Coronasomnia: Pervasive sleeplessness, self-medicating raise concerns of sleep experts


Among the many losses suffered by millions worldwide during the COVID-19 pandemic, the loss of sleep may be the most widespread, with potentially long-lasting, negative consequences on physical, mental, and emotional health, sleep researchers have found.

Results from multiple studies and surveys conducted during the pandemic show that a majority of subjects report clinically meaningful changes in sleep quality, sleep patterns, and sleep disturbances.

A sleepless woman in bed klebercordeiro/Getty Images

For example, a cross-sectional international survey conducted from late March through late April 2020 found that among more than 3,000 responders from 49 countries, 58% reported dissatisfaction with their sleep, and 40% reported a decrease in sleep quality during the pandemic, compared with pre-COVID-19 sleep, according to Uri Mandelkorn of the Natural Sleep Clinic in Jerusalem, and colleagues.

“In particular, this research raises the need to screen for worsening sleep patterns and use of sleeping aids in the more susceptible populations identified in this study, namely, women and people with insecure livelihoods or those subjected to strict quarantine. Health care providers should pay special attention to physical and psychological problems that this surge in sleep disturbances may cause,” they wrote. The report is in the Journal of Clinical Sleep Medicine.

Sleeping, more or less

A coauthor of that study, David Gozal, MD, FCCP, a pediatric pulmonologist and sleep medicine specialist at the University of Missouri in Columbia, said that the pandemic has had paradoxical effects on sleeps patterns for many.

“At the beginning, with the initial phases of lockdown for COVID, for most of the people whose jobs were not affected and who did not lose their jobs, [for whom] there was not the anxiety of being jobless and financially strapped, but who now were staying at home, there was actually a benefit. People started reporting getting more sleep and, more importantly, more vivid dreams and things of that nature,” he said in an interview.

“But as the lockdown progressed, we saw progressively and increasingly more people having difficulty falling asleep and staying asleep, using more medicines such as hypnotics to induce sleep, and we saw a 20% increase in the overall consumption of sleeping pills,” he said.

Similar results were seen in a cross-sectional survey of 843 adults in the United Kingdom, which showed that nearly 70% of participants reported a change in sleep patterns, only 45% reported having refreshing sleep, and 46% reported being sleepier during lockdown than before. Two-thirds of the respondents reported that the pandemic affected their mental health, and one-fourth reported increased alcohol consumption during lockdown. Those with suspected COVID-19 infections reported having more nightmares and abnormal sleep rhythms.

It is possible that the effects of COVID-19 infection on sleep may linger long after the infection itself has resolved, results of a cohort study from China suggest. As reported in The Lancet, among 1,655 patients discharged from the Jin Yin-tan hospital in Wuhan, 26% reported sleep disturbances 6 months after acute COVID-19 infection.


Among 5,525 Canadians surveyed from April 3 through June 24, 2020, a large proportion reported the use of pharmacologic sleeps aids, said Tetyana Kendzerska, MD, PhD, assistant professor of medicine in the division of respirology at the University of Ottawa.

“At the time of the survey completion, 27% of participants reported taking sleeping aids (prescribed or [over] the counter); across the entire sample, 8% of respondents reported an increase in the frequency of sleeping medication use during the outbreak compared to before the outbreak,” she said in an interview.

Many people resort to self-medicating with over-the-counter preparations such as melatonin and pain-relief nighttime formulations containing diphenhydramine (Benadryl), a first-generation antihistamine with sedative properties, noted Kannan Ramar, MBBS, MD, a critical care, pulmonary, and sleep medicine specialist at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn., and current president of the American Academy of Sleep Medicine.

“When people are self-medicating for what they think is difficulty sleeping, the concern is that even if a diagnosis of insomnia has been established, there could be another, ongoing sleep disorder that may be undiagnosed, which might be causing the problem with insomnia,” he said in an interview.

“For example, obstructive sleep apnea might be causing people to wake up in the night or even contribute to difficulty falling asleep in the first place. So medicating for something without a known diagnosis may leave an underlying sleep disorder untreated, which won’t help the patient in either the short or the long term,” Dr. Ramar said.


Next Article: