Across the country, Americans are sheltering in place, working from home, and reshaping their daily routines in general. It’s an understatement to say that the coronavirus outbreak has changed the world. With so much uncertainty, it’s easy to eat chips for dinner, use Netflix to escape reality, and stay up late and sleep in.
But sleep, as always, is important in maintaining your overall health. “Sleep and immunity are incredibly attached, so when you look at… your body’s ability to fight infections, [it] tends to go along with sleep,” says Dr. W. Christopher Winter, a fellow of the American Academy of Sleep Medicine and president of Charlottesville Neurology and Sleep Medicine.
Yet in times of stress, “sleep is often the first thing that goes,” says Dr. Philip Gehrman, an associate professor of clinical psychology in psychiatry at the Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania. Sometimes we don’t even realize that we’re stressed, so “paying attention to our sleep, and especially in times like this, can be an indicator of just how stressed we are,” Gehrman says.
If you’ve noticed that your sleep patterns or stress levels have changed since the coronavirus outbreak, you’re not alone. From carving out a routine to using apps and digital meditation guides, these expert tips will help you get better zzz’s—no counting sheep required.
1. Find a schedule that works for you—and stick to it
It’s tempting to change your routine when you no longer have to commute every morning. You can wake up later, roll out of bed, and still be “at the office” on time. (And if your job is on furlough, it can be even more challenging to keep your schedule consistent.) But sticking to a routine is integral to sleeping well. To maximize sleep quality, it’s best to go to bed and wake up around the same time every day and night, Gehrman says.
Throughout your waking hours, you can also give body helpful cues, like eating your meals around the same time, to indicate to your internal clock where you are within the 24-hour cycle, says Winter. “[It’s beneficial] for your brain to keep a regular schedule, not only in terms of your sleep, but also in terms of immune functioning, digestion, weight gain, blood sugar control; all those things are positively impacted.”
2. Get your heart rate up by exercising daily
Studies show that regular exercise can help you fall asleep more quickly, and improve the overall quality of your nightly snooze. You don’t have to be an olympic sprinter to benefit from exercise, though: “Any exercise is great,” Winter says. Stretching throughout your workday, or using a standing desk, are just a couple of ways to incorporate movement in your day.
Many gyms and fitness centers have temporarily closed due to COVID-19, but even a walk or jog outside has benefits. If the weather is bad, no worries—there are plenty of ways to get a solid workout at home.
However, experts recommend completing vigorous exercise at least one hour before you plan to hit the hay, otherwise the endorphins released during your workout can keep you up. Winter suggests working out in the morning and making it part of your regular routine.
3. Take cues from natural light and let it set the pace
Humans are diurnal—awake during the day—as opposed to nocturnal, and our bodies work on a circadian rhythm that runs in approximately 24-hour cycles. The main environmental factor that influences our circadian rhythm is natural light. As light decreases in the afternoon and evening, the body starts to release melatonin, a hormone that signals it’s time to wind down. Researchers have found that daytime light exposure increases sleep quality at night.
Even if you’re inside from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., you can still benefit from natural light in your workspace. Open the blinds first thing in the morning and consider going for a short walk outdoors after breakfast or during your lunch break (or both!).
4. Don’t let screens interfere with your sleep
Another important step in supporting your circadian rhythm: Dim the indoor lights a few hours before you plan to go to bed—and shut off your screens (yes, all of them). Blue light from phones, tablets, and other electronic devices is harmful to sleep, because it suppresses melatonin production. Experts suggest setting electronics aside two or even three hours before calling it a night. In fact, researchers found that even reading from a tablet or e-reader before bed often makes it take longer to fall asleep, and causes reduced alertness in the morning.
5. Find a relaxing nighttime routine to wind down before calling it quits
Additionally, you’ll benefit from building a nighttime routine that’s relaxing and allows you to wind down before bed, Gehrman says. His advice: Give yourself “at least an hour before your desired bedtime” to de-stress. Especially at times like this, both Gehrman and Winter emphasize, curbing your news intake before bed is key to reducing stress. “There can be such a tendency to want to obsessively check the news and reading for any updates, and that just tends to feed into stress and anxiety,” Gehrman says. It’s also a good idea to disable news notifications from your smartwatch and phone until the morning, he says.
As for what you should do in your hour before bed? “Whatever [you] find relaxing,” Gehrman says. If you’re short on ideas, you could try something like knitting, reading (an actual book), or playing music. Any calming activity before bed can help you sleep better and benefits your whole body, including your immune system, says Gehrman.
6. Try guided meditation from your smart speaker or phone
Meditation is a centuries-old practice that recently gained traction with broader audiences, through widespread tools, like apps. Though researchers are still studying the effects of mindfulness and meditation, one randomized study had promising results for the impact of the practice on people with anxiety disorders.
