Prioritising sleep during the pandemic
Getting better sleep in the midst of a pandemic might not be easy but it’s important – not just to protect your immune system here and now, but also for the sake of your long-term health.
During stressful times, our sleep health is at risk. Many people are finding their sleep patterns have been disturbed significantly. Some struggle to fall asleep, others wake up frequently during the night and some feel they are never rested, no matter how long they sleep.
Why sleep is so important
Sleep is fundamental to our physical and mental well-being. While we think of it as resting time, our bodies are hard at work while we sleep, fostering muscle growth, repairing cells and strengthening our immune systems. Sleep is essential to help our heart and blood vessels repair themselves, and for our brains to process information. While a night or two of bad sleep or not enough sleep can make you feel groggy and grumpy, not getting enough sleep on a regular basis can put you at higher risk of heart disease, stroke and diabetes.
Why sleep is affected when we’re stressed
Stress is a normal part of life. Historically, it’s helped to keeps us alive by triggering survival responses, like the fight or flight response. Although we’re now “safely” locked down in our homes, the pandemic may mean that many of us are in a constant high-stress state, unable to do anything about it (which is the purpose of the flight or flight reaction – to help our brains decide what the best course of action is). Instead, we just suffer the effects of stress.
Dr. