Sleeping Tight During Quarantine

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Issue 15, Volume 110


We are living in truly trying times: the government doesn’t want you to see the light of day, education has gone digital, toilet paper is nowhere to be found, and you’re not getting enough sleep. Due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, our daily lives have been disrupted greatly. This is mostly due to the government-mandated quarantine, which has hampered the activity of city dwellers across the nation. Our daily lives aren’t the only things that have been disrupted, though; quarantine can have a negative effect on our sleep patterns, as you may have already noticed. The sudden shift to staying at home almost all the time has detrimental effects on one of the most important biological process that occurs daily: sleep.

Staying home for extended periods of time is the root of the problem. Extended isolation is accompanied by anxiety, work and family stress, long hours in front of devices, and changes in how we spend our free time as a whole. Without daily life and interactions to occupy us, our attention goes toward hobbies, entertainment, work, watching stock prices make funny zig-zag shapes, and crying about the future of the economy. Together, these side effects of quarantine disrupt our regular sleep cycles, which are dictated by biological and behavioral processes.

The most likely suspect for bizarre sleep schedules under quarantine is light exposure. Insufficient natural light exposure and extended screen exposure both result in the misregulation of the circadian system, which is the component of our bodies responsible for patterns in daily occurrences such as eating, releasing hormones, and sleeping. It’s primarily controlled by the body’s master clock, the suprachiasmatic nuclei (SCN). This structure is the centerpiece of a series of pathways within the brain that communicates with the body and synchronizes its functions. The SCN receives direct cues from the environment that influence its timing, the most important of which is photic information, or light cues, taken via the retina of the eye.

Light exposure primarily suppresses the secretion of melatonin, the main regulating hormone of sleep-wake cycles, and can cause circadian phase shifts. Phase shifts are changes in the timing of the circadian system—you may have experienced them if you’ve ever flown between time zones. Normally we call this jet lag, but in reality, it’s desynchronization caused by the observance of environmental cues in a new time zone, such as light levels and meal times. Natural light exposure also has a number of significant effects on the sleep-wake cycle maintained by the circadian system and natural sleep pressure. Under quarantine, most individuals experience significantly decreased light exposure because they don’t leave their homes. Daytime light exposure has a noticeable effect on advancing circadian phases, and as a result, sleep timing. The greater amount of time spent outside, the more sleep timing advances, prompting earlier fatigue onset. A brief questionnaire by chronobiologist Till Roenneberg and his colleagues found that every additional hour outside in high-intensity natural light advanced sleep timing by approximately 30 minutes. Light exposure has also been shown to increase sleep duration, which is likely a result of advanced sleep timing. Evening fatigue and quality of sleep are also increased by daytime light exposure.

Natural light is not the only type of light that can influence our bodies’ biological clocks, though. Two major consequences of the citywide quarantine are the shift to working from home and more free time in our daily lives. A result of both is increased exposure to artificial light. Exposure to artificial light later in the day, when the body is most sensitive to light-induced phase delays, results in delays in sleep timing. Usually, the worst culprit for this is smartphones, which alone can delay sleep timing, decrease sleep duration, increase sleep onset latency (the time we take to shift from wakefulness to sleep), and decrease sleep quality when used before going to bed. How much of this is caused solely by light exposure is debatable, as more time spent on smartphones also induces higher levels of psychological engagement and entertainment, but the end result is the same.

The second factor of quarantine that affects our sleep schedules is the disruption of regular daily schedules. Normally, as students, our days and weeks are dictated by school hours. Waking up, going to school, getting home, and eating meals all occur at roughly the same times five days a week. Photic (light) cues, while significant, are not the only environmental cues that influence the circadian system. Daily routines and behaviors, which have been disrupted by the quarantine, have their own role in synchronizing circadian rhythms. To a degree, we maintain order through online schooling, but remaining free at home without regularity in our routines can negatively impact sleep-wake cycles.

Regular behavioral rhythms are shown to have beneficial effects on sleep timing, quality, and duration, just as light exposure does. A study by psychologist Natalie Dautovich and colleagues regarding the effects of age differences and variability of individual daily activities on sleep found that variability in the timing of daily activities across days is associated with adverse effects on sleep. Results of the study showed that increased variability in daily activities such as work and dinner showed correlations with increased sleep onset latency and decreased sleep duration in younger individuals. In essence, the reduced regularity of daily life under quarantine is partly responsible for disrupted sleep schedules.

The most common problem gleaned through fellow students’ testimonies is delayed sleep timing, which itself influences sleep duration and quality. As the circadian system synchronizes regular bodily functions, the disruption of sleep is frequently accompanied by other problems, such as mistimings in mealtimes and metabolism. Delayed sleep and increased sleep duration can also lead to sleep deprivation, which comes with its own entourage of health problems. Acute sleep deprivation results in drowsiness, loss of concentration and memory retention, reduced physical ability, and a weakened immune system. Extended deprivation, which may occur during this long stretch of quarantine, can affect mental and physical health in more adverse ways. The proper maintenance of a sleep schedule is essential in guaranteeing physical and mental health as well as general wellbeing, which are incredibly important during these difficult times.

Now the question is, how does one go about maintaining their sleep health in quarantine? The easiest things to do are avoid specific behaviors: watch caffeine intake, stop napping, and put down phones before sleeping. Caffeine is a common stimulant that increases adrenaline production and inhibits receptors for adenosine, an inhibitory neurotransmitter in the brain that accumulates throughout the day and decreases wakefulness, reducing drowsiness. As a result, caffeine intake disrupts the natural sleep-wake cycle that the body undergoes on a daily basis. Napping may also disrupt nighttime sleep in some cases, but these effects can be mitigated if naps are less than half an hour long and take place in the early afternoon. The use of electronic devices and high-intensity lights can also cause circadian phase shifts and negatively affect nighttime sleep timing, duration, and quality. Smartphones are the most significant culprits here due to their size and portability; even after the lights are out and other devices are off, smartphones usually stay on in bedrooms.

Establishing and sticking to a daily routine may be the best way of normalizing your sleep schedule for good. Regularly timed daily activities help regulate the circadian system, as has been proven in several sleep studies. The daily activities that are easiest to manage are waking up, eating, and going to bed. Add in time outside as well as daily exercise, and you should be well on your way to a good night’s sleep. If going outside isn’t an option, even opening shades and looking out the window for a few minutes in the morning can help regulate circadian rhythms. A helpful practice that I partake in is setting a time before bed to wind down without any electronics or excessive stimulation. This can be helpful for relaxing the brain and allowing sleep onset to occur. Taking this time to de-stress can also prevent agitation that increases sleep onset latency. I also try to avoid social interactions late at night, unless I feel like staying up until 5:00 a.m. on a weekday.

Now, take this knowledge, and may you sleep most tightly, dream most sweetly, and rest most regularly. Make the effort to improve the time you spend sleeping––it’s the most relaxed part of the day during this ongoing chaos.