The Shift in Our Sleep Since the Pandemic
According to the Better Sleep Council, the first stages of COVID-19 caused a huge shift in American’s sleep habits. In fact, between January and March there was a marked increase in people getting less than 7-8 hours of Zzzzz’s.
Unfortunately, the Council reports that even in January (before the virus was part of our lives) four in 10 Americans “described their sleep as poor or fair (43%).” That number jumped to 52% by March. No doubt due to all the many concerns we have had to add into our lives due to the coronavirus.
How Much Nighttime Rest Should We Get?
When you ask the question of ‘how much sleep do I need,’ there’s often the typical answer of 7-8 hours. But many experts feel that depends on your age, how much your body needs to recoup from stresses and travels, and your health.
StartSleeping.org says that our need for a good night’s rest does change depending on our age —
As we age, the number of hours of sleep needed daily decreases. For example, newborns need 14-17 hours/day, while adults aged 65 and over need 7-8 hours/day.
Online sleep calculators can be helpful for determining how much sleep you need. One at StartSleeping.org has you plug in your age and when you want to wake up, and then it tells you options for when to go to bed and how many sleep cycles that will give you. There are also a number of free apps, like Sleep Timer, for your phone that provide similar calculations.
What are sleep cycles?
Sleep cycles are loops of non-REM sleep and REM sleep (Rapid Eye Movement) which then circle back to non-REM, REM, and so on throughout the night. The ideal times for going to bed are calculated based on how many of these sleep cycles you’ll get.
For example, most people enter the REM period about 90 minutes after they’ve started sleep. And most adults (if they are getting sufficient nighttime slumber) would get about 5 or 6 of these REM periods each night. With each loop of non-REM/REM, the REM period. And the REM period is when we dream. This is why we often remember our dreams just before we wake up, because they would have come from our longest REM period of the night.
So, if you’re getting only a few Zzzz’s at night, you might only get 2-3 shortened REM periods. Or if you get woken up often at night with few-to-little REM periods, that could be hard on your brain, learning, memory, mood, the body’s ability to keep an average weight, give you migraines, and reduce coping skills. (Any new parents with babies will know about this!)
You want to get sufficient REM cycles because, as Sleep.org says —
REM sleep plays an important role in learning and memory function, since this is when your brain consolidates and processes information from the day before so that it can be stored in your long-term memory.
Bottom line, is 5 hours of sleep enough for adults? Probably not. Five hours of nighttime slumber would probably give you only 3 cycles of REM. You want to ideally aim for 5-6 REM cycles. And to get that much REM, it’s recommended that healthy adults get 7-9 hours of sleep a night.
What can help your sleep habits?
- Avoid alcohol. While you might think that winding down with alcohol could be helpful, studies actually show that it isn’t. From Medical News Today: “Moderate to high levels of alcohol intake before bed can reduce the number of REM sleep phases experienced.”
- Avoid screens before bed. Electronic devices like TVs, phones, and laptops can trick your body into thinking that it’s not night, due to the blue light these devices emit. So, instead of winding down, you’re body stays alert. This can make it more difficult to catch your Zzzz’s, affecting when the first sleep cycle (and REM periods) would start.
- Go to bed and wake up at the same time. Your body responds better to a regular schedule of wake time and bed time. When you have set times, your body creates a biological clock or circadian rhythm. This internal clock tells you when to wake up and when to wind down. This is why sometimes, when you have a regular schedule, you wake up just a minute before your alarm goes off. Your body knows the time of day.
- Utilize meditation. Research shows that regular meditation can help your body to rest better. From Healthline — “As a relaxation technique, it can quiet the mind and body while enhancing inner peace. When done before bedtime, meditation may help reduce insomnia and sleep troubles by promoting overall calmness.” There are a number of apps that make this easy with meditations and relaxing bedtime stories — Calm, Headspace, and Insight Timer are examples.