The stress of the last two years of the global pandemic has put a huge strain on our sleep health, according to a report by the National Sleep Foundation.

While in many cases the amount of sleep has increased, the quality of sleep for many has worsened, especially in women, minorities, individuals without college degrees, and middle to lower-income Americans.

The report was based on many different surveys that looked at things like worry, stress, PTSD, and insomnia, said Dr. Matthew Scharf, assistant professor of medicine and neurology at Rutgers Robert Wood Johnson Medical School and medical director at the RWJ Sleep Laboratory.

Insomnia was a prominent feature in many of these surveys regarding COVID lockdowns. He said minorities and those living in lower-income neighborhoods did not have the resources to deal as well with the pandemic. Many of them lost their jobs and didn't have housing accommodations that led them to function well.

"I think that women are more susceptible to certain forms of insomnia. Whether that was more related to responsibilities that more often fall upon women, such as childcare, the reasons for that are not clear," Scharf said.

Sleep habits affected people working from home during the pandemic, as opposed to going into the office. Scharf said that while the pandemic caused insomnia in many, it improved the sleep in others, especially those working from home.

Scharf said in some studies, looked at the difference between weekdays and weekends. When people are off and don't have to go to work, they'll catch up on sleep. The difference between the two can show how sleep-deprived they are during the week. But in some cases, that actually decreased.

"So people for example didn't have their commute anymore. That was a big one. People could, for example, take a nap during the day which they weren't able to do before. So for some people, they really benefitted from the pandemic in terms of their sleep and they were actually able to improve their sleep quality," Scharf said.

People like not having to commute or having to rush in the morning to get to the office. They can sleep a bit longer and use the work-at-home environment to their advantage.

But Scharf said getting a full night's sleep is so vital for a person's physical, mental, and emotional well-being. Sleep deprivation can increase a person's risk for heart attack, stroke, hypertension, diabetes, obesity, and depression.

Scharf also pointed out that many people gained weight during the pandemic. In fact, he said one of his patients joked that instead of the "Freshman 15" (referring to the average amount of pounds a college student puts on during his or her freshman year), we're dealing with the "COVID 20." Weight gain is a risk factor for obstructive sleep apnea which is a common sleep disorder characterized by loud snoring, breathing pauses during sleep, and often a lot of sleep disturbance.

To improve "sleep hygiene" as he calls it, Dr. Scharf suggested setting a relatively fixed sleep time and wake time. Avoid doing other activities in bed like watching television. That can interfere with sleep. Have a nice, quiet, dark sleep environment is important. Avoid the use of phones or electronic devices for at least an hour or two before bedtime.

He said it's important for each of us to figure out how much sleep we need and the timing of that sleep.

Jen Ursillo is a reporter and anchor for New Jersey 101.5. You can reach her at jennifer.ursillo@townsquaremedia.com

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