After all we’ve been through the past couple of years, you’d think we’d be exhausted. Sleep struggles have significantly worsened during the pandemic, however, a phenomenon some medical experts refer to as “coronasomnia.”
If you’re among the 60% of people who, since the start of the pandemic, have found that Mr. Sandman plays hard to get, you might wonder if you should try one of the over-the-counter melatonin supplements advertised as sleep aids. Melatonin comes in a range of doses and forms, from capsules and gummies to transdermal patches.
Melatonin supplements boost the body’s store of melatonin, a hormone that helps regulate the body’s circadian rhythm, or internal clock, and sleep. “As we get into evening and night when it gets dark, our natural melatonin increases and that helps us to fall asleep. During daytime, melatonin declines and that helps us to stay awake,” explains Safana Mushtaq, M.D., a primary care physician at St. Joseph Family Medicine and Specialty Services in Milford.
Research indicates that melatonin supplements can provide relief from certain sleep-related conditions. It is especially likely to help people who are wired as night owls to fall asleep earlier, for example, and there is evidence that it can alleviate jet-lag symptoms.
But because melatonin is considered a dietary supplement, it is not closely regulated by the FDA, which makes it difficult for the average consumer to be confident of the effectiveness and contents of melatonin supplements, including the concentration in melatonin products, Mushtaq says.
Some individuals should avoid taking melatonin, such as pregnant and breastfeeding women and people with depression. Otherwise, melatonin supplements are generally considered safe for short-term use, although they can interact with medications and can cause side effects such as nausea, irritability, dizziness, anxiety, depression, nightmares or vivid dreams and daytime sleepiness to the extent that driving or operating a machine can be difficult or dangerous, Mushtaq says.
Many doctors stress that melatonin should not be considered a silver bullet that will eliminate sleep struggles. If you experience insomnia or other sleep difficulties, talk to your doctor so that your sleep quality and lifestyle habits can be evaluated as an initial step that helps pinpoint the root cause of the problem. Some people, for example, might learn that a medication they take interferes with sleep, or that they have a disorder such as sleep apnea or restless leg syndrome, which typically call for their own form of treatment.
Additionally, while the stress and uncertainty of the pandemic have undoubtedly contributed to the surge in sleep woes, an increase in electronic screen time is also often to blame. Light exposure is a huge enemy of quality sleep, and one of the top culprits of sleep troubles in an age when most people gaze at a screen of one sort or another throughout the day and into the evening. Because fading daylight triggers the release of naturally occurring melatonin, light exposure from a laptop, phone, TV or similar device stifles melatonin secretion toward the end of the day and leaves us feeling awake and unprepared for sleep.
“We need to set ourselves up to transition to sleep,” says Mark J. Integlia, M.D., a pediatric gastroenterologist and medical pediatric specialty director at Elliot Health System. Activities within two hours of bedtime should help us “wind down,” he says. Caffeine intake should be limited and should cease by 4 p.m. — preferably by mid-morning because caffeine remains in the bloodstream for hours. “We are a way overcaffeinated society,” Integlia says. “Going to Starbucks at 3, 4 or 5 o’clock in the afternoon is not setting yourself up for sleep.” Alcohol should also be restricted and not consumed, many experts say, beyond dinnertime, or at least within three to four hours of bedtime.
Healthful eating and exercise also promote quality rest. “Exercise is wonderful to help us get to a place where our bodies are going to be looking for that rest and looking for that sleep,” Integlia says.
Given the general disrespect for sleep that pervades society these days, getting quality rest isn’t easy. “There is a war on sleep,” Integlia says. “Most people do not value sleep. You hear comments like, ‘You can sleep when you die.’ But sleep is critical not only for our body but also our mind.”
Spiff up your sleep hygiene
Sleep is essential to health. To promote restorative sleep, stick to lifestyle habits that support what’s known as “sleep hygiene.”
Examples of sleep hygiene include avoiding TV, cell phones, tablets and similar electronic devices for at least two hours prior to bedtime; limiting caffeine intake to morning hours; and not drinking alcohol after dinner. Bedroom temperature should be kept at around 60 to 67 degrees, and if you are in the habit of taking naps, you should restrict them to 20 minutes or less in a location that is different from the bed you sleep in at night.
To further support quality sleep, eat healthful foods, get the recommended amount of exercise, and maintain a similar sleep schedule day to day —
For more sleep-hygiene tips, visit the National Sleep Foundation at sleepfoundation.org.