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How to Sleep Well During a Global Pandemic

5 May 20

In one year, your average adult will sleep for just under 3,000 hours. But 2020 hasn’t exactly been a normal year, and a lot of us are grappling with changes to our normal sleeping schedule – whether that’s an extra afternoon nap to combat the constant feelings of lethargy, or a loss of night-time hours due to anxiety triggered by watching the news. To help put your mind at ease when it comes to quarantine shut-eye, we’ve delved deep into the world of sleep to (hopefully) help you lot get a better slumber...

By the time we reach 75, we’ll have spent a solid 25 years of our lives snoozing. To some – such as the business-obsessed CEOs who thrive off checking in with their Tokyo office at 4am on the way to the gym – that might sound like a lot of wasted time. But, those hours spent in bed are invaluable to us and our ability to function as human beings. 

As neuroscientist and certified sleep-expert Dr Matthew Walker once said during an appearance on This Morning in 2018: “We used to ask the question: ‘Why do we sleep?’, as if there was one single function, and that’s the equivalent of saying ‘why are we awake?’ We’re awake for lots of reasons. The same is true for sleep.” Dr Matthew released his international best selling book, Why We Sleep, in 2017, which not only runs through the nitty-gritty details of why we need sleep to function, but also details how to harness the power of sleep to improve your health both physically and mentally. Matthew completed his undergraduate degree in neuroscience at the University of Nottingham in 1996, and currently resides as a professor of Neuroscience and Psychology at the University of California, Berkeley – so there’s no doubt we have a lot to learn from him. 

From the obvious benefits of restoring energy levels, reducing stress and repairing the body, sleep also has a major impact on your body’s ability to boost your immunity and fertility, slim your waistline and prevent illnesses such as diabetes and heart disease. Without a decent amount of shut-eye, you can become emotionally unstable and unable to recall information, carry out basic tasks or understand logical reasoning and, in extreme circumstances, seriously damage your health. In a study conducted by the University of Chicago in 1989, when rats were deprived of REM sleep, they died almost as quickly as they would from total food deprivation.  

We are currently living through a sleep-loss epidemic. Surveys show that in the 1940s, the average adult was sleeping for 7.9 hours a night; now, that figure is closer to just 6.5 hours during the week for most adults. For centuries, our bodies have been programmed to demand a certain amount of sleep per night, but our lifestyles have undergone a significant change in those eight decades, and that’s before we’ve even begun to address the effect this pandemic is having on our slumber. 

Sleep and anxiety have a complicated and intertwined relationship – when you’re suffering with anxious thoughts, the levels of adrenaline in your body are similar to those of your ‘fight or flight’ response, meaning the last thing your body will feel like doing is nodding off. But, this lack of sleep can have an even worse effect on your mood, as even small bouts of sleep deprivation will chip away at your happiness and, in turn, make you more irritable and worried. Thanks to the dramatic change of routine, concerns about the health of ourselves, our family and friends, and the constant bad news coming from our TVs and social media feeds, it’s no surprise none of us are feeling particularly rested. 

People all over the world have begun to report more vivid dreams since the beginning of the pandemic too. In his book, Dr Matthew states: “REM sleep dreaming offers a form of therapy… takes the painful sting out of difficult emotional episodes you have experienced during the day, offering emotional resolution when you are awake the next morning.” Dreaming is our brain storing, sorting and processing information, in particular negative emotions, and attempts to discard things it no longer needs. Some dream experts believe that the withdrawal from our ‘normal’ daily life, environments and stimuli has left us with a lack of new inspiration for our subconscious, leading our brains to revisit themes and memories from our past. 

Unfortunately, there isn’t a quick fix to knocking yourself out for a perfect eight hours, but it’s imperative we chase as much sleep as we can for both our mental and physical health – our immune systems regulate our infection control, and without restorative sleep we could be facing a much scarier situation. It’s important to remember that as humans, our behaviors are innate, which makes it difficult to completely change our sleeping habits. But, you can implement some changes which will benefit you come bedtime… 

TOP TIPS FOR SLEEPING

We’re not going to delve into the obvious – limit screen time,  stick to a regular sleeping routine, meditate etc. – but here are seven other ways to aid your ability to nod off...

Avoid caffeine and alcohol 
Caffeine blocks the sleepy hormone adenosine from entering the brain, but when its effects begin to wear off, the contents of the blockage will flood into your body at once, causing you to want to fall asleep at the kitchen table. Caffeine’s other problem is its long ‘action’ life; twelve hours after a latte, a quarter of the caffeine will still be active in your brain. In context, a coffee at twelve-noon will still affect you at midnight. It will also hinder your ability to enter deep sleep. 

Similarly, your glass of red before bed will not help you sleep better. It may make you fall asleep faster – due to being a sedative – but that’s only knocking out your cortex. Throughout the night you’ll find yourself waking up frequently, and your REM sleep will also suffer, which is essential for functions like good emotional and mental health. 

Turn down the temperature
To fall asleep, your body temperature needs to drop by a degree – meaning those socks keeping your toes cosy will actually prevent you from getting shut-eye. The ideal temperature for your bedroom is between 16-18 degrees, so it’s best to open that window and let things get a little drafty.  

Create a relaxing sleep space 
Try introducing smells such as lavender – famous for its ability to send you off – and playing ocean sounds or white noise. While there’s no scientific data to back this up, experts reckon these repetitive sounds relax you by mimicking the rhythmic brain wave pattern seen in deep sleep.

Napping might not be the worst idea
There is always a risk that a quick afternoon nap will cause you problems at bedtime, but naps can be good for learning and memory, your immune system and calming down your cardiovascular system. A ‘nano-nap’ of ten minutes will refresh you and boost concentration by up to four hours, or a twenty-minute power nap can increase alertness and memory with no sleepy-hangover. 

Don’t lie in bed awake
If you’re having problems dropping off, bringing stressful, negative emotions into the bedroom will undo all your hard work prepping for bedtime. Get up –  and complete gentle tasks such as loading up the laundry or wiping down the kitchen surfaces until you begin to feel your eyes drooping. Similarly, try not to work from bed during the day – it’s important your brain does not make an association between bed and being awake. 

Write down your stresses
Stay one step ahead of those crazy dreams by processing your stresses on paper before they get the best of you in your dreams. Write down paragraphs, sentences or even singular words based on the things bothering you to prevent the anxious thoughts from stopping you from dropping off.

And, ultimately, be kind to yourself
Think of how you put a baby to bed. Do you just plonk them on the duvet and expect stillness? Don’t expect this of yourself either. In the hours before bedtime, turn down the lights, have a calming bath, put on comfortable pyjamas and read a bedtime story. Maybe even invite your old cuddly toy between the sheets for an extra comforting squeeze too.