Even as the world begins to emerge from the grips of the novel coronavirus, it’s clear that we’re far from overcoming the stress-related insomnia (“coronasomnia”) it caused and returning to our pre-pandemic sleep routines. Fortunately, the field of chronobiology — the study of biological rhythms — can provide solutions to get us back on track.
Biological rhythms exist in all living organisms and can be divided into three main types based on how long they last: circadian rhythms (characterized by a 24-hour cycle); ultradian rhythms, like the heartbeat (with a duration of less than 24 hours); and infradian rhythms, such as the menstrual cycle (with a duration longer than 24 hours). Of these biological rhythms, the circadian rhythm is the most widely studied by sleep researchers.
Scientists have learned that our circadian rhythm is driven by a molecular clock within small populations of cells in the brain. In addition to governing our sleep-wake cycles, growing evidence suggests that these molecular clocks also exercise control over cardiac rhythms, metabolism, and endocrine and immunological functions. Researchers have also linked a misalignment between our internal clocks and our environment — all too common in modern society, especially during a global pandemic — with several prevalent diseases, such as cancer, psychiatric disorders, and metabolic homeostatic changes that underlie eating disorders and weight gain.
Surprisingly, a recent survey found that over half of Americans (56%) are reporting more sleep disturbances than they did at the start of the pandemic. And while we still don’t fully understand why our sleep quality appears to be worsening, not improving, as the COVID-19 pandemic wanes, those who are struggling to get a good night’s rest should find relief by making small changes — all of which are backed by the latest findings from the Society for Research on Biological Rhythms:
1) Control your exposure to daylight. Because the daily light-dark cycle acts on the brain’s circadian clock, carefully regulating when you’re exposed to light will help you stay alert during the day and sleep better at night. Bright morning light shifts the time for earlier sleep, so if you wake up too early, keep the lights very dim until the time you want to wake up. And if you wake up later than you’d prefer, go to a brightly lit area inside or outside your home when you do get up. Sleep hygiene is also very important — so don’t take electronic devices into your bedroom or use computers at night.
2) Schedule eating times. The effects that meal timing and intermittent fasting have on sleep duration and quality are still being explored, but there’s good evidence that if you consume regularly timed meals, your body will anticipate your coming meal and secrete hormones to help you metabolize the nutrients. Other studies indicate that restricting your meal times to a 10- to 12-hour window is optimal for metabolism and body weight regulation. So if you eat an early breakfast at 8 a.m., try not to eat anything after 6-8 p.m. Finally, research suggests that eating bigger meals earlier in the day optimizes health benefits, making it easier to control your weight and get better sleep.
3) Plan for peak performance. Attempting to complete high-attention tasks during periods when you’re not at your most alert is often counterproductive and could even worsen stress-related insomnia. Predictable rhythms in performance have been seen in reaction time, ability to accurately estimate time, memory, verbal skills, arithmetic calculations, and simulated driving tasks. Since our capacity to pay attention tends to be highest in mid-morning, try to plan difficult meetings, exams, or classes during this time and leave your schedule open in the very early morning and the early afternoon (attention bounces back again in the evening). There are, however, differences among individuals, so you may want to take this online test to discover your chronotype.
4) Know when to take your medications. The time of day that a drug is taken can have major effects on its efficacy and side effects, which have the potential to impact sleep. Short-acting cholesterol-lowering medicines called statins, for example, should be ingested before bedtime, while drugs that treat acid reflux should be taken much earlier — often before breakfast. If you’re on medications, talk to your healthcare provider about the optimal time to take each one.
In summary, if you find yourself dreading bedtime, don’t fret. Acting on these tips can help establish new routines that will facilitate more restful sleep.
María de la Paz Fernández and Rae Silver are faculty members in the Department of Neuroscience and Behavior at Barnard College.