Has COVID affected your sleep? Here’s how viruses can alter our sleep patterns
During the early stages of the pandemic, and especially during lockdowns and stay-at-home orders, many people reported disruptions in sleep and sleep patterns. As COVID infections have increased, we are again seeing reports of people experiencing sleep disturbances during and after COVID infection.
Some people report symptoms of insomnia, where they have trouble falling asleep or staying asleep, commonly referred to as “coronasomnia” or “COVID insomnia.” Others report feeling constantly tired and can’t seem to get enough sleep, sometimes referred to as “long COVID.”
So why is our sleep impacted by COVID infections, and why do the impacts differ so much between individuals?
Sleep and immunity
When our body is infected with a virus, it causes an immune or inflammatory response. As part of this response, our cells produce proteins such as cytokines to help fight infection. Some of these cytokines are also involved in promoting sleep and are known as “sleep regulating substances”. This way, when there are more of these cytokines in our body, it tends to make us feel more sleepy.
It gets a bit more complicated though, because like many things, sleep and immunity are two-way. This means that sleep, particularly poor sleep, can impact immune function, and immune function can impact sleep. During sleep, particularly during the non-rapid eye movement slow-wave sleep phase (a phase of deep sleep), there is an increase in the production of certain cytokines. As such, sleep increases the immune response, which can increase our chances of surviving infection.
Sleep and COVID
Although we are still learning about the specific effects of COVID on sleep, we know what happens to sleep with other viral infections.
A study of rhinovirus infections, or the “common cold,” in healthy adults found that symptomatic people had reduced sleep duration, less consolidated sleep, and poorer cognitive performance than asymptomatic people.
Another study of people with respiratory infections showed that, despite being symptomatic, people spent more time in bed and had more time sleeping, but had more awakenings during sleep. People have also reported increased difficulty falling asleep, poorer sleep quality, more restless sleep, and “lighter” sleep.
A more recent study found that patients with COVID reported more sleep problems than patients without COVID.
Insomnia COVID and long COVID
Although changes in sleep with viral infections such as COVID are likely due to our body’s immune response, it’s possible that sleep disturbances, such as fragmented sleep and frequent waking, can lead to bad habits. sleep, such as using phones or electronic devices at night.
Poorer nighttime sleep may also lead some people to take more frequent naps during the day, which could further impact nighttime sleep. And taking longer to fall asleep, or waking up in the night and having trouble falling back to sleep can lead to frustrations related to the inability to sleep.
All of these factors, independently or in combination with each other, can lead to the symptoms of insomnia experienced by people with COVID. In the short term, these insomnia symptoms aren’t really a big deal. However, if poor sleeping habits persist, it can lead to chronic insomnia.
Read more: Explained: What is insomnia and what can you do about it?
On the other side, there are people who suffer from long COVID, where they are constantly tired even though they sleep well enough after their COVID infection has passed. Unfortunately, more research is needed to determine why some people experience persistent fatigue after viral infections, but this may be due to an excessive immune response.
Factors like genetics, other health conditions, and mood disorders like anxiety are likely culprits for why some people experience “COVID insomnia,” while others are more likely to develop “long COVID”. Much more research is needed to fully understand the causes of poor sleep with COVID.
How to Cope with Sleep Disruptions Caused by COVID
During the acute phase of infections, it is important to accept that we may experience sleep disturbances. Try not to get too frustrated with sleeping poorly or taking longer to fall asleep.
When you start to feel better, try to go back to your usual, pre-COVID sleep-wake pattern and avoid daytime naps, or at least too many daytime naps. Try to avoid looking at the clock when you’re in bed and go to bed when you’re sleepy. Reduce light exposure at night and aim for bright light in the morning, ideally outdoors. This will help you get back to a normal routine more quickly.
For more tips on how to improve sleep and avoid chronic insomnia, the Sleep Health Foundation offers resources specifically dedicated to COVID and sleep. If you’re still suffering from insomnia or excessive sleepiness following a COVID infection, especially if it’s been a few months, it’s always a good idea to see your GP, who can offer more specific advice and determine if further testing is needed. required.