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Rates of Insomnia, Other Sleep Problems Have Risen Sharply During Pandemic

March 22, 2021

The COVID-19 pandemic has resulted in dramatic changes to sleep patterns at a time when the health benefits from quality sleep are especially important, researcher and sleep expert Charles M. Morin, PhD, said at Thomas Jefferson University’s 7th Annual Sleep Medicine Symposium.

Sleep helps people protect themselves from infection as well as cope more adaptively with the stress produced by the pandemic, said Dr. Morin, who is representing Canada as a collaborator in the International COVID-19 Sleep Study (ICOSS). But various factors have led to or exacerbated sleep problems during the pandemic, he said. They include stress, anxiety, depression, confinement and social isolation, lack of social support, flexible work schedules, reduced exposure to daylight, and a decreased number of regular routines.

The ICOSS, being conducted by researchers from 13 countries in 4 continents, developed a 100-question standardized survey to assess the pandemic’s impact on sleep. More than 22,000 people took the survey between May and August of 2020. Respondents were aged 18 to 95 years, with a mean age of 41.8 years. Approximately 42% reported having been in confinement, 56% had suffered financially, and 3% had been infected with COVID-19.

The survey found sleep problems, daytime-sleep related problems, and use of hypnotics were all higher during the pandemic than before the outbreak. Poor sleep quality, sleep onset problems, sleep maintenance problems, nightmares, fatigue, excessive daytime sleepiness, and falling asleep during the day were all reported by significantly more responders.

Sleep Problems Hit Unexpected Heights Early in Pandemic

Overall, 17% of respondents probably met the diagnostic criteria for an insomnia disorder, Dr. Morin said, noting that the typical incidence rate of insomnia is 9% to 12%.

Among respondents from the United States, 31.4% probably met the diagnostic criteria for an insomnia disorder, higher than in any of the other countries. More than 36% of total respondents reported symptoms of insomnia; in the US, nearly 60% of respondents did, also the highest of any country.

In Canada, Dr. Morin said, officials have been proactively distributing information on sleep problems to try to protect people from developing them.

“Sleep and insomnia problems are very prevalent under normal circumstances, but we have observed a dramatic increase of those problems during the COVID-19 pandemic,” said Dr. Morin, who has developed commonly used scales to assess insomnia and validated online tools to treat insomnia. “Knowing these facts provides a great opportunity…to disseminate evidence-based interventions about sleep health."

—Terri Airov


“Keynote Lecture: Sleep and Circadian Problems During the Coronavirus Disease 2019 (COVID-19) Pandemic: the International COVID-19 Sleep Study (ICOSS).” Presented at the Thomas Jefferson University 7th Annual Sleep Medicine Symposium: What’s New Under the Moon; Virtual; March 19, 2021.

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