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'Coronasomnia,' Pandemic-Induced Insomnia, Is Not Just An Anecdotal Phenomenon

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

How have you been sleeping? My wife and I have been fine, except when we wake up at 3 a.m. worried about a pandemic, hurricanes, wildfires and the future of democracy. That's all. Call it coronasomia (ph), or insomnia caused by the relentlessness of the pandemic.

Jennifer Martin is a member of the board of directors of the American Academy of Sleep Medicine and joins us now from Los Angeles. Good morning - hope you had a good night's sleep.

JENNIFER MARTIN: I did. Thanks for having me today.

SIMON: So what's the secret? I mean this - there is a link between the pandemic and insomnia. And it's not just a bunch of anecdotes, is it?

MARTIN: It is not. A lot of folks who slept perfectly well in their pre-pandemic lives are struggling now. We think there's two big reasons for this. One is that for a lot of folks, their normal habits and routines around sleep are quite different these days.

SIMON: Yeah.

MARTIN: For a number of folks who, you know, maybe used to get up and go into an office every day, teleworking might be a permanent situation now. And adjusting to these new habits and routines, it takes some time. We also know that there's been, as you alluded to in your opening, a lot of stress in a lot of people's lives - you know, financial considerations. A lot of people were directly impacted by COVID, either because they themselves got sick or because their loved ones did. And those factors related to stress also can be very disruptive to our sleep.

SIMON: Yeah. And we should remind ourselves that lack of sleep isn't just aggravating.

MARTIN: Good point - we know that people who don't sleep well or don't sleep enough have higher risk for cardiovascular diseases, metabolic issues, like Type 2 diabetes. They're at higher risk for accidents and injuries. They tend to have a harder time even just getting along with their families and functioning in their daily lives.

SIMON: And have you found any kind of link between COVID and sleep disorders?

MARTIN: We've seen a few trends that are quite concerning in this area. One is the number of people taking prescription sleeping pills has gone up during the COVID pandemic. Purchasing over the counter and supplements to try to help folks sleep has gone up pretty dramatically. And then there's the impact of COVID itself on sleep. Poor sleep quality and insomnia is one of the consequences for people recovering from COVID as well.

SIMON: I have to ask, are over-the-counter sleep prescriptions safe?

MARTIN: The first-line treatment for chronic sleep problems is a treatment called cognitive behavioral therapy for insomnia. We usually think about sleeping pills as the second tool in our in our toolbox, not the first one. So if people go through a course of that and they're still struggling, sometimes we might add a sleeping pill to help with that.

SIMON: When I struggle, (laughter) I run plays in my mind by the old Chicago Bears running back Walter Payton.

MARTIN: That is an outstanding strategy. Probably the worse thing to do is to lie in bed and think about how horrible it is to be awake.

SIMON: Yeah.

MARTIN: One of the things that we often recommend is that people do something else. And if they're able to just, you know, quietly lie in bed and start thinking about their favorite sports teams or a theater performance that they saw a couple of years ago or a family vacation and get their mind off it, sleep comes back a lot more quickly. Sometimes we actually recommend that people just give up and get out of bed for a while...

SIMON: Yeah.

MARTIN: ...If they can't get their mind off not sleeping and then go back to bed a little later when they're feeling tired again.

SIMON: Yeah. Forgive me for getting this mundane, but what about the old, you know, cup of hot milk? I know, for example, that an extra glass of alcohol is not a good idea.

MARTIN: Correct. So one of the best ways to get a good night's sleep is to put your day to rest. And if that involves a cup of hot milk, sounds like a great option to me.

SIMON: Yeah.

MARTIN: But one of the things that I think has happened during the pandemic as folks have blurred the lines between their work lives and their personal lives, is that oftentimes were doing work; we're reading the news media. Sorry to say, maybe, you know, turning off the NPR app at some point before you go to bed...

(LAUGHTER)

MARTIN: ...Might be a good way to wind down (laughter).

SIMON: No, I - we don't take it personally. We understand. So we'll just say thank you.

Jennifer Martin, who teaches medicine at UCLA and is a member of the board of directors of the American Academy of Sleep Medicine. Pleasant dreams to all.

MARTIN: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.