturb the body’s biological clock, diminishing our ability to cope with anxiety. Another phenomenon linked to altered sleeping patterns is that people are experiencing vivid and strange dreams.
As reported in National Geographic, “bizarre dreams laden with symbolism allow some dreamers to overcome intense memories or everyday psychological stressors within the safety of their subconscious. Nightmares, on the other hand, can be warning signs of anxieties that we might not otherwise perceive in our waking lives.” With all the emotions caused by this global emergency, the intensity of people’s dreams have apparently skyrocketed. Various institutions across the world have concluded that “pandemic dreams are being colored by stress, isolation, and changes in sleep patterns—a swirl of negative emotions that set them apart from typical dreaming.”
“Dreams are the way our brains process, organize, integrate and make sense of things,” Michale Gardner, director of the University of Arizona’s sleep and health research program, told the World Economic Forum. “We’re dumped in this new environment and we’re trying to figure out our place in it,” he added. Whether the dreams are enjoyable or panicky may be related to media exposure and anxiety levels, Gardner said.
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Tried And True Remedies for Sleep Disorders
Manuela García, a specialist in cognitive-behavioral therapy at Somno Clinic, told La Tercera that “the most important thing is to find what each person needs and never compare ourselves to the person sleeping next to us.” Exercise, exposure to sunlight, and being awake several hours a day will strengthen our sleep, she says, as “sleep will directly depend on our life during the day.”
García emphasized the importance of avoiding activities like work and watching TV in bed. “Rule number one is to use our beds only for sleeping. We should make our beds in the morning and avoid getting close to them during the day,” she said. García also recommended going to bed only when tired, and rule number three is to never force sleep.
Los Andes University experts also have a to-do list for getting good sleep during the pandemic, which includes daily exercise and avoiding stimulants such as coffee, tobacco, and alcohol. They also recommend solving work and family issues during the day, and avoiding self-medication, as many drugs can have serious side effects.
Ewer said getting natural light during the day is also key to falling asleep at night and the quality of our sleep. “It is difficult to do in a pandemic, especially considering the high levels of anxiety and that we are inside for so long, but we have to make an effort to expose ourselves to sunlight particularly in the morning,” he said. He added that screens should be set aside at night, due to the blue light effect and because “we only get bad news, so we end up getting even more worried.”
María José Hepp is currently finishing her Journalism degree at Pontificia Universidad Católica. Living- hearing- and telling stories is her passion. Main interests are international relations, culture, and human rights.