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Among the many losses suffered by millions worldwide during the COVID-19 pandemic, the loss of sleep may be the most widespread, with potentially long-lasting, negative consequences on physical, mental, and emotional health, sleep researchers have found.
Results from multiple studies and surveys conducted during the pandemic show that a majority of subjects report clinically meaningful changes in sleep quality, sleep patterns, and sleep disturbances.
For example, a cross-sectional international survey conducted from late March through late April 2020 found that among more than 3,000 responders from 49 countries, 58% reported dissatisfaction with their sleep, and 40% reported a decrease in sleep quality during the pandemic, compared with pre-COVID-19 sleep, according to Uri Mandelkorn of the Natural Sleep Clinic in Jerusalem, and colleagues.
“In particular, this research raises the need to screen for worsening sleep patterns and use of sleeping aids in the more susceptible populations identified in this study, namely, women and people with insecure livelihoods or those subjected to strict quarantine. Health care providers should pay special attention to physical and psychological problems that this surge in sleep disturbances may cause,” they wrote. The report is in the Journal of Clinical Sleep Medicine.
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Sleeping, More or Less
A coauthor of that study, David Gozal, MD, FCCP, a pediatric pulmonologist and sleep medicine specialist at the University of Missouri in Columbia, said that the pandemic has had paradoxical effects on sleeps patterns for many.
“At the beginning, with the initial phases of lockdown for COVID, for most of the people whose jobs were not affected and who did not lose their jobs, [for whom] there was not the anxiety of being jobless and financially strapped, but who now were staying at home, there was actually a benefit. People started reporting getting more sleep and, more importantly, more vivid dreams and things of that nature,” he said in an interview.
“But as the lockdown progressed, we saw progressively and increasingly more people having difficulty falling asleep and staying asleep, using more medicines such as hypnotics to induce sleep, and we saw a 20% increase in the overall consumption of sleeping pills,” he said.
Similar results were seen in a cross-sectional survey of 843 adults in the United Kingdom, which showed that nearly 70% of participants reported a change in sleep patterns, only 45% reported having refreshing sleep, and 46% reported being sleepier during lockdown than before. Two-thirds of the respondents reported that the pandemic affected their mental health, and one-fourth reported increased alcohol consumption during lockdown. Those with suspected COVID-19 infections reported having more nightmares and abnormal sleep rhythms.
It is possible that the effects of COVID-19 infection on sleep may linger long after the infection itself has resolved, results of a cohort study from China suggest. As reported in The Lancet, among 1,655 patients discharged from the Jin Yin-tan hospital in Wuhan, 26% reported sleep disturbances 6 months after acute COVID-19 infection.
Among 5,525 Canadians surveyed from April 3 through June 24, 2020, a large proportion reported the use of pharmacologic sleeps aids, said Tetyana Kendzerska, MD, PhD, assistant professor of medicine in the division of respirology at the University of Ottawa.
“At the time of the survey completion, 27% of participants reported taking sleeping aids (prescribed or [over] the counter); across the entire sample, 8% of respondents reported an increase in the frequency of sleeping medication use during the outbreak compared to before the outbreak,” she said in an interview.
Many people resort to self-medicating with over-the-counter preparations such as melatonin and pain-relief nighttime formulations containing diphenhydramine (Benadryl), a first-generation antihistamine with sedative properties, noted Kannan Ramar, MBBS, MD, a critical care, pulmonary, and sleep medicine specialist at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn., and current president of the American Academy of Sleep Medicine.
“When people are self-medicating for what they think is difficulty sleeping, the concern is that even if a diagnosis of insomnia has been established, there could be another, ongoing sleep disorder that may be undiagnosed, which might be causing the problem with insomnia,” he said in an interview.
“For example, obstructive sleep apnea might be causing people to wake up in the night or even contribute to difficulty falling asleep in the first place. So medicating for something without a known diagnosis may leave an underlying sleep disorder untreated, which won’t help the patient in either the short or the long term,” Ramar said.
Causes for Concern
“For those people who have COVID, we have seen quite a few sleep issues develop. Those were not reported in the actual study, but in the clinic and subsequent studies published from other places,” Gozal said.
“People who suffered from COVID, and even people who supposedly did very well and were virtually asymptomatic or maybe had only a headache or fever but did not need to go to the hospital, many of those people reported either excessive sleepiness for a long period of time, and would sleep 2 or 3 hours more per night. Or the opposite was reported: There were those that after recovering reported that they couldn’t sleep – they were sleeping 4 or 5 hours when they normally sleep 7 or 8,” he said.
