Is it easier to sleep during a pandemic? UW neuroscientists take a look

When a global pandemic disrupts schedules, cancels commuting, and keeps a large percent of the population home, how is sleep affected?

That’s a question neuroscientists at UW are curious about. Postdoctoral researcher Leandro Casiraghi and doctoral student Ray Sanchez are working on a study that tracks people’s sleep patterns, stress, and mood amidst the social-distancing measures of COVID-19. The study could provide useful information for how the rigidity of routines affects sleep, which in turn has a huge impact on health and well-being.

It’s a rare opportunity for Casiraghi and Sanchez, but also for science. Except during climate disasters, rarely have scientists had a chance to observe what happens when large groups of people are confined for long periods of time to their homes.

Leandro Casiraghi, postdoctoral researcher

“There hasn’t been any other time where we have been able to carry out this experiment ever,” Casiraghi said.

After sending out emails to ask for participants, Casiraghi received several dozen replies from post-docs, faculty, staff, and graduate students at UW who were eager to participate. Casiraghi and Sanchez purposefully didn’t include undergraduate students whose class schedules and therefore routines remained the same despite COVID-19. 

Wearing masks and gloves, Casiraghi and Sanchez drove around the greater Seattle area, distributing special watches to each participant. The watches, which look like a larger, clunkier version of a FitBit, track movement and light. The participants wore them every night for a month when they went to bed. They also filled out a Google survey to share what their mood and productivity was like each day.

After collecting the watches from the participants, Casiraghi and Sanchez will log the data about their sleeping habits. The current batch of data will tell the researchers how well the participants slept, their mood, how this compared between weeknights versus weekends, and how it varied by age and gender, but that’s just the start of the experiment. The current data can’t tell researchers how all these factors might have varied from the participants’ usual sleeping habits prior to the pandemic.

That’s why Casiraghi and Sanchez will do this experiment again once routines have returned to a more normal pattern, though they acknowledge that routines might never be back to exactly how they were before COVID-19. When the participants once again have to wake up early to commute to the office or take their children to school, they will track their sleeping patterns again with the watches and survey. Participants will also be surveyed on how long their commute times are, as researchers are interested in how this impacts sleep.

In a perfect scientific world where Casiraghi and Sanchez knew a major global pandemic that would disrupt life was coming, they could have had their participants track their sleep patterns ahead of time. But a study that Casiraghi and UW Professor Horacio de la Iglesia helped collaborate on with their colleagues at the University of Colorado Boulder can give some insight into this. Researchers there were already tracking the sleep of students at the University of Colorado Boulder, and so when the pandemic hit, were able to see what their students’ sleeping habits were like while they were taking the same classes in-person and then remotely. 

They found that students slept more during the stay-at-home order than they had before. While 84 percent of students were getting at least 7 hours of sleep before the pandemic — which is the number recommended for adults to maintain health — 92 percent were getting at least this amount during the stay-at-home orders.

The University of Colorado Boulder study relied on self-reported data from student sleep logs, which differs from how the data is collected in Casiraghi’s and Sanchez’s study, which is gathered by watches. While self-reported data is still informative, the watches will provide a more objective measure about the duration and quality of sleep.

Ray Sanchez, neuroscience doctoral student

While both Casiraghi and Sanchez had been working on other experiments through Horacio de la Iglesia’s lab prior to this study — Casiraghi was studying the sleep of homeless populations in Seattle and a study of sleep changes through the moon cycle while Sanchez was doing lab work around sleep and circadian rhythms in mice — they were eager to turn to this work, especially as a way to help out amidst the pandemic.

“We’re not virologists or public health experts so we can’t help in that way, but it does feel like a good opportunity and important work to contribute something to understanding not only how people are experiencing the pandemic if they’re getting sick and working in healthcare but also in terms of how people are dealing with it generally,” Sanchez said. “And obviously looking at how sleep and mood and all these things which are going to be affected by this extremely stressful situation that’s happening right now seems to be a way we can contribute to those kinds of efforts.”

Sanchez and Casiraghi have observed how recent events have impacted their own sleep. As protests and national dialogue around racism have come to the forefront of the pandemic, Sanchez has found his mind wandering to these issues, making it difficult to fall asleep and stay asleep. Meanwhile Casiraghi, who was recently working on a paper well past midnight for multiple days found it hard to sleep afterward. But overall, they have both observed that working from home has made it easier to sleep, especially when cutting out their commuting times.

Sleep researchers find themselves having to make a case for the importance of sleep, combatting messaging that people who get lots of sleep are lazy. But scientists like Casiraghi and Sanchez said that sleep can impact almost every aspect of life, from immune health, to cognitive function, to attention, to memory, and almost every neurological and psychiatric disorder is linked with sleep disturbances. 

“While the Stay-At-Home is not a measure to increase people’s sleep quality, we’re going to try to make a point that some things you have to work on, like the flexibility of schedules or adapting peoples’ schedules to their own sleep cycles,” Casiraghi said. “It’s becoming more and more clear that sleep is not only essential but it affects your life in so many ways.”

By Kate Stringer, UW Graduate School
Originally published June 19, 2020