How to Rest Easier During COVID-19
Dr. Wei-Shin Lai of AcousticSheep, LLC shares her insights
Scientists and researchers are working tirelessly to put COVID-19 to bed. Meanwhile, the natives are restless. We're sleeping less and at odder times than we did before the pandemic swept through our home planet, and that was already a problem.
According to CDC data on sleep and sleep disorders, an average of 35.2 percent of all adults 18 and older slept fewer than the recommended seven hours a night. Erie County was consistent with the statistical mean (33.7 to 35.8 percent of adults), while neighboring Crawford, Warren, and Chautauqua (N.Y.) counties were slightly higher (35.9 to 38.1 percent) and Ashtabula County (Ohio) was significantly higher (38.2 to 48.5 percent). Demographically, there were higher rates of sleeplessness among middle-aged and particularly African-American adults.
And those figures were based on 2014 data. It's too early to draw statistically valid conclusions about recent events, but we can safely deduce that 2020 will not go down as the year of our dreams. Nonetheless, deep, restful sleep should be a priority now more than ever. Insomnia is correlated with a number of health risk factors and a higher incidence of several chronic diseases. It's exactly why Erie family doctor-turned-entrepreneur Dr. Wei-Shin Lai invented SleepPhones — soft, speaker-containing headbands that side sleepers can comfortably wear to bed — with partner and AcousticSheep, LLC co-founder Jason Wolfe.
Given her background in cellular molecular biology, Dr. Lai has always had an interest in epidemiology and the implications of sleeplessness from an immunological perspective. During the coronavirus crisis, she has felt an obligation to become a "thought leader" on these subjects, advising individuals and businesses on how to conduct themselves based on "science, not a political agenda." To this end, she's hosted webinars, written blog posts, spoken out through interviews, "a whole host of different things."
She says that when people don't understand the science of how disease spreads, they are bound to have difficulty grasping why certain policies or protocols are put in place. It also just so happens that sickness spreads more readily between individuals who are stressed, strung-out, and sleep-deprived.
"Sleep especially impacts your mental health in that if you don't get enough, you're going to be more grouchy, and any stress that comes your way, you'll react more poorly," she explains. When you skimp or skip out on it, your body is forced to compensate by revving up production of adrenaline and other stress hormones (most notably cortisone), which "decrease your immunity and make it harder to respond to viruses and infections."
While most people acknowledge the value of a good night's sleep, the actual benefits may continue to elude them. Dr. Lai suspects insomnia has experienced an uptick in recent months in direct relation to two other upward trends — anxiety (regarding health, money, helplessness) and shift work. The latter has been employed by businesses (including AcousticSheep) to limit the number of personnel on-site at any given time, especially those with redundant skill sets. For example, if there are two people who can handle shipping, one will work a morning shift and the other will work an evening shift without overlap. That way you're not down an entire department should one person fall ill.
Although staggered shifts are well in line with social distancing, they may not be in line with regular sleep patterns, especially if you're one of the third of Americans on a late or overnight rotation. It becomes even more complicated if you share a bed, especially should you or your partner find yourselves victimized by what Dr. Lai calls "second-hand snoring." SleepPhones are intended to help "block out noise during odd hours, to help you maintain that regularity" in your sleep schedule that is so important.
"Every time you go to bed, train yourself to put on the SleepPhones and listen to whatever you want to listen to," Dr, Lai suggests, whether that be ambient music, rain sounds/white noise, audiobooks, guided meditation, or something more "heavy-handed" such as hypnosis. That way, you help reinforce the thought process that "this is my time to sleep."
Beyond SleepPhones, she shed light on additional ways you can un-randomize your quarantine sleep schedule.
- Go outside! Exposing our eyes to bright sunlight suppresses production of melatonin, our "sleepy" brain chemical, and jolts us awake. "Making sure you get that will set your Circadian rhythm." In the morning is best, but the evening hours before dusk (4 to 7 p.m.) also have benefits.
- Change your screen time behavior in the hours before bed. Many modern devices have a "night mode" wherein blue light, the wavelength that the brain associates with "daytime," is filtered out. This "allows melatonin to build up to make you sleepy when you want to be sleepy," explains Dr. Lai. "But if there's something really exciting happening in your Netflix series, that's out of my hands."
- Try journaling. This helps organize the thoughts and obligations that might be making you anxious or restless. Just be sure to use the aforementioned night mode if you're doing it on your phone, or an amber night light or backlight if you're doing it the old-fashioned way with pen and paper.
- Don't overeat or eat overly spicy or fatty foods before bedtime. These things trigger acid reflux, or heartburn.
- Don't exercise too close to bedtime, which increases your bodily awareness systems and the time you'll need to wind back down.
Regardless of how the novel coronavirus outbreak continues to play out, Dr. Lai and her Erie-based AcousticSheep family are committed to helping both their employees and customers rest easier. Let us issue a sigh — if not a snore — of relief.
Matt Swanseger once fell asleep during a monster truck show at the then-Tullio Arena, so insomnia has rarely been a problem for him. The self-confessed Netflix narcolpetic will try to stay up for your emails though at email@example.com