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COVID is doing something to our sleep and even our dreams: ScienceAlert

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By the end of 2022, over 650 million COVID infections had been reported to the World Health Organization.

With the actual number likely much higher and the count rising by hundreds of thousands each week, the scientific community has focused on understanding the impact of COVID on our physical health, mental health and brain function.

In the early stages of the pandemic, sleep scientists mapped the costs and benefits of blockages in sleep patterns. The main finding was that we slept more in confinement, but the quality of our sleep was worse.

Now, a second wave of data is starting to explain how the COVID infection is affecting our sleep and even intruding on our dreams.

The most recent meta-analysis, a review of all currently available scientific literature, estimates that 52% of people who contract COVID experience sleep disturbances during their infection.

The most common type of sleep disorder reported is insomnia. People with insomnia typically have difficulty falling asleep or staying asleep and often wake up early in the morning.

It is concerning that sleep problems sometimes persist even after recovery from the infection. A study in China found that 26% of people who were admitted to the hospital with COVID had symptoms of insomnia two weeks after discharge.

And a US study showed that people who were infected with COVID were more likely than people who were never infected to have trouble sleeping, even up to a month after a positive COVID test.

Sleep difficulties and long COVID

While most people recover quickly from COVID, some continue to experience long-term symptoms. People suffering from long COVID seem very likely to experience persistent sleep issues.

A 2021 study surveyed more than 3,000 people with long-term COVID. Nearly 80% of participants reported sleep problems, most commonly insomnia.

A more recent study collected data on sleep duration and quality using smart wristbands. Participants with long COVID slept less overall and slept less soundly than participants who never had COVID.

The loss of deep sleep is particularly concerning, as this type of sleep reduces tiredness and strengthens concentration and memory. Lack of deep sleep may be partially responsible for the “brain fog” commonly reported during and after COVID.

The fact that COVID often interferes with sleep is also concerning because sleep helps our immune systems fight infections.

Why does COVID affect our sleep?

There are many reasons why a COVID infection can lead to poor sleep. A review identified physiological, psychological, and environmental factors.

COVID can have a direct impact on the brain, including the areas that control wakefulness and sleep. We still don’t have a clear understanding of how this works, but possible mechanisms could include the virus infecting the central nervous system or affecting the brain’s blood supply.

Typical symptoms of COVID include fever, cough, and breathing difficulties. These are also known to disturb sleep.

Poor mental health can lead to sleep problems and vice versa. There is a strong link between getting COVID and mental health issues, particularly depression and anxiety. This can be caused by concerns about recovery, loneliness, or social isolation. These anxieties can make it difficult to sleep.

Meanwhile, hospitalized COVID patients may experience additional difficulties when trying to sleep in busy hospital environments, where sleep is often disturbed by noise, treatment and other patients.

And the dreams?

The International COVID-19 Sleep Study, a global research project involving sleep scientists from 14 countries, recently released its findings on dreams.

The study surveyed infected and uninfected participants about their dreams. Both groups had more dreams after the start of the pandemic than before.

Interestingly, infected participants had more nightmares than uninfected participants, while there was no difference between groups before the pandemic.

There’s no simple explanation for why getting COVID might increase nightmares, but mental health could again play a role. Poor mental health is often accompanied by nightmares. The International COVID-19 Sleep Study team found that the infected group had more symptoms of conditions like anxiety and depression.

getting help

The close links between sleep and mental and physical health mean that preventing and treating sleep disorders has never been more important and will require creative solutions from governments and healthcare providers.

If you’ve had trouble sleeping during or after COVID, or are having more nightmares than before, you’re not alone.

Short-term and long-term insomnia can usually be treated with cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) that you can access through your doctor.

For less severe sleep problems, the European Academy for Cognitive-Behavioral Treatment of Insomnia has compiled recommendations, some based on principles applied in CBT, that you can follow at home. These include:The conversation

  • maintaining a regular sleep-wake schedule
  • restrict thinking about things that make you feel stressed at specific times of the day
  • using your bed just for sleep and sex
  • go to bed and get up when you naturally feel inclined to do so
  • share feelings of stress and anxiety with family and friends
  • reducing sleep disruption due to light exposure by making sure your bedroom is as dark as possible
  • exercising regularly in daylight
  • avoiding eating close to bedtime.

Jakke Tamminen, Professor of Psychology, Royal Holloway University of London and Rebecca Crowley, PhD Candidate, Psychology, Royal Holloway University of London

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

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