Why we sleep less (and worse) in confinement

By Diego Redolar Ripoll, UOC – Open University of Catalonia

Since the SARS-CoV-2 coronavirus has broken into our lives, human activity has been turned upside down. We live in a situation of confinement that is having a great impact on the daily evolution. Even how we sleep begins to be affected.

What do we sleep for?

Sleep is a behavior characterized by the suspension of consciousness in which the brain presents a characteristic activation pattern and a series of physiological changes take place in our body. It is characterized by an urgent and pressing need to sleep from which we cannot escape. No matter how hard we try to stay awake: in the end we will fall into Morpheus arms.

Despite the fact that sleep exists in all mammals and, probably, in all vertebrates, we do not know for sure all its functions. We do know that it helps us replenish brain glycogen levels (our main energy reserve). Likewise, sleep helps us regulate the metabolism of our body, our defense system to fight infections or even clean the trash metabolic produced by neurons during waking hours.

On the other hand, sleep is critical for brain maturation produced during development, and is also of vertebral importance for adequate cognitive function in adult life. In this sense, the connections between neurons, induced by the experiences that occur in wakefulness, are consolidated while we sleep.

Marking the TIC Tac

Humans adjust our physiology and behavior to a 24-hour cycle. That is, we follow what is called a circadian rhythm. For this we have an internal clock integrated into our genes and a series of signals from our environment that inform us of the time of day we are in (including sunlight).

The suprachiasmatic nucleus, located in the hypothalamus, is responsible for adjusting and synchronizing external information with the endogenous biological clock. It is your neurons that mark the tic tac cerebral. These neurons work at a circadian rhythm, so that when they are more active our body works as if it were daytime. Unlike at night.

The function of the suprachiasmatic nucleus can be modified by a substance called melatonin that is released in a gland the size of a bean located in the central part of the brain. Namely, the pineal gland. Melatonin secretion depends on the light of our environment, being released exclusively at night.

Setting the biological clock

Our internal biological clock tends to run ahead. To adjust it and “put it on time”, the suprachiasmatic nucleus uses signals from the environment. But what happens when these signals are insufficient or not adequate, for example, when we abruptly alter our daily routines, as we tend to do in this atypical confinement?

Lack of adjustment mechanisms can alter our circadian rhythms, hinder sleep and deteriorate health. It makes us more vulnerable to diseases such as diabetes, obesity, cardiovascular disease, or even cancer. It can also affect our mood and cognitive abilities.

Sleeping in times of coronavirus

That the SARS-CoV-2 coronavirus has broken into our lives as it has, forcing us to confine ourselves, causes daily routines to become diluted.

As we've seen before, routines blurring so dramatically can affect how we sleep. Because as the external signals that reach our nervous system and identify the moment of the day in which we find ourselves are insufficient, there is no one who adjusts the internal biological clock. This can be translated in a lower quality and duration of our sleep.

To add more fuel to the fire, the great echo that has been given to the virus in media around the planet, together with the convulsive uncertainty about the duration of the confinement and its future repercussions, is generating a perception of lack of control in part of the population that can become fear and anxiety. This anxiety can negatively affect sleep, making it difficult for us to fall asleep or wake up several times in the middle of the night.

Can we do something to avoid it?

To combat the deleterious effects that confinement can have on sleep we have powerful weapons.

First of all, it is convenient to structure our schedules and maintain routines. In this sense, it is important that we use the alarm clock in the morning and leave our pajamas in bed, despite not leaving the house. It is critical to keep meal times and schedule various activities throughout the day, limited in time. Among these activities, physical exercise can be our great ally.

Diet can be linked with us to make it easier for us. Specifically, it is advisable to avoid stimulating drinks in the last part of the day and copious dinners at night.

A third weapon is fleeing after dark from tablet or smartphone devices, since their use during the minutes before going to sleep increases alertness and causes abnormal patterns of brain activity during sleep.

It also helps to open curtains and blinds well so that sunlight can illuminate the interior of our homes as much as possible. And if we are lucky enough to have a terrace or patio, going outside will contribute to providing more information to our nervous system than what happens “out there”.

Finally, it is advisable to avoid information about the virus and its context, especially during the last part of the day or before sleeping, since otherwise it is likely that we will incorporate it into our dreams.

Diego Redolar Ripoll, Professor of Neuroscience and Vice Dean of Research at the Faculty of Health Sciences., UOC – Open University of Catalonia

This article was originally published in The Conversation. Read the original.