We’re all well aware of the many changes that COVID-19 had on our lives. Perhaps unsurprisingly, this included our sleeping habits.
SleepScore Labs, in collaboration with Sleep.com, produced an in-depth report that includes sleep data from 134,885 U.S. adults across 3,501,167 nights, along with an additional survey of 2,855 adults, all aimed at exploring and comparing sleep habits of pre-pandemic (January-March 2020) and pandemic (March 2020-present) time periods.
You can check out the entire report here to uncover the entire story of how our sleep changed over the last two years.
One unique finding unearthed by the analysis had to do with our shift in prioritizing valuable sleep hygiene practices during the pandemic compared to pre-COVID. Let’s dive in.
First, what is sleep hygiene?
Sleep hygiene consists of recommendations that influence your sleep environment and habits for healthy sleep. According to an article published in Sleep Medicine Reviews, sleep scientists created sleep hygiene to treat insomnia symptoms, but anyone looking to up their sleep game can follow best practices for sleep hygiene.
These habits typically include things like limiting caffeine intake, getting quality exercise, keeping a consistent bed and wake time throughout the week, and creating an ideal sleep sanctuary in your home.
What did the Sleep Uncovered report reveal about our sleep hygiene habits?
1. We engaged in activities that relieve stress more often.
The Sleep Uncovered report found that 22% of respondents engaged in mindfulness activities ‘always’ or ‘often’ during the pandemic, compared to just 13% before the pandemic. Given the pandemic resulting high stress and times of uncertainty, it’s no surprise Americans looked to new ways to cope with the times.
Stress may put the body in fight-or-flight mode, affecting our ability to relax during bedtime, fall asleep, and get restorative and undisturbed sleep.
On the flip side, insufficient sleep may exacerbate stress levels and create a vicious cycle of poor sleep and increased stress levels.
Adopting relaxation techniques such as deep breathing, mindfulness practices, aromatherapy, and listening to white noise or calm music may help you lower your stress levels and wind down in preparation for refreshing sleep.
For instance, research suggests that mindfulness, an activity that involves paying non-judgmental attention to the present moment, may improve sleep and alleviate sleep problems. Examples of mindfulness and related relaxation practices that can help improve sleep include meditation, yoga, gratitude journaling, and deep breathing exercises.
2. We’re increasing our use of sleep improvement apps.
Sleep apps are one of the easily accessible and cost-effective potential aids for promoting a person’s sleep health. 20.64% of people used sleep apps to help them get a good night’s rest, showing a 7.5% increase from before the pre-pandemic times.
These sleep apps may help monitor and analyze your personal sleep patterns, set an alarm to wake you up at a time when you’ll feel refreshed, play sounds to help you fall asleep, and measure other relevant sleep health data.
For example, a 2021 study observed that using Calm, an app known for helping with relaxation and winding down, for more than 10 minutes for eight weeks may lower daytime fatigue and sleepiness and help a person wind down before sleep in people with sleep problems.
3. Our caffeine and alcohol intake remained on par with the pre-COVID era.
The report found that our caffeine and alcohol intake remained relatively unchanged from pre-pandemic to present times. Perhaps these habits are more deeply ingrained in our daily lives than others, but it’s worth noting that these two lifestyle choices can significantly impact our sleep.
The World Sleep Society has ten commandments of sleep hygiene for adults that highlight recommendations for improving sleep quality. “Avoid excessive alcohol ingestion 4 hours before bedtime” is at number 3, and “Avoid caffeine 6 hours before bedtime” at 4. The CDC also recommends avoiding alcohol before bedtime and caffeine at least 5 hours before going to bed.
Alcohol and caffeine have been extensively studied in sleep science and have been shown to impair sleep quality, depending on quantity and timing of use.
Caffeine is a stimulant that increases alertness and reduces fatigue, and its effects can last for many hours. Similarly, the effects of alcohol last longer than you might think and can significantly impair sleep. Even though alcohol can induce a sleepy feeling at first, those sedative effects fade away and sleep becomes fragmented and disturbed later in the night.
4. We’re taking more proactive steps to improve the bedroom environment for sleep.
In the report, 46% of respondents said they practiced optimizing their bedroom environment ‘always’ or ‘often’, during the pandemic, compared to just 39% pre-pandemic.
Your sleep environment is one of the most significant factors determining how much quality sleep you get.
According to experts, the ideal sleep environment is dark, quiet, and cool, and you can set up your space accordingly.
Here are some tips:
- Make your bedroom as dark as possible while sleeping. If you can’t block all the light, try wearing a comfortable sleep mask.
- Silence or shut off devices that may cause noise in the room. If you live in a loud area, consider using a sound machine or app to mask the noise.
- Keep your room temperature 60 to 68 degrees Fahrenheit while you sleep.
- Invest in a quality and comfortable mattress and bedding.
- Limit the use of screens before bedtime.
5. We had a similarly hard time keeping a consistent sleep schedule during the pandemic, much like pre-pandemic times.
Our survey found that fewer people had success implementing a consistent sleep-wake schedule during the pandemic. This is another critical sleep hygiene practice that can yield amazing returns if followed regularly.
When you go to bed at the same time of the night and wake up at the same time every morning, you support your body’s circadian rhythm. The circadian rhythm is the body’s internal clock regulating the sleep-wake cycle and physiological and behavioral processes like body temperature, mood, hormone production, and eating patterns.
When a person’s circadian rhythm is out of sync, it may contribute to sleep problems, metabolic diseases, and mental health disorders.
Consider setting up your routine in a way that allows you to go to bed and wake up at the same time, every night and day, weekends included.
6. Our exercise levels actually declined during COVID.
Exercise is good for your physical, mental, emotional, and sleep health, yet the challenge remains to get those quality active minutes each day. In fact, according to our report, our exercise levels actually declined during the pandemic, with 23% of respondents saying they never exercised during COVID, compared to 16% who said this prior to the pandemic.
Research suggests that moderate-intensity exercises may help improve sleep duration and quality and support positive sleep-related outcomes. Sadly, according to the World Health Organization (WHO), one in four people follow a sedentary lifestyle.
Sleep hygiene practices remain the first line of defense when it comes to battling sleep woes. While they can be hard to implement initially, as is the case for most behavior changes, know that the rewards to your sleep can be significant.