The best part is, there are numerous ways to integrate mindfulness into your everyday life—without leaving your home (or even your couch, for that matter). Alexa-enabled smart speakers can guide you through meditation, and there are plenty of apps with the same purpose. Just be sure you’re done looking at your screen well before you’re ready to turn in for the night.
7. Keep work out of your bedroom as much as possible
Beds, and bedrooms, should be associated with sleep and virtually nothing else. Winter likes the idea of “creating a bedroom that’s specifically for sleep… [and] creating zones within your house that tell your brain something [else],” he says. The idea is to train your brain to recognize that, “when you’re in the kitchen, it will be time to eat. When you’re in the bedroom, it will be time to sleep,” says Winter. Keeping work (and other sources of stress) out of your bedroom allows your brain to build a positive, restful association with the space.
So instead of replying to emails alongside your pillow the moment you open your eyes, get up, make the bed, and relocate to a designated workspace that you want your brain to associate with working. Creating a home office doesn’t need to cost a fortune, if anything at all, and the effort is well worth it.
8. Optimize your bedroom for sleeping
Simple things like blackout curtains can make a tremendous difference in keeping light out, dampening sounds, and improving the quality of your nightly rest. However, sleep masks work just as well for controlling the light you’re exposed to while sleeping, and they’re affordable. Our favorite sleep mask has an adjustable strap for a comfortable, personalized fit, and is contoured so your eyelashes aren’t squished all night.
Temperature-wise, experts suggest keeping your bedroom on the cooler side, between 65 to 72 degrees Fahrenheit, either by setting the thermostat down at night or even opening the windows, if the weather cooperates.
Ultimately, what’s most important is just being comfortable, so figure out what works for you and stick with it.
9. Take care of nighttime noises that could keep you up
Researchers found that sleeping in quiet spaces increases the amount of time people spend in deep sleep. If your space isn’t quiet, drowning out random sounds with white noise, like from an electric fan, could help.
Maybe you bought Alexa to tell you the weather in the morning, or because you wanted voice-command music. Whatever the case, Alexa can also help you doze off at night with white noise and other soothing sounds.
If you don’t have a smart speaker, a sound machine may be a worthwhile investment. Our favorite, the Sound+Sleep by Adaptive Sound, has 30 sound options to choose from, and in our testing it did a great job of drowning out ambient noise, like conversations.
If nothing else, you can always fall back on a pair of earplugs as a cheap and easy solution for quieting the world around you.
Finally, living in close quarters with multiple people can be challenging. For early risers who don’t want to disturb their housemates with blaring alarm clocks, try the alarm tool built into most smartwatches and fitness trackers, like our favorite, the Fitbit Charge 3. The tracker wakes you up with slight buzzing that’s more pleasant than an alarm, and doesn’t disrupt other people still catching their zzz’s.
10. Upgrade your bedding (without spending a ton)
Sometimes, poor sleep can be attributed to a bad mattress. A good one should support your body in a neutral position. If a mattress is too firm, it can push on pressure points; if it’s too soft, you won’t have enough support as you sleep. But if replacing your entire bed isn’t in the budget, swapping out your pillow or adding a mattress topper might do the trick.
Your preferred body position while you sleep is the best indicator for the type of pillow that will support your head and neck, and keep your spine aligned. Sleep on your back? A lower-loft, thinner pillow is your best bet. On your side? Look for a thicker, supportive pillow that keeps your spine in a horizontal line. Stomach sleepers can use a super-thin pillow, and might not even need one. Our favorite bed pillow is filled with shredded memory foam that can be removed to adapt the pillow’s loft to your personal preference and sleep position.
Mattress toppers are a more affordable option for changing your current sleep situation without getting a whole new mattress. Our top-tested, the Casper Mattress Topper, offers a good balance of give and support. It’s comprised of three layers of latex foams that have pores to let hot air escape, rather than trapping it.
11. Use soothing scents to set a drowsy mood
Researchers have found that people exposed to the fragrance of lavender feel more relaxed. Bringing scents into your home doesn’t have to involve tromping out to the field to cut fresh lavender. Instead, you can try a diffuser. They are relatively inexpensive and can be used with a variety of scents.
Our favorite oil diffuser, the InnoGear Upgraded 150ml Diffuser, can be used for 7 to 9 hours on continuous mode, and up to 11 hours on intermittent mode, so it can run all night. Alternatively, you can turn on the scent every evening as part of your de-stressing routine, signal to your body that it’s time to start winding down, and build an association that way.
Now, what are you doing? Go get some rest!