Airways and social media platforms are currently flooded with free advice about how to manage ourselves during lockdown. For those of us who have – mercifully – shown no signs of having COVID-19 there has been an especially rich vein of suggestions as to what we might do with the extra time that either not commuting to – or being furloughed from – work may have brought us. Yet in between the prompts to learn Spanish and keep fit there is rarely a reference to sleep, except to tell us that “it matters”, which most of us already knew. And it matters especially for our mental health, so with this being Mental Health Awareness Week in the UK it feels like a great time to reflect on why sleep matters even more in this pandemic, how COVID-19 is affecting our sleep habits and what we can do about it.
Whilst the definitive answer of ‘why we sleep’ still lacks an absolute consensus, it is widely accepted that “sleep is the foundation of both a strong immune system and psychological resilience” (Huffington, 2020). Indeed, more sleep can proactively strengthen our immune system plus build healthy habits that will really help us transition successfully into the post-lockdown world. And we can also feel more empowered and less anxious by focusing on what we can control ourselves (for example our own sleep) and what we can influence (the sleep of those we interact with regularly), rather than dwelling on what we can’t control (such as our Government’s lockdown policies or the state of the economy).
Studies show that chronic sleep shortages close down functions that help our immune response (Watson, 2017; Sinay, 2020). Sleep is also a vital resource to help our immune system recover (Luciana Basedovsky, 2012; Sinay, 2020). So, whether you know you have just had the dreaded virus or want to do everything possible to boost your immune system, sleep is a key free resource for you to enhance your physical immunity.
And from a mental health standpoint sleep definitely helps enhance our mood and memory (Sinay, 2020). It also boosts our problem-solving ability through simply being able to think straight, as well as feeling more inclined to seek different perspectives when well rested (Watkins, 2019). Additionally, ‘Sleep loss causes social withdrawal and loneliness’ is the self-explanatory title of a piece of research from Eti Ben Simon and Matthew Walker (2018). They noted that even 60 seconds in dialogue with someone who is clearly short of sleep can leave you feeling more lonely yourself.
So, what is actually happening to our sleep at present? Is there any hard data to show whether we are sleeping more or less? Two studies that have been published in the last month show a divergent picture. Fitbit published an article last month based on data gathered in the second half of March in both the US and Europe. In both cases an average increase in the time slept was noted. In the US, the Fitbit data noted a state by state picture ranging from an increase in sleep of 25 minutes per night to a reduction of 5 minutes. Similarly, the data from the cities of Zurich, London, Barcelona, Madrid, Milan and Paris showed Fitbit users sleeping an average of 13 to 25 minutes more per night (Bradshaw, 2020).
However, the Sleep Council in the UK (along with its partners The Sleep Charity and Sleepstation) published a study at the end of April showing a different trend in the UK. Here it appears that since lockdown began, almost half of the respondents now find it harder to fall asleep and three quarters admitted that a lack of sleep was interfering with their ability to function during the day (Findings, 2020). Results from Italy indicate something similar. This difference may partly be explained by the sampling being done later than the Fitbit study.
In my recent dialogue with Dr Liz Coulthard, Associate Professor of Dementia Neurology at the University of Bristol, she confirmed a similar trend in recent (yet to be published) research of the over 60s that she has been leading. “Preliminary results suggest overall a negative impact of COVID on sleep, but some people (are) definitely sleeping better now” Liz told me. “We are still trying to work out who and why”.
So, whilst the overall picture appears mixed, it seems safe to assume that a significant number of people are finding that their sleeping has been worse in recent months. And if that applies to you, a loved one or a colleague, what can you actually do about it? From a synthesis of my own research and personal experience, here are five ways to ensure you give yourself the best chance of sleep.
- ‘Bookending your night’ – a term I coined in my book Positive Sleep to provide some easy to follow guidelines to let the old day out, sleep (and stay asleep) and the let the new day in. Letting the old day out gives you the opportunity to ‘declutter your mind’ by disconnecting from your work and electronic devices 60-90 minutes before sleeping. I also find sipping a cup of camomile tea is a great way to unwind before bed. Mindfulness techniques can help you get back to sleep when you wake up in the middle of the night. Meditation, an early morning exercise routine or even just enjoying a cup of tea in the garden is a great way to start the day before re-engaging with work and your electronic devices (Watkins, 2019).
- For me, the disconnection from laptops, smart phones, tablets and other electronic devices – whilst part of the above – is so crucial as to be worth re-emphasising separately. Daniella Sinay puts it very eloquently when she urges us to “Set a news cut-off time at the end of the day” and “Before you get into bed, escort your devices out of your bedroom” (Sinay, 2020). And I would go even further than that. Leaving all these electronic devices in another room is safest. We associate these tools with stress and anxiety and as carriers of news of the pandemic or work issues, so it is best to banish them from the bedroom and only pick them up again in the morning when you are truly ready to properly engage with them again.
- Managing diet and exercise in this period of lockdown will make a big difference to how we manage our transit to whatever the new normal looks like. Caffeine consumption in particular needs watching as it blocks out adenosine which is the chemical that accumulates in our brain as sleep pressure builds (Watkins, 2019). Eliminating any coffee, tea and sports drink intake after 12 noon and seeing how you can cut down from there is a great start.
- The majority of writers on sleep commend regular bedtimes – both at night and waking up in the morning – as a cornerstone to improving your sleep. Something many of us advocate for our own kids and see the benefits of, so why not follow the lead ourselves?
- And finally, sleep hygiene. Creating the right environment for sleep – a room at the right temperature, a quality mattress in good condition and blackout blinds/curtains is a great start and gives you the best chance of sleeping well. Personally I find a weighted blanket helps a lot, especially if you wake in the night. In addition the use of oils and salts in the bath can really set you up for a much more relaxed night, via the absorption of magnesium and other minerals through the skin. I find Olverum bath oil is exceptionally good.
And for those who would like to take the challenge of improving their sleep even more seriously, I am offering six complimentary spaces on my bespoke 30-day sleep programme that will start this June. Please message me via LinkedIn if you are interested.
Bradshaw, K. (2020, April 13th). Fitbit app adds COVID-19 Resource Hub. Retrieved from https://9to5google.com/2020/04/13/fitbit-covid-19-resource-hub/
Findings, T. N. (2020, April 28th). SURVEY REVEALS COVID-19 HAVING SEVERE IMPACT ON SLEEP. Retrieved from The Sleep Council: https://sleepcouncil.org.uk/survey-reveals-covid-19-having-severe-impact-on-sleep/
Huffington, A. (2020, March 22). How to Boost Our Immunity, Start Now. Retrieved from LinkedIn: https://www.linkedin.com/pulse/how-boost-our-immunity-starting-now-arianna-huffington/
Luciana Basedovsky, T. L. (2012). Sleep and Immune Function. Pflugers Arch.
Sinay, D. (2020, March 19th). Why Getting More Sleep During the Coronavirus Pandemic Is Essesntial. Retrieved from Thrive Global: https://thriveglobal.com/stories/coronavirus-getting-more-sleep-essential/
Walker, E. B. (2018, August). Sleep loss causes social withdrawal and lonliness. Nature Communications(3146). Retrieved from https://www.nature.com/articles/s41467-018-05377-0
Watkins, G. (2019). Positive Sleep: A holistic approach to resolve sleep issues and transform your life. LID.
Watson, N. F. (2017). Transcriptional Signatures of Sleep Duration Discordance in Monozygotic Twins. Sleep Volume 40, Issue 1.
Written by Giles Watkins. Have you read?
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