COVID-19 is a viral infection that quickly became a pandemic disease recognized by the World Health Organization in 2020. While it primarily affects the lungs, this respiratory infection has devastating effects on your immune system and other organs too, prompting scientists to conduct more research on the other symptoms of COVID-19.
Some patients suffer COVID-19 symptoms long after they have had the infection – this is known as long COVID. One medical issue that’s becoming prevalent among many long COVID sufferers is clinically significant insomnia.
If you have sleep problems due to long COVID, read on to learn more about when to seek help for insomnia and how to improve sleep efficiency.
What is insomnia?
Insomnia is a sleep disorder that makes it difficult to fall asleep or stay asleep. It may also cause you to wake up too early and not be able to go back to sleep. All of these symptoms of insomnia can make it hard for you to get a good night’s sleep, making a significant impact on your physical, mental, and emotional health. It can be caused by chronic diseases like obstructive sleep apnoea or mental health issues.
Insomniacs who suffer from sleep-onset insomnia may take anywhere from 20 to 30 minutes on average to fall asleep. However, some insomniacs may take even longer than this average, causing poor sleep quality.
Some doctors have noted that COVID-19 patients may also have trouble sleeping and feel restless at night. Studies show that when COVID-19 impairs your immune responses, this puts your body into overtime trying to recover from the disease, affecting your sleep quality.
COVID-19 patients are at a higher risk for this sleep disturbance known as ‘coronasomnia’, which can impair your ability to recover from COVID-19 and other viral infections. While the duration and severity of coronasomnia are still being studied, research indicates that people with long COVID are at higher risk of developing this condition.
What are the signs and symptoms of insomnia?
These are some of the signs and symptoms of insomnia:
- Waking up too early or too late in the day
- Sleep disturbances (waking up in the middle of the night)
- Mental fog (inability to focus on tasks, remember things, or pay attention)
- Daytime sleepiness
- Irritability, anxiety disorders, depression
- Increased errors with tasks that are part of daily, normal routines
If you suffer from any of these persistent symptoms, consult your doctor to determine the cause of your poor sleep and how to treat it.
Can stress from the COVID-19 pandemic cause insomnia?
Yes, stress from the COVID-19 pandemic can cause insomnia and other sleep difficulties. Even if you haven’t been infected with the coronavirus disease, the daily stress of living through the pandemic is enough to cause sleep problems. Worrying about being infected, the well-being of loved ones infected with COVID-19, and the financial fallout of the pandemic can all lead to sleepless nights.
Whether your sleeplessness is due to long COVID or the emotional upheaval of the pandemic, it can take a toll on your nervous system and immune system. Consult your doctor to treat severe sleep disturbances regardless of the cause.
How long does Post-COVID insomnia last?
As of now, studies are still being conducted to find out how long COVID affects the physical and mental health of recovered patients. Insomnia has been observed to last for weeks or even months in long COVID sufferers.
One of the biggest risk factors for COVID-19 insomnia is developing long COVID. Research indicates sleep disturbance lasts longer in people who have stayed in the hospital’s intensive care unit, as well as those who have been hospitalized for at least a week due to COVID-19. Sleep problems like insomnia are also more likely to be experienced by those who developed post-traumatic stress disorder due to COVID-19.
What should be done to reduce Post-COVID insomnia and prevent health effects?
Post-COVID-19 insomnia can profoundly affect your mood and physical well-being. Develop these good sleep habits to help you get a better night’s sleep and avoid sleep disturbances:
Create a more restful sleep environment
Your sleep problem may be improved by making small changes to your sleep environment. Experts have suggested sleeping in a cool, dark room to promote better sleep. The body naturally cools down when you are preparing to go to bed, so lowering your bedroom’s temperature may give your body the cue that it is time for bed.
Sleeping in a dark room promotes the production of melatonin, the hormone which tells your body to go to sleep as part of the sleep-wake cycle in circadian rhythms. By turning off the lights, you reduce your exposure to external distractions. This can help your brain “‘quiet down’” and go to sleep faster.
Cut your screen time
Don’t forget to put away your mobile devices as part of your normal daily routine for bedtime. The constant news alerts can trigger stress, making your thoughts race before bed and keeping you from falling asleep. Cut back on social media at least a half hour before bed to avoid setting off alerts in your brain.
The blue light from the screens may also be affecting the production of melatonin. By reducing your screen time before bed, you prevent your circadian clock from being interrupted and are more likely to drift off faster.
Moderate your caffeine intake
It takes approximately eight hours for caffeine to leave your body, so drinking coffee or lots of tea in the afternoon can make it hard for you to fall asleep at night. Unfortunately, this leads to poor sleep quality and grogginess in the morning, which could push you to reach for caffeine again just to stay up in the daytime. This can trigger a vicious cycle of poor sleep and increased caffeine consumption, gradually taking a toll on your normal sleep pattern.