It’s also unclear from current evidence whether the reported uptick in sleep problems is related to
Gozal said that insomnia in the time of COVID-19 could be attributed to a number of factors such as less daily exposure to natural light from people sheltering indoors, stress related to financial or health worries, depression, or other psychological factors.
It’s also, possible, however, that COVID-19-related physiological changes could contribute to sleep disorders, he said, pointing to a recent study in the Journal of Experimental Medicine showing that SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19, can bind to neurons and cause metabolic changes in both infected and neighboring cells.
“My guess is that some of it is related more to behavioral impacts – people develop depression, changes in mood, anxiety, and so on, and all of these can translate into difficulties with sleep,” he said.
“It could be that in some instances – not very commonly – the virus will affect areas that control sleep in our brain, and that therefore we may see too much or too little sleep, and how to differentiate between all of these is the area that clearly needs to be explored, particularly in light of the finding that the virus can bind to brain cells and can induce substantial issues in the brain cells.”
It has been well documented that in addition to being, as Shakespeare called it, “the balm of hurt minds,” sleep has an important role in supporting the immune system.
“Sleep and immunity go together,” Ramar said. “When people have adequate sleep, their immune system is boosted. We know that there are good data from hepatitis A and hepatitis B vaccinations, and recently on flu vaccination, that if people get sufficient duration of sleep before and after they receive the shot, their likelihood of building an immune response to that particular vaccination tends to go up.”
It’s reasonable to assume that the same would hold true for COVID-19 vaccinations, but this has yet to be shown, he added.
“We do know from the previous studies that persistent sleep problems can make people more susceptible to infection or impair recovery; not yet, I believe, from the COVID-19 infection perspective,” Kendzerska said. “In our study, we did find that, among other factors, having a chronic illness was associated with new sleep difficulties during the pandemic. We did not look separately if sleep difficulties were associated with the COVID-19 infection or symptoms, but this is a great question to address with longitudinal data we have.”
What to Do?
All three sleep experts contacted for this article agreed that for patients with insomnia, mitigating stress through relaxation techniques or cognitive behavioral therapy is more beneficial than medication.
“Medications, even over-the-counter medications, all have side effects, and if one is taking a medication that has stimulants in place, such as pseudoephedrine in antihistamine combinations, that can potentially contribute to or exacerbate any underlying sleep disorders,” Ramar said.
Kendzerska recommended reserving medications such as melatonin, a chronobiotic therapy, for patients with sleep disorders related to circadian rhythm problems, including a sleep phase delay. Supplemental, short-term treatment with hypnotic agents such as zolpidem (Ambien), eszopiclone (Lunesta), or zaleplon (Sonata) should be used only as a last resort, she said.
Sleep medicine specialists recommend good sleep hygiene as the best means of obtaining restful sleep, including regular bed and wake times, limited exposure to stressful news (including COVID-19 stories), reduced consumption of alcohol and stimulants such as coffee or caffeine drinks, avoiding use of electronic devices in bed or near bedtime, and healthy lifestyle, including diet and exercise.
They also frown on self-medication with over-the-counter aids, because these products may not be addressing the underlying issue, as noted before.
“It is also foreseeable that there may be an increase in individuals who may require professional guidance to taper off from sleeping medications started or increased during the pandemic. While some of these sleep problems may be transient, it should be a high priority to ensure they do not evolve into chronic sleep disorders,” Kendzerska and colleagues wrote.
If there’s anything that causes specialists to lose sleep, it’s the lack of data or evidence to guide clinical care and research. Gozal emphasized that little is still known about the potential central nervous system effects of COVID-19, and said that should be an important focus for research into the still novel coronavirus.
“What happens post COVID and how might that affect subsequent recovery is a great question, and I don’t think we have good data there,” Ramar said. “What we do know is that patients develop the symptoms of fatigue, disrupted sleep, even ongoing fever, and unfortunately, this may persist for a long period of time even among patients who have otherwise recovered from COVID-19. We know that leaving that untreated from a sleep disorder perspective can exacerbate their daytime symptoms, and that’s where I would strongly recommend that they seek help with a sleep provider or if there are symptoms other than insomnia at least with a primary care provider.”