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COVID might cause sleep troubles that can last even after the infection passes

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

When you feel under the weather, doctor's orders are often stay home, get some rest, sleep it off. Well, that is sometimes easier said than done. Falling asleep, staying asleep can be difficult if you're sick. And for some people who've had COVID, the sleep disturbances may last for months, even after they otherwise feel better. Science journalist Emily Sohn dug into that in a recent piece for National Geographic. It's headlined "COVID-19 Can Ruin Your Sleep In Many Different Ways - Here's Why." Emily Sohn, welcome.

EMILY SOHN: Hi. Thanks for your interest.

KELLY: You write about one study that was out this year from the Cleveland Clinic where more than a third of long COVID patients reported sleep disruptions and reported them for up to six months after the initial infection. I wondered if you would describe what kind of problem they're experiencing. Is this trouble falling asleep, staying asleep, what?

SOHN: Yeah. Reports of sleep disturbances are just all over the place. The researcher who conducted it told me that insomnia was the most common one. But there's new onset sleep apnea, wild dreams, vivid nightmares, sleeping up to 18 hours a day, sleeping and sleeping and waking up exhausted. So the reports are really piling up of just all these different kinds of sleep disturbances that people are having sometimes for months after they've been sick.

KELLY: And is there any way to definitively tie this to COVID as opposed to something else that might be going on with their life or health?

SOHN: I mean, that is a really tricky question. And it's hard. You know, I think data is accumulating to show that COVID is definitely playing a role. So before the pandemic and sort of in the background of the population, something like 10 to 30% of people report insomnia. And a whole bunch of studies have shown that during the pandemic, especially in the beginning, as many as 60% of people reported worsening insomnia symptoms. So...

KELLY: Right. I mean, I didn't even have COVID, and just the general anxiety was contributing to...

SOHN: Yeah.

KELLY: ...Sleeplessness.

SOHN: Yeah, and that's part of it. I mean, there's all this research going on now to try to figure out what's related to COVID, what's physiological, what's psychological. And so what's interesting now, with so many people getting sick with this illness all at once, it looks like we're able to start seeing patterns like this and begin to dig in to what might be going on.

KELLY: Well, briefly explain what we do know about how this might work, how an infection would lead to worse sleep.

SOHN: So there's multiple things going on, and the immune system is super-complicated. So understanding it is really a work in progress. But studies in animals show that when you inject a virus into, say, a rabbit or rodent, it increases their sleep. They have more of this really restful type of sleep and less of the dreamlike sleep that involves more movement. But what we can see with people and I think a lot of people might relate to is that sleeping more does also happen early on. So you might, you know, sleep extra one night and go, I wonder if I'm fighting something off. I just slept a whole lot more than I'm used to. And then as symptoms develop, we find that people sleep less. So they might be spending longer in bed, but they're waking up more. Their sleep is more disrupted. They're congested, fever. They're achy. And those symptoms can interrupt their sleep, too.

KELLY: If someone does notice prolonged sleep trouble after getting sick, what are some things they can do that might help?

SOHN: If the sleep disruptions really go on, you know, the No. 1 recommendation is to talk to your doctor, maybe see a sleep specialist. But there are techniques that people can use that have been shown to work. The experts I talked to said that cognitive behavioral therapy is really a key technique, and that's incorporated into a lot of just apps that you can get on your phone that help you work on good sleep habits. The ones that come up again and again are going to bed at the same time every night, turning off your screen before you try to go to sleep, getting into a good routine, you know, maybe getting up and getting outside and getting fresh air and getting physical activity to help your sleep. Those have also been shown to work. The tricky part of that is that for some people with long-term symptoms of COVID, the exercise can set them back. And that's where kind of knowing your own symptoms and maybe talking with your doctor can help people figure out whether getting more exercise or getting less exercise is the right strategy for them.

KELLY: The right path forward. Emily Sohn is a contributing writer for National Geographic. Thank you for sharing your reporting with us.

SOHN: Well, thanks so much for having me on.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Michael Levitt
Michael Levitt is a news assistant for All Things Considered who is based in Atlanta, Georgia. He graduated from UCLA with a B.A. in Political Science. Before coming to NPR, Levitt worked in the solar energy industry and for the National Endowment for Democracy in Washington, D.C. He has also travelled extensively in the Middle East and speaks Arabic.
Christopher Intagliata is an editor at All Things Considered, where he writes news and edits interviews with politicians, musicians, restaurant owners, scientists and many of the other voices heard on the air.
Mary Louise Kelly is a co-host of All Things Considered, NPR's award-winning afternoon newsmagazine.