Carolina Campanella, Ph.D.
As we navigate the stress and uncertainty brought on by the Covid-19 pandemic, our ability to get quality sleep can end up taking the hit. When we’re balancing new variables like remote work and 24/7 childcare while dealing with the ongoing anxiety around contamination, job security or future financial security, all without the usual support structure we get from being face to face with friends and family, sleep can seem like an afterthought.
Sleep plays a critical role in maintaining our health and well-being, which makes getting good quality sleep more important than ever. Learn more about the importance of Sleep to Protect Immune Health & Performance in our linked article.
To help set you up for success, here are a number of strategies you can employ to create a sleep-conducive environment in your home.
Seek Light During the Day
Light helps synchronize our circadian rhythm – the internal 24-hour clock that controls our sleep/wake cycle. Specifically, light syncs our circadian rhythm to the earth’s 24-hour light/dark cycle. This means that when it is bright out, we feel alert, active, and focused, while when it is dark, our bodies release melatonin – the sleep inducing hormone – to help signal that it is time to go to sleep. However, as we self-isolate, our exposure to natural light patterns becomes more limited. When our main light source comes from a steady stream of bright indoor lighting, this can suppress melatonin at night, making it hard to fall asleep.
Seeking out bright light in the morning will help synchronize your circadian rhythm. Make sure to open your blinds to let in the sunlight when you wake up. If you’re able to go outside, take a 30 minute walk (maintaining at least 6 feet from other people!). If you’re unable to go outside, try to spend the morning in a room with a lot of light. If your home doesn’t get a lot of natural light and you’re unable to go outside, consider getting tunable light bulbs and putting them on a bright setting in the morning and early afternoon.
Embrace Darkness at Night
On the flip side, it is equally important to limit your exposure to bright light at night, as this can suppress the secretion of melatonin. If your lights are dimmable, lower them to help minimize your light exposure in the evenings. More importantly, try to limit your screen-time during the hours before you go to bed, as screens emit a bright, blue light that tricks your brain into thinking it is time to be awake and prevents you from feeling sleepy. Limiting screen time at night is particularly important for children, as it can significantly delay their bedtime because they are especially sensitive to light.
Separate your Work Space from the Bedroom
Not only can our days blend together during this period of self-isolation but, for those of us working from home, it can also impact our work/life balance. Instead of serving as a refuge after a long day of work, your home might increasingly be associated with irate work calls and pressing deadlines which could prevent you from being able to relax and fall asleep at night. Switching back and forth between work and home activities throughout the day can also increase procrastination during work hours, leading to later nights and worse sleep.
Much has been written about creating a dedicated work space within your home to maintain work/life balance and support productivity. Ideally this work space should not be in the bedroom, as most sleep experts recommend restricting the bedroom to activities associated with sleep and relaxation, particularly if you routinely struggle to fall asleep at night.
If you live in a small apartment or share space with others, you might not have the luxury of creating a dedicated work area away from the bedroom. Seek creative options, like facing away from the bed or putting up a screen to block your view of the bed to help create a physical boundary between your sleeping space and your working space. If this isn’t possible, try sitting on the opposite side of the bed from which you sleep, to help maintain the association between sleep and your preferred sleeping side of the bed.
You can also create psychological boundaries between work, home, and sleep. Try organizing your work day around consistent activities. For example, you could start the work day with a home work-out or a short walk around the block to create a “commute” (while getting in some natural light!). Likewise, you could end your workday with a short meditation, or take another short “commute” walk. If you have tunable lighting in your home, you can program specific lighting “scenes” to help create perceptual cues for when it’s work-time versus home-time. Use bright light for focus as your “work scene,” with warmer and dimmer light for your evening-time “home scene”.
Finally, silencing work calls and avoiding work email during home hours can help maintain a healthy separation and also reduce work-related stress in the evenings.
Create A Healthier Sleep Environment
Beyond limiting your exposure to blue light at night, there are several other elements that play a role in creating a healthier sleep environment. Installing blackout shades can help prevent light pollution, and setting a cool temperature can help you fall asleep faster and stay asleep through the night. You should also pay attention to the air quality in your bedroom. Dry air can irritate your sinuses and respiratory tract, and can also worsen symptoms of allergies, coughs, or snoring, making it difficult for you or people around you to sleep at night. A small humidifier can offer some respite, while an air purifier with HEPA filters will help remove particles and pathogens that can irritate your airways and lead to allergies or illness.
While we hope that the above guidelines are helpful as you navigate pandemic times, we don’t mean for them to be a source of additional stress! Trust that you are doing the best that you can, and revisit this list whenever you seek inspiration to re-organize your space or your routine to promote healthier sleep.
To learn more about the science on how sleep impacts your immune response, as well as strategies you can implement in your home and daily routine to support quality sleep, read our article: Sleep to Protect Immune Health & Performance.
Edited by Radhika Singh