Published: June 11, 2020 By

The COVID-19 pandemic and resulting stay-at-home orders have taken a toll on many facets of physical and mental health in recent months. But according to new University of Colorado Boulder research, one silver lining may exist.

Some of us are sleeping better.

“Even though we are living through this incredibly stressful time which is changing our behaviors drastically, we are seeing changes to sleep behaviors that are for the most part positive,” said lead author Ken Wright, an Integrative Physiology professor and director of the Sleep and Chronobiology Laboratory.

For the study, published June 10 in the journal Current Biology, Wright and co-authors at the University of Washington set out to assess how student sleep habits were changing in the wake of widespread stay-at-home orders and social distancing guidelines put into place in mid-March. 
Wright had already collected sleep data from 139 CU Boulder students for a week from Jan. 29 to Feb. 4 as part of a class project. When all instruction switched to online learning March 16, he saw a once-in-a-lifetime research opportunity.

“This is an unprecedented time for research, but when it comes to sleep, not a lot of people have access to data on what people were doing before,” he said. “We did.”

When Wright repeated the week-long survey in the same students from April 22 to 29, researchers found that, on average, the students were devoting 30 more minutes per weekday and 24 more minutes per weekend night to sleep. Those students who had been skimping on sleep the most pre-pandemic saw the greatest improvements, with some sleeping as much as two more hours nightly.

The students also kept more regular sleep and wake times and experienced less “social jetlag,” or that groggy feeling that occurs when people stay up late and sleep later on the weekends and must resume an earlier schedule on Monday.

Post pandemic, significantly more students - or 92% - also got the minimum seven hours per night of sleep as recommended by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Typically, about one-third of U.S. college students fail to sleep that much.

He said that sleep is particularly critical now, as studies have shown that inadequate sleep weakens the immune system, leaving people more vulnerable to viral infections and less responsive to vaccines.

“We know that when you don’t meet the recommendations for sleep it can contribute to a lot of negative health problems,” said Wright, noting that insufficient and irregular sleep and social jetlag have all been shown to boost risk of heart disease, obesity, diabetes and mood disorders. 

“The fact that a lot of these sleep measures are improving is a good sign.”

One finding, however, was not so good.

Compared to February, students are going to bed about 50 minutes later during the week and 25 minutes later during the weekend and waking up later, too. 

“Generally, later sleep timing is associated with poor health outcomes,” said Wright, who advises people to try to shift their wake-sleep cycle earlier by getting bright light exposure in the morning and dimming the lights two hours before bedtime.

More research is necessary to determine whether similar shifts are occurring among the general public in the United States and, if so, why. However, one study out of Europe, also published this week, found some similar results.

Wright did note that Boulder residents, generally speaking, are better sleepers to begin with. One prior study of the largest 500 cities in the U.S. found that pre-pandemic, Boulder had the lowest percentage of adults who got fewer than seven hours of sleep per night, or about 25%.

Wright suspects the new findings likely do apply more broadly to college students nationwide.

The key now: To identify ways to keep those good sleep habits going once school resumes in person again.