Sleep is essential to health. Learn how to improve your rest and wellbeing.

May 4, 2021 in Complementary & Integrative Medicine  •  By Michael Scott, ND, MSA
healthy sleep

Sleep problems are nothing new. But the COVID-19 pandemic has not only cast a bright light on sleep challenges, it has made existing sleep issues worse for many people. We talked with Nancy H. Rothstein, The Sleep AmbassadorR, about how the pandemic is affecting sleep for people of all ages, what habits may be making your problems with sleep worse, and what proactive steps you can take to get the healthy sleep you need.

 Ms. Rothstein has developed extensive sleep programming for individuals, organizations, and corporate wellness programs, providing practical sleep strategies and resources to foster healthy sleep. She is a popular speaker and writer on the topic of sleep and recently completed her term as a member of the National Institutes of Health Sleep Disorders Research Advisory Board. She is a member of the boards and advisory boards of several organizations that reflect her dedication to sleep health.

PinnacleCare (PC): In what ways are you seeing the pandemic impact people’s sleep?

Nancy Rothstein (NR): We were designed to sleep. We must sleep to live. But for many, even before the pandemic, sleep problems were common. In addition to people with diagnosed sleep disorders like insomnia and sleep apnea, noting that 25% of adults in the U.S. have undiagnosed sleep disorders, many more are experiencing sleep deficiency leading to significant health issues, both physical and mental. Now, for many people, sleep problems have intensified. People are taking their anxiety to bed with them and it’s playing havoc with their sleep. The challenges we were having with sleep before the pandemic are continuing and some habits, like our use of screens in bed, have intensified sleep struggles.

PC: What changes should people make to improve their sleep?

NR: I recommend putting your phone and other screens away at least an hour before bedtime. And don’t have a TV in your bedroom. Your brain needs to transition to sleep in peace, as well as supporting your brain and circadian rhythm to follow your natural sleep/wake cycle.

During the day, we’re busy and can put off thinking about the things that make us anxious. But all that anxiety is still present when we get in bed. So, during the day, do things to help you process your anxiety, something calming whether that’s talking with a therapist, meditating, or getting out in nature and taking a walk. You need to allow yourself to feel your anxiety, understand it, and then you can deal with it so it’s not pent up and waiting for you to address at night.

PC: Beyond putting screens away, what are other proactive steps people can take?

NR: Another problem is people waking up in the middle of the night and looking at the clock to check the time. Unfortunately, this activates the brain and promotes wakefulness. A better idea is to set your alarm an hour before bed, then turn the clock (a real clock is better than your cell phone) away so you won’t be tempted to check the time during the night.

It’s also very important to create a relaxing bedtime routine. Take a shower, then do something like writing in a journal, reading a book (preferably not on a screen), or having a conversation. This gives your brain time to prepare for sleep. If your mind is racing and keeping you from settling down, it can be helpful to focus on the people and things you’re grateful for. Gratitude quiets the noise in your mind and takes you to a space of peace.

Breathing issues are another thing that can make sleep more difficult. Many people don’t know how to breathe properly. Nasal breathing is the correct way to breathe. It activates your parasympathetic nervous system, which slows our heart and breathing rates and lowers blood pressure, promoting relaxation and rest. If you have difficulty with nasal breathing, be sure to see a specialist such as an ENT.

PC: What can parents do if their children are experiencing sleep issues?

NR: In general, children have much better sleep routines than adults, but with disrupted schedules and routines due to the pandemic, they may be finding it harder to fall asleep and stay asleep. Good habits are a family affair, so the best thing parents can do is model healthy sleep habits. Have a family pact to turn off your cell phones and tablets. Read to or with them. Make sure their sleep environment is calm, quiet, and peaceful. You can also use the time before bedtime to help children process and feel comfortable with any anxieties they’re experiencing. Letting them express themselves helps them feel safe. Ask them about the good things they’ve experienced today and what they’d like to dream about. And remember, it’s a process. There will be good nights and nights that aren’t quite so slumber friendly. The goal is that they look forward to sleep!