We aren’t in quarantine anymore, Toto, and our new routines are still being defined.
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This long into quarantine, many of us have gotten used to hitting the snooze button.
Who am I kidding? I haven’t even set an alarm since February.
Life has fallen off the rails quite a bit due to COVID-19, but for me, sleeping in has been a small silver lining in the storm.
I’m not alone. Now that home is work and work is home for many, work and sleep can pretty much happen — whenever, wherever.
Data collected by health analytics company Evidation Health suggests that since quarantine began, Americans have increased their time asleep by 20 percent.
According to Dr. Richard Bogan, medical director of SleepMed of South Carolina and President of Bogan Sleep Consultants, it’s a much deserved rest that a great deal of us really need.
“Sleep is fundamentally and biologically necessary,” says Bogan. “You have to sleep. The better quality, quantity, and continuity of the sleep, the better the brain works. You remember better, your mood is better, your motivation and your immune system is better.”
According to Bogan, about 40 percent of the population suffers from a lack of sleep. It’s a sleep debt that some of us are working hard to repay during quarantine, with cat naps and sleeping in on the daily.
Getting repaid for our debt sounds great, but it’s how that really matters.
Prior to stay-at-home orders, most of us slept according to our circadian rhythm, or internal clock, says Bogan. The circadian rhythm is what tells our body when to be awake and when to be sleepy in regular intervals.
Rolling with your circadian rhythm works when you have a structured wake-up time, a place to be, and a formalized schedule to keep.
In the wild west of quarantine — where work and life are not held to a strict timetable — some are shucking circadian rhythm for a process called “free running.”
When free running, the body goes rogue from its 24-hour circadian rhythm.
“With free running we are seeing one of two things happening: People are sleeping when they get sleepy, and/or simply waking up whenever they wake up. The brain doesn’t like to do that,” says Bogan.
Some states are beginning to reopen, and with these open doors comes the dawn light of the new normal. We aren’t in quarantine anymore, Toto, and our new routines are still being defined.
Industrial organizational psychologist and Marian University Professor Dr. David Rusbasan expects remote work to become much more common.
“I think one of the larger changes that will come is a greater normalization of telework and telecommunication,” says Rusbasan. “Leaders and managers have now had a front-seat view of how telework can succeed within their organizations. I believe moving forward they will utilize the concept to a larger and more pervasive extent.”
With these new factors in mind, some folks may be able to continue free running for a while. Eventually, we’ll need to go back to our recommended circadian rhythm simply for our health and sanity.
To re-engage that process, Bogan has some advice:
“Light is so important,” says Bogan. “Make sure you get some light and activity. Light increases the amplitude of awakeness, and that enhances our brain function.”
Getting anywhere from 5 to 15 minutes of sunlight 2 times per week is enough to boost your vitamin D, which is known to affect sleep.
It might be time to dig out that old alarm clock you had back in February. “Get up at the same time every day and get light exposure at that time,” says Bogan.
Be sure to bookend your wake-up time with a consistent bedtime.
No coffee 6 hours before bed
Drinking caffeine close to bedtime can disrupt your sleep.
I call this the Gremlins “Mogwai” rule. Much like you don’t give a Mogwai water after midnight, caffeine isn’t great for people 6 hours before bed.
Coffee inhibits adenosine, an important mediator in the effects of sleep loss. Adenosine accumulates in the brain during wakefulness and can lead to changes in cognitive performance when sleep is skipped.
Avoid electronics an hour before bedtime.
“When we have electronic light, TV, or devices, the electronic light hits our eyes and our photoreceptors,” says Bogan. This delays melatonin production, a hormone produced by the pineal gland in your brain that regulates circadian rhythms.
Don’t go to bed too early
“It’s actually better to delay sleep a little bit without electronic light, because you are building adenosine,” says Bogan.
So turn off the TV and wind down for a bit before you hit the pillow. This tells your brain that it’s time to go to sleep.
Everyone will define “too early” a little differently, but the National Sleep Foundation suggests going to sleep between 8 p.m. and midnight.
With these steps and a solid routine, most of us will be back on track in about a week or so. Others may have a trickier time — like snowflakes, everyone’s circadian rhythm is unique, and stress and other factors can impact your quality of sleep.
For a quick barometer of the quality of your sleep, give the Epworth Sleepiness Scale Test a whirl. This simple questionnaire helps gauge if your sleep pattern is in good shape.
If your score is higher or you’re having a lot of trouble sleeping, you might want to consider speaking to a doctor.
Scores higher than 10 fall into the “make a call” category. I scored a 20, so I’ll be making a call sometime around 2 a.m.
As you can see, I’m still free running.
Angela Hatem enjoys piña coladas, getting caught in the rain, and obviously yacht rock. When not checking her son’s ears for wayward Cheerios, Angela contributes to several online publications. Follow her on Twitter.