Can’t Sleep? Here’s How to Beat Your Quarantine Insomnia

Sleep is the latest casualty of the COVID-19 crisis. Get your snoozing back on track with these expert tips to help you fall—and—stay asleep

COVID-19 has changed just about every aspect of our daily lives, from homeschooling children to the security of our jobs—over three million Canadians are currently unemployed due to the crisis—to the ways we interact with the world around us. It only makes sense that the virus was coming for our sleep, too. 

With such unprecedented changes coming on so quickly, anxiety is at an all-time high due to the uncertainty of the duration—and potential permanence—of some of these changes. Even if you’re healthy and gainfully employed, pandemic living isn’t easy.

Anxiety is the enemy of sleep because a racing mind keeps the body from falling asleep. “What I’m seeing with my clients is an increase in insomnia and for a lot of people, insomnia is essentially a form of anxiety,” says Amanda Jewson, a Toronto-based sleep consultant, who has been seeing patients virtually since lockdown began. “Reducing the amount of stress and anxieties that you have in the daytime will help you have better sleep at night.”

In a recent article for the Harvard Gazette, Donn Posner, a Stanford professor and founding member of the Society of Behavioral Sleep Medicine, calls the COVID-19 crisis the “perfect storm of sleep problems.” Increased anxiety aside, he says we can blame a number of other factors that have intensified due to the pandemic for thwarting our plans for a good night sleep. Some of the more obvious ones are an increase in alcohol consumption, a spike in depression, oddly-timed meals, general inactivity and excess screen time, all realities for many during lockdown.

Like all sleep problems, Jewson says the best thing you can do is treat quarantine insomnia quickly before it gets worse and becomes a permanent part of your life. She points out that good sleep, characterized by seven to eight hours a night, leads to healthy brain function, improves health and helps you process feelings and emotions. But not getting your 40 winks can elevate anxiety and anxiety can disrupt sleep, thus creating a vicious cycle. Learn how to break it with these expert tips, minor changes in behaviour and a few helpful sleep aids.

Move your body

With work commutes being cut to 40 steps or under for those of us working from home, clocking in your 10,000 steps a day has never been more challenging. It’s easy to overlook exercise during the pandemic when we’re focused on survival, but staying active has numerous benefits. Exercise releases norepinephrine and serotonin, neurotransmitters which are associated with alertness, explaining why so many early-birds report that an early morning run gives them all-day energy. Endorphins are also known to be released during exercise—especially in heavy, sweat-inducing cardio sessions—which helps ease anxiety. Finally, regular physical activity can give you better quality sleep, which means you fall asleep within 30 minutes, sleep soundly through the night and if woken you can drift back to sleep with 20 minutes. But if you’ve been doing your IG Live workout right before bedtime, you’re doing it wrong. The general rule is to stop exercising two hours before bedtime; even if you feel exhausted after your nightly workout, it doesn’t necessarily mean you’re going to get good quality sleep.

Limit your alcohol consumption before bed

With alcohol sales spiking in every province and territory during the COVID-19 pandemic, it seems Canadians have turned to alcohol to dull anxieties and fear during the global crisis. “We’re consuming more alcohol, and this could be what’s affecting your sleep,” says Angela Ysseldyk, a natural health expert and national director of education and training at Jamieson Wellness. Sure, a glass of wine or dirty martini before bed might help you fall asleep but you’re not going to get quality sleep. 

Drinking alcohol before bed interferes with the body’s ability to regulate sleep and blocks REM sleep, which stands for rapid eye movement sleep. REM is the deepest sleep stage (there are five stages in total) and this is where a variety of important functions take place such as physical recovery, immune system repair and even emotional processing. Your first REM cycle of the night begins about 90 minutes after you fall asleep and recurs every 90 minutes. Less REM sleep means you’ll wake up feeling groggy and unfocused. “I’m not saying you can’t have that glass of wine, but excess amounts of wine too close to bed will lead to really poor sleep. Plus, it’s a diuretic so you’ll likely have to wake up to use the washroom,” says Ysseldyk. She recommends cutting yourself off a minimum of a few hours before bed.  

Rebuild routines

Since the coronavirus has completely blown up our regular routines, one of the pandemic perks has been the collective silencing of most of our alarm clocks. Right? Think again, says Ysseldyk. “Getting back to a regular wake up and bedtime schedule is so important to increasing our sleep quality,” she says. She recommends sticking to a schedule that’s similar to pre-pandemic days. This won’t only help our sleep habits, but starting the day with structure can set the tone for a productive day.

Don’t trust naps

If you are one of the millions of Canadians who have lost their jobs and you’ve watched pretty much everything on Netflix and Amazon Prime, it’s difficult to resist the siren call of a nap. Jewson says 15- t0 30-minute power naps can actually be useful but advises to avoid longer naps or ones later in the day. “From the moment you wake up, your body is accumulating the pressure to want to fall asleep,” says Jewson. “Think of sleep pressure as a balloon, as soon as you fall asleep, air begins to be released from the balloon.” The longer the nap, the more “air” is let out which can hinder your sleep. 

