Understanding our sleep patterns during the COVID-19 pandemic

By Patrick Obel

Since March 2020 when the World Health Organization (WHO) declared COVID - 19 a public health emergency of international concern and the first case was diagnosed in Kenya, life has never been the same again for everyone. The ongoing pandemic has affected people differently depending on the effects, be they economic, social, political and health.

One of the effects of COVID -19 has been sleep disturbance. Sleep is a biological need for life and health, similar to the need for food. Sleep affects your mental and physical performance as well as long-term health. The longer you go without sleep, the more you are prone to slow thinking, confusion, and making mistakes. This could put you and others around you at risk of injuries and death.

The Royal Society for Public Health notes that it is important that we all understand the purpose of sleep. Sleep is responsible in helping with restoring and organizing the brain networks. Laboratory studies have shown that any single cell taken from the body will maintain a stable 24-hour pattern, which is a demonstration that sleep is a force to be harnessed rather than challenged. Sleep is therefore a natural process that plays a significant role in human existence. Whereas we are able to make deliberate choices on other biological drives like hunger and thirst, we don’t have such luxury with sleep because it is involuntary.

There are medical causes that can affect sleep, however there is a significant number of people that may be struggling with sleep as an effect of the pandemic which has made many people anxious because of the unpredictability of the future which includes fear of income losses or real losses, death, contracting the virus and many other such cases. If you find yourself sleeping less than you should, this will lead to an accumulation of lost sleep hours and is likely to result into negative consequences such as cognitive impairment, or even medical conditions of ill health.

The table below shows recommended hours of sleep:

Age Group (Years) Hours of sleep per day
1-2 11-14
3-5 10-13
6-13 9-11
14-17 8-10
18-25 7-9
26-64 7-9
65+ 7-8

Adapted from National Sleep Foundation Recommendations 2015.

According to a study by the Division of Sleep Medicine at Harvard Medical School, sleeping less than five hours per night may increase mortality risk by up to 15 percent.

More effects are seen in the following diagram:

Adopted from Healthline.

Signs that you are not sleeping adequately include:

  • Excessive daytime sleepiness, fatigue or lack of energy that may result in the urge to nap or interfere with daily activities;
  • Waking up feeling fatigued or unrested;
  • Irritability when engaging in interpersonal interactions;
  • Taking over 30 minutes to fall asleep or difficulty falling asleep in general;
  • Frequent waking during the night or trouble staying asleep;
  • Waking up too early and not being able to get back to sleep;
  • Sleeping too much or too long which may indicate the quality of sleep you’re getting isn’t optimal.

    If sleep deprivation continues long enough, you could start having hallucinations — seeing or hearing things that aren’t really there. A lack of sleep can also trigger mania in people who have bipolar disorder. Other psychological risks include: impulsive behavior, anxiety, depression, suicidal thoughts, and paranoia.

    Ways of improving our sleep

    Even though our lives have changed because of the associated effects due to the Coronavirus pandemic, we can do something to restore our sleep to a place that it can give us maximum rest. There are several things that we can try and incorporate in our lifestyle for adequate rest. Some of these will require you to be able to:

    a) Create a relaxing evening ritual. Do things that relax you to create a pre-sleep routine to remove some of your daily stress.

    b) Stick with a routine that includes a predictable sleep schedule. Keep your meals, bedtime and morning alarm consistent, even on weekends. Maintaining your sleep patterns conditions your body to expect and react accordingly to appropriate times of rest and wakefulness.

    c) Use your bed for sleep and sleep alone. Keep electronics, food and any other stimulating activities out of your bed.

    d) Remove electronics from your bedroom. Screens and electronics are an integral part of our daily lives. Keeping them in your bedroom may be a major hindrance to sleep.

    e) Keep your bedroom quiet, cool, and dark. Removing light, sound and keeping your space at a constant temperature to mimic your ideal sleeping conditions.

    f) Get up after 30 minutes if you’re unable to sleep. If you can’t sleep after a half hour, leave your room for a while and go back to some of your pre-bedtime relaxation activities or rituals before heading back to bed and trying again.

    g) Steer clear of caffeine and alcohol. In the hours before bed, especially, but also throughout the day, be mindful of your caffeine intake.

    h) Exercise. However, be sure to get in that workout at least a few hours before bedtime.

    i) Cut out napping. While a quick ’power nap’ may work wonders for some, when there are issues with sleep, it’s best to stay awake during the day.

    j) Avoid going to bed on a full – or empty – stomach. Balanced, healthy meals during the day will help keep your body and blood sugars balanced for optimal sleep (Homewood Health, 2017).


    Healthline, (2020). The effects of sleep deprivation on your body. Retrieved July 28, 2020. From https://www.healthline.com/health/sleep-deprivation/effects-on-body .

    Homewood Health. (2017). The impact of sleep on your health. Retrieved July 28, 2020. From https://hr.mcmaster.ca/.../SUPPLEMENTS_AUGUST_2017_EN_ HOMEWOOD.compressed-1-37.pdf .

    Royal Society for Public Health. (2016). Waking up to the health benefits of sleep. https://www.ndcn.ox.ac.uk/files/news/sleep-report-rsph.pdf (accessed July 2020)

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