How Can We Reclaim Our Sleep After a Year of Pandemic Stress?

The pandemic has wreaked havoc on our sleep schedules, but there's one tip that ensures getting your sleep back on track for better performance.

Marie-Pierre St-Onge
April 08, 2021

The past year has been one like no other. We’ve endured lockdowns, altered work and study environments, and have all become experts at virtual meetings, classes, and social events. Add political and racial tensions to the pandemic, and it’s no surprise that our lifestyles have been knocked sideways. Sleep, for one, has taken a hit.

Already a lifestyle factor that gets neglected in stressful times, sleep has been affected by the pandemic. Indeed, some have reported that U.S. adults have had worse sleep in 2020 than in 2018 despite longer sleep during the early months of the pandemic compared to the same period in prior years. Much of this can be attributed to psychological distress, which has been shown to predict sleep duration in adults. However, this association is often viewed as bi-directional, with stress leading to poor sleep and poor sleep leading to greater stress. This can wreak havoc on health and cognitive performance.

Influence of Sleep on Performance

It is well known that sleep duration and sleep quality are important for cognitive performance. Perhaps you’ve even heard that cognitive performance after sustained wakefulness of more than 17 hours is equivalent to when blood alcohol concentration reaches 0.05%. But what you may not know is that, in addition to sleep duration, sleep timing and regularity are also relevant to overall cognitive performance. 

Why Is Sleep Timing Important?

Shifting sleep times can result in circadian misalignment, a condition in which lifestyle behaviors occur at an inappropriate biological time. This happens in travel jetlag, when we cross time zones, but also when we shift the timing of our sleep episodes later on free days relative to work days, a concept coined social jetlag. In animals, feeding at the wrong time of day, when animals should be resting, leads to greater weight gain and insulin resistance compared to feeding at appropriate times, in their biological day. In humans, social jetlag is associated with increased obesity, type 2 diabetes, and cardiovascular disease. Higher night-to-night variability in sleep duration or bedtimes are both associated with higher risk of metabolic syndrome

Regular Sleep Equals Healthy Future and Better Performance?

Maintaining stable sleep duration and bedtime is associated with lower cardiovascular disease risk over time. During nearly 5 years of follow-up, those who had more variable sleep duration as well as those who had more variable bedtimes, irrespective of sleep duration, were more likely to have cardiovascular events than those with stable sleep duration and bedtimes. We’ve also shown that women who reduce their bedtime variability over a 6-week period have improvements in body composition, by way of reductions in obesity, as well as reductions in inflammation compared to women who maintain variable bedtimes. 

In college students, having adequate sleep duration and quality the week and month before a test has been associated with better grades. And students who go to bed earlier and wake up earlier have better grades than those who go to bed and wake later.

How Can We Improve Sleep Health?

Sleep health encompasses 6 metrics: satisfaction with one’s sleep; daytime alertness; timing at night; duration (7 or more hours per night); efficiency (falling asleep easily and staying asleep throughout the night); and regularity (going to bed and waking up at similar times every day). Sleep regularity is a novel concept but it is the World Sleep Society’s No. 1 tip for healthier sleep.

So, as we embark on those final days of the semester, remember to keep regular sleep schedules and strive for 7 or more hours of sleep. Turning off electronics before bedtime, being physically active throughout the day, eating a healthful diet, and ensuring dark, quiet, cool bedroom conditions can also contribute to better sleep health.


Marie-Pierre St-Onge, PhD

Marie-Pierre St-Onge is an Associate Professor of Nutritional Medicine at Columbia University Irving Medical Center and Director of its Sleep Center of Excellencec. Twitter: @MPStOngePhD.  This column is editorially independent of Columbia News.