Consider supplements 

Along with CBD, adaptogens sit high up on the list of this year’s wellness buzzwords. Especially when it comes to sleep. What are adaptogens? At the most basic level, adaptogens can be categorized as stress managers. “These are roots and herbs that have been used for centuries to help the body resist stressors of all kinds,” says Ysseldyk. She takes Smart Solutions Adrenasmart ($43.99) which has a blend of the adaptogenic herbs ashwagandha and rhodiola which help the adrenal glands adapt to stress. “It’s basically like taking a chill pill.” Stress and adrenal fatigue can really mess with your cortisol levels, which are secreted by the adrenal glands. Most of us know cortisol as the “stress hormone” or the one that causes acne breakouts, but it also plays an important role in in our circadian rhythm, the natural internal process that regulates the sleep-wake cycle. If our adrenal glands are secreting too much cortisol, you can pretty much kiss a good night’s rest goodbye.

Another option is Organika Mood Organic Ashwagandha Powder ($22.99), says Rhiannon Lytle, a holistic nutritionist. “Ashwagandha helps bring the body back to a natural place of balance and reduce those cortisol levels.” 

As for THC and CBD, there’s more evidence for CBD’s ability to ease your anxiety than to help you fall asleep, though helping you relax naturally leads to better sleep. Dosist, the Apple of cannabis brands, is known for targeted formulas including one appropriately called the Rest ($59.95) that‘s a mix of THC and CBD which promotes sleep. This disposable vape pen (available in 50 and 200 doses) heats cannabis extract to the point that it vaporizes, releasing burning plant material (smoke) into your lungs. Each “hit” gives you clinically accurate dosing, thus the name Dosist. But, because COVID-19 is a respiratory virus, you might want to consider ingesting your CBD instead. Calyx Calm ($55) is a peppermint menthol flavour CBD spray that you can spritz under your tongue before bed, putting you into a calm state while promoting better sleeping patterns.

Power down 

Our iPhone weekly screen time reports are through the roof, but can you blame us? Our screens are our lifeline to the world and the tools that allow us to work, shop and stay connected with our community. But all that blue wavelength light emitted from our computers, laptops and phone screens is a powerful stimulant. Scientific studies from the University of Toronto and Harvard have shown that it can also suppress melatonin production and alter our circadian rhythms which, you guessed it, disrupt sleep.  

There are a few things you can do to curb your blue light exposure in the evening. The first is an obvious one: Jewson says to limit your screen time and avoid looking at any devices an hour before bed. Next, try wearing a pair of blue-light blocking glasses that have specially crafted lenses that filter out the blue light given off from digital screens. 

Create a sleep sanctuary 

The more inviting and relaxing your bedroom is, the more it becomes associated with restfulness and calmness. To make your bedroom an ultra-functional picture of bliss, check out these expert-approved tips and bedrooms upgrade. 

1. Make your surroundings as dark as possible

Saje Wellness Shut Eye Mask, $12,

“Blackout linens are really important, especially in the springtime,” says Jewson. But she warns that blue light from our electronics can creep up on us. “These things are our phone chargers, modifiers and sound machines.” A more effective (and cheaper) way to block out the light is with a face mask. This one from Saje Wellness is super soft and stuffed with a calming lavender herbal blend.

2. Invest in a quality pillow 

The Endy Pillow, $80,

“You want to make sure that you are sleeping on the good stuff. A good quality mattress, comfortable sheets and a pillow that supports the way you sleep,” says Jewson. She’s a fan of Endy’s customizable pillows. You can make the pillow firmer or fluffier depending on your preference. Plus, it’s washable. 

3. Keep your room cool

Dyson Cool Tower Fan, $450,

“Your body wants a low temperature at night but if your room is too hot because of the weather or you have too many blankets, you’ll continue to wake,” says Jewson. She says the sweet spot is anywhere between 17 and 21 degrees Celsius. If you don’t have AC, consider setting up a fan in your bedroom, especially over the summer months. 

4. Try a weighted blanket

Weighted Blanket for Sleep and Anxiety (Standard), $239,

You’ve probably heard of weighted blankets before, but what do they do? Commonly found in 10-, 15- and 20-lb varieties, they put pressure on the body which can help slow down a heart that’s beating too fast. A lowered heart rate can lead to feelings of calm and relaxation. “Studies have shown it increases oxytocin levels, you know, the feel-good hormone, and it can also help you sleep better.” Jewson says a weighted blanket may be too hot for the bedroom in the summer months, but it’s a great tool for people with anxiety to add to their pre-bedtime routine. “Wear it on the couch while you’re reading or watching Netflix.”

5. Spritz this on your pillow at bedtime

This Works Deep Sleep Pillow Spray, $34,

Aromatherapy is the practice of breathing in certain scents believed to impact mood. And lavender has been shown to relax the brain and body. The This Works Deep Sleep line of aromatherapeutic products contains calming scents, like lavender and chamomile, that help you unwind before bed. This pillow spray is a cult favourite from the brand.