Rutgers professor discusses importance of healthy sleep schedule during pandemic

Xue Ming, a professor of Neurology at Rutgers New Jersey Medical School, has been working in her field for more than 22 years. She discussed the potential changes and challenges in sleep due to the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) pandemic, as well as the importance of maintaining a healthy sleep schedule during these times.

"Anxiety is the number one factor for insomnia," Ming said. "When I see patients with insomnia, 90 percent of them (are) either due to anxiety or depression."

Ming said that anxiety can be especially apparent now due to uncertainty during the COVID-19 pandemic, which can potentially hinder sleep.

The change in daily schedules can also factor into difficulty sleeping. Ming said since people are spending more time doing work and school online instead of in "real-time," each individual's schedule tends to be less disciplined.

Since schedules may not be as structured as before, this causes people to feel more relaxed about staying up later because they do not have to physically be anywhere, she said.

"You tend to sleep later, or maybe you use more blue light technology since you don't have to get up so early," Ming said.

She said blue light is a big factor when it comes to lack of sleep since people are spending more time in front of screens.

"Blue light is emitting light through your retina that will keep you awake because light is a signal that (tells your body) it is still early," Ming said. "We need melatonin to initiate sleep, (but) blue light suppresses melatonin secretion."

In addition to blue light, Ming suggested avoiding other factors such as exercising, arguing, hot baths and hot beverages too close to bedtime in order to practice good sleep hygiene.

"Anything that can trigger your adrenaline up, don't do that," Ming said. "For us to fall asleep, your heart rate has to be low, your breathing has to even and you (have to) get into a ready mode to go to sleep."

In order to have good quality sleep, Ming said people should maintain a consistent bedtime and rising time. She also suggested making the bedroom the most conducive to sleep as possible.

If someone cannot sleep after 20 minutes, Ming recommended getting out of bed and doing something boring until they feel sleepy. Meditation, yoga and other activities that increase deep breathing may be helpful as well, she said.

For those who may be feeling anxious in general or during this time specifically, Ming said to try writing an "anxiety list" of things that are stressful. She said to try scheduling time to think about these stressors during the day to avoid rumination around bedtime, which can keep people awake.

Sleep affects many parts of our lives, Ming said. She said sleep is directly linked to how we perform the next day and plays a role in memory development.

"You need something called REM (rapid eye movement) sleep - dream sleep - in order to consolidate your memory," Ming said. "Meaning what you learn during the day time, if you don't sleep, will be a temporary memory ... If you have the dream sleep, then the consolidated knowledge you will carry out as a long-term memory."

Besides memory development, sleep is also directly linked to the health of an individual's immune system, Ming said.

"The better sleep quality you get, the more sleep you have. Your immune system is more recuperated," Ming said. "During sleep, anti-inflammatory cytokines are most active and synthesize."

Anti-inflammatory cytokines are responsible for fighting off unwanted sickness from our bodies, and it is shown that the more sleep a person gets, the better their immune system will perform, Ming said.

"These times are the most important because there is so much virus around, and you try to not catch the virus, but the virus might find you," Ming said. "If your body has a good immune system, you may be asymptomatic."

Ming suggested going to bed before midnight to give the body plenty of rest and the proper amount of REM sleep. She said that if someone must stay up later, they should go to bed before early morning hours as this is when REM sleep is the most heavily concentrated.

"Sleep is not to be sacrificed if you are smart," Ming said. "It's linked to your happiness, it's linked to your health, it's linked to your performance."