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Our new pandemic: Sleep deprivation from coronasomnia


Oh God, midnight’s not bad, you wake and go back to sleep, one or two’s not bad, you toss but sleep again. Five or six in the morning, there’s hope, for dawn’s just under the horizon. But three, now, Christ, three A.M.! Doctors say the body’s at low tide then. The soul is out. The blood moves slow. You’re the nearest to dead you’ll ever be save dying … It’s a long way back to sunset, a far way on to dawn, so you summon all the fool things of your life, the stupid lovely things done with people known so very well who are now so very dead – And wasn’t it true, had he read somewhere, more people in hospitals die at 3 A.M. than at any other time…’  

From Ray Bradbury’s Something Wicked This Way Comes 

NOTHING about Covid-19 is good. Countries are closed, billionaires have increased their obscene wealth, millions have been pushed into poverty and starvation, and people are increasingly fearful for themselves and their loved ones.  

The UK government’s reaction has been extraordinary, dispensing with accepted parliamentary convention and imposing a series of draconian measures that are never-ending. Public health experts now suggest another novel pandemic is infecting the country: Sleep or rather, the want of it.   

Why human beings and other animals need to sleep is not settled science, but researchers suggest a need for repair, memory generation, and learning. Sleep is critical to the functioning of the immune system. One 2019 study in the journal Natureconsidersithelps restore DNA damage in neurons.   

What is proven is that sleep is essential to physical, emotional, and mental health. Sleep helps people to manage stress and deal with anxiety; it helps alleviate depression.  

Before Covid, the Sleep Foundation estimated that millions suffered from insomnia – 35 per cent of all adults and 87 per cent of teenagers were reported not to be getting enough sleep. Covid and its associated assaults on personal freedoms has increased the incidence of poor sleep leading to a new health issue … Coronasomnia.   

Lockdowns, job insecurity, social distancing, masks, school closures, working from home and the pressure to be vaccinated have disorientated people. Humans are creatures of habit and find it difficult to adjust to a new daily schedule, or, indeed, the absence of any schedule.  

Keeping track of time, even knowing what day it is, can be hard going without ‘time anchors’ such as getting up for work, dropping children off at school, attending social events, and visiting family and friends.   

Enforced working from home brings new stresses; how to separate work from leisure time, how to establish mutually tolerable workspace, and how to manage a house full of children and young people accustomed to being at school or university. Being cloistered together involuntarily can generate regular and almost unavoidable family discord as well as increased violence and abuse.   

Being stuck at home, especially if it has low levels of natural light or little access to external space, is unhealthy. It can reduce light-based cues for wakefulness and sleep known as zeitgebers  – crucial to our circadian rhythms.   

Excess screen time, though addictive, can have a detrimental impact on sleep. It can not only stimulate the brain so that it is difficult to relax, but the blue light from screens can suppress the production of melatonin, essential for sleep.

Those whose lives are disrupted may be tempted to oversleep. Sleeping more than seven to eight hours a night can, counter-intuitively, make a person feel more tired. Over-sleepers face increased risks of physical and mental harm: Studies have even found that sleeplessness can diminish vaccine effectiveness.  

When people are unable to exercise control over their own lives, their bodies react by pumping out cortisol, the ‘stress hormone’. Cortisol acts to suppress normal immune systems, making them more susceptible to colds and viruses: The risks of cancer and autoimmune diseases also shoot up.  

Constant stress and cortisol overload can lead to blood vessel damage and plaque build-up in arteries, increasing the risk of heart attack or stroke. Sleep deprivation is long recognised as an insidious form of torture because it attacks the deep biological functions at the core of a person’s mental and physical health.  

Even in normal circumstances, poor sleep can lead to weight gain, there being a direct association between stress cortisol levels and calorie intake.   

Unused glucose in blood is stored as body fat, and increased blood sugar levels can lead to diabetes. Before the pandemic, research suggested that more than five million people were likely to have diabetes in the UK by 2025.  

Additionally, when bodies are under threat, they shut down ‘less critical’ functions, including digestion. The digestive tract does not digest or absorb food and there is increased risk of ulcers, colitis, or irritable bowel syndrome.  

Covid’s greatest legacy is likely to be increased levels of mental illness. People worry ordinarily about their health, their jobs, their finances, and their families, but add to this the suspicion that the Government is deliberately misleading and manipulating us, and you have anxiety on a mass scale. 

The sustained mix of confusion, anger, and fear is toxic, and keeps the average mind racing, and the body tossing and turning. It is no wonder that, for many, sleep is evasive and depression an increasing threat.

Depression can kill and the rate of serious depression has tripled throughout the pandemic. Poor sleep, coupled with an increase in alcohol and tobacco consumption, has led to spikes in depression rates, stoking up major problems to come. Children and young people are particularly affected.    

Given the NHS’s sole focus on Covid, many people have been unable to access either diagnosis or treatment for sleep problems or mental health issues. Rates of suicide are expected to have increased during lockdown once the findings of delayed inquests are known.

The stresses of the past year have resulted in what the Mayo Clinic describes as a chronically fatigued population, with people in ‘a nearly constant state of weariness that develops over time and reduces energy, motivation and concentration’.

The question is, who benefits from such a disoriented and depressed nation?    

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Kate Dunlop
Kate Dunlop
Kate Dunlop is a mediator.

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