Covid-19 can cause patients to suffer a greater number of nightmares, according to the first scientific study of its kind.
The research from the International Covid-19 Sleep Study (ICOSS) which involves participants and researchers from around the world — found that those with coronavirus reported a significantly higher number of bad dreams during the pandemic than those without it.
The findings also showed that the severity of the virus was a factor in the frequency of nightmares, suggesting the more people were affected by Covid, the greater the impact on dream activity.
While the researchers don’t have any information about what happened during the nightmares, they said the high frequency could be a symptom of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), following what was likely qualified as a traumatic event.
“We could speculate that the lack of contact with families or friends during forced quarantine and/or hospitalisation may have induced higher PTSD symptoms and, as a consequence, higher nightmare frequency,” the researchers.
“Separate from experiencing a potentially traumatic experience, the presence of several nightmares after the illness may also be an attempt to cope with the COVID-19 related negative emotions.”
Virus-related fear or brain cell damage?
But is it any surprise that those with COVID are sleeping poorly?
“What remains unclear is whether the nightmares were a result of the infection itself, or the result of the emotional sequela of having the virus and the anxiety around that,” said Professor Dorothy Bruck from the Sleep Health Foundation.
The study underlines previous research into how the pandemic has strongly impacted on sleep-wake schedules, insomnia symptoms and sleep disturbances, highlighting that fear related to the virus may be one of the main reasons for poor sleep quality.
It also points out that the core symptoms of the infection, such as fever, coughing, breathing difficulties and physical pain, are correlated with sleep problems.
Yet Prof Bruck said there is strong evidence to show how Covid has physically changed the make-up of our brains.
“There is suggestion that there is some cell death and it could be in different parts,” she said.
“Of course that will probably come back over time, the body is quite good at regenerating itself.
Prof Bruck pointed to a number of studies that suggest there is a whole legacy of physical changes, including in the brain, that can arise in patients who have caught COVID — especially if it’s a bad case.
“Once you’ve got the possibility of cell changes and cell death, then anything can happen for any physiological or behavioural event, like sleep,” she said.
“And it could be that the infection has led to changes in nightmare and dream recall frequency, or it could be that it is just a response to all the stresses and anxiety that people have experienced.”
Tips for a better night’s sleep
From limiting media exposure to keeping a regular sleep-wake routine and making time to unwind, the Sleep Health Foundation says there is lots people can do to ensure good sleep quality.
“We talk about predisposing factors, that can be genetic or your work life situation, precipitating factors like COVID, and then perpetuating factors such as sleep habits and behaviours,” Prof Bruck said.
“The key then is to minimise those perpetuating factors to ensure having really good sleep habits.”
Do you have a story tip? Email: firstname.lastname@example.org