Limit your caffeine intake to the daytime, and consider reducing the number of caffeinated beverages you drink daily. Even cutting your coffee consumption from two cups a day to one cup can have a significant effect on your sleep quality.
Try meditation or light stretching
Being preoccupied with negative thoughts or the day’s worries can make it hard for you to go to sleep. Sleep experts recommend meditation, as it reduces stress and clears your mind of distractions before bedtime. Many online meditation videos or free guided apps calm you down and help you sleep faster.
Doing a light physical activity like stretching is another general health practice that can improve your sleep quality. Stretching promotes healthy blood flow and releases body tension, helping you relax. Make light stretching part of your pre-bedtime routine to encourage your body to gradually reset into a regular sleep cycle.
Maintain a regular sleep schedule
Many people have struggled with disrupted routines because of the pandemic. Make it a point to wake up regularly and go to sleep at the same time every day. This trains your body’s clock, known as the circadian clock, to naturally wake up and doze off at those set hours over time.
If you are having trouble waking up and sleeping at consistent hours, start setting alarms. Setting an alarm will help you wake up, but you can also use one to remind you when to start settling into your bedtime routine. Ideally, you should have at least one to two hours to wind down before you go to sleep.
Avoid eating too close to bedtime
Food activates your digestive system, so if you eat dinner late, your muscles may be too busy metabolizing your food instead of resting. This can make it harder for your body to relax and go to sleep.
Eating dinner too late at night may keep you from getting enough sleep, but hunger can also have the same effect. Experts suggest eating a heavier lunch instead, then eating a lighter dinner. This gives your body enough fuel to curb your hunger and allows you to digest your meal fully before going to sleep.
Don’t work in your bedroom
Working in your bedroom may make you associate your room with stress. If you make a habit of working in bed, your brain will ‘turn on’ or ‘stay on’ while you are in your bedroom. This can cause sleep problems, like difficulties in falling asleep or regular struggles with sleep disturbance.
If possible, separate your work and resting spaces to improve sleep. If this isn’t workable, reduce the amount of time you spend working in your bedroom. Eventually, your brain will be able to associate your bedroom with sleep instead of stress again, and this may improve your sleep quality.
How do you treat COVID-19 insomnia?
Treatment for COVID-19 insomnia is the same as treatment for insomnia due to other causes. It’s important to prevent severe sleep disturbances due to insomnia, as rest is crucial to a full recovery from COVID-19.
Here are some common treatments that healthcare workers or sleep specialists may prescribe for you:
- Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT): Mental health challenges can lead to negative or restless thoughts at night, making it hard to go to sleep. The cognitive portion of CBT helps you control these thoughts and worries, while the behavioral part improves your sleep habits and promotes relaxation techniques.
- Over-the-counter sleep aids: Some non-prescription sleep aids contain antihistamines that can make you drowsy enough to go to sleep. Note that these are not intended for regular use and may have side effects like frequent urination and dizziness. Talk to your doctor before taking any over-the-counter sleep aids to treat insufficient sleep.
- Prescription sleep medication: Some doctors may prescribe you sleep medicine, ideally for no longer than a few weeks. While these medications may treat your sleep problems, they also have side effects like daytime grogginess. There’s also a risk of becoming dependent on them to maintain a regular sleep cycle. Talk to your doctor about these medications and their potential side effects before taking them.
When to seek help
Whether you are coping with long COVID symptoms, mental health problems, or other medical conditions that are affecting your sleep quality, don’t hesitate to consult a doctor. Sleep problems like insomnia can hamper your recovery from COVID-19, worsen your mental health issues, and increase your risk of developing the following diseases:
- High blood pressure
- Heart conditions like cardiac arrest
Long COVID is now known to be one of the high-risk factors for developing the conditions mentioned above. Having insomnia due to long COVID only increases those chances further, so raise your sleep problems with healthcare workers for immediate treatment.
The bottom line
Insomnia is one of the most common sleep disorders. The psychological distress from dealing with the COVID-19 global pandemic may lead to sleep problems like insomnia, even if you haven’t gotten the coronavirus disease. That said, suffering from long COVID can have effects on your physical and mental health, including insomnia.
If you suffer persistent symptoms of insomnia while dealing with long COVID symptoms, talk to your doctor. They can prescribe sleep medicine as needed, suggest therapy or other effective treatments, or refer you to a sleep therapist. The sooner you can nip your sleep problems in the bud, the smoother your recovery from long COVID symptoms.
If you have persistent trouble sleeping due to long COVID and feel you are all alone, talk to us. We will help you uncover the ways to battle the effects of Post-COVID insomnia and join groups and peers that have similar experience.