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More Sleep During Pandemic Doesn’t Mean Better Rest, New Studies Show

covid-19 sleep illustration

Bailey Mariner / Verywell

Key Takeaways

  • Although Americans may be getting more sleep in general, sleep quality doesn't seem to be improving.
  • According to recent research, this balance of more sleep but less quality appears to be a global issue.
  • Focusing on non-sleep strategies like exercise and getting fresh air can help benefit your sleep overall.

Without commutes, regular school schedules, and pre-pandemic socialization levels, Americans seem to be catching up on sleep, a recent study in Current Biology found. But don't think of this as a COVID-19 silver lining quite yet. Unfortunately, some research suggests sleep quality may not come along with adding duration to your sleep sessions.

Researchers at the University of Colorado compared sleep prior to and during stay-at-home orders for 139 university students and found they slept longer by about half an hour nightly. Also, the timing of sleep became more regular, thanks in large part to less "social jetlag," which means varying a sleep schedule based on evening activities.

Insufficient sleep duration, irregular sleep timing, and social jetlag are common in the U.S., and have been linked to major health risks like obesity, heart disease, and mood disorders, as well as impaired immune health, according to the study's lead author, Kenneth Wright, PhD, of the University of Colorado, Boulder's Sleep and Chronobiology Laboratory.

However, better sleep behaviors is just the first step, since sleep quality can have a major impact as well.

Longer Duration, Still Tired

A survey done by The Better Sleep Council in March compared findings to their annual sleep study done in January of this year. Obviously, a great deal occurred within that 3-month timeframe, which prompted the organization to do the post-COVID questionnaire.

They found that in January, 43 percent of Americans described their sleep as poor or fair, but just a few months later, that increased to 52 percent. That shift was reflected in a question about waking up refreshed as well. In January, 30 percent said they regularly felt well-rested on waking, but in March, that had dropped to 24 percent.

The Better Sleep Council found that in January, 43 percent of Americans described their sleep as poor or fair, but just a few months later, that increased to 52 percent. That shift was reflected in a question about waking up refreshed as well. In January, 30 percent said they regularly felt well-rested on waking, but in March, that had dropped to 24 percent.

Americans seem to be trying to connect with others about the problem as well. In the survey, negative posts on social media related to sleep jumped from 45 percent of all sleep-related posts to 73 percent compared to March 2019.

Researchers suggested this is likely happening due to higher stress levels, which were also up by 12 percent since January, and survey respondents noted they were feeling anxious about their health, the economy, and their personal finances.

Worldwide Issue

With a global pandemic, it's not surprising there would be similar struggles around the world, and sleeping does seem to be one of them.

Another recent study published in Current Biology recruited 435 participants in Austria, Germany, and Switzerland and recorded their sleep duration and perceptions of sleep quality over a six-week period.

They found that people were sleeping for more time—nearly an hour longer than pre-pandemic levels—but that didn't necessarily translate to better quality sleep. Although participants were able to set sleep schedules according to internal biological signals rather than external cues like socializing in the evening, researchers noted they reported more problems falling asleep, they woke more often during the night and had lighter sleep that caused them to be disturbed by noise.

These sleep difficulties led to daytime fatigue, feeling tired upon waking, and overall dissatisfaction with sleep.

Christine Blume, P.h.D.

"This is not unexpected, given that we're in an unprecedented situation which is associated with a considerable increase in self-perceived burdens. In general, too, sleep quality does not equal sleep duration, although duration is an aspect of it.

— Christine Blume, P.h.D.

Improving Sleep Quality

For Americans, and anyone else around the world, the emphasis shouldn't be on sleeping longer as much as it should be on sleeping better, says Blume, the lead author of the global study. Fortunately, there are a number of strategies that can help, and right now, exercise and spending time outdoors top the list, she believes.

"We have all been indoors more for months, and we know from extensive research that being outdoors, and enjoying fresh air, even in an urban environment, can help us reset," says Blume. That doesn't just mean our moods, it's also our circadian rhythms and internal clocks, she adds. When that happens, deeper sleep can often result.

Pairing that with exercise can be particularly potent. The connection between regular exercise and quality sleep is well established. According to a 2011 study published in Mental Health and Physical Activity, those who were active fell asleep faster and felt less daytime sleepiness and fatigue.

What This Means For You

More exercise and better sleep becomes part of a healthy cycle, because with more satisfying, uninterrupted sleep, you're able to reduce levels of cortisol, the hormone most related to the stress response, according to W. Chris Winter, MD, owner of the Charlottesville Neurology and Sleep Medicine clinic and author of The Sleep Solution: Why Your Sleep Is Broken and How to Fix it.

As your cortisol levels lower in the evening, melatonin—a natural hormone produced by the pineal gland to induce drowsiness—is released to help keep you on a normal sleep-wake cycle. With your stress lowered, you sleep better—which, in turn, reduces your stress levels even more. And during a global pandemic, that can be a boon to emotional and physical health.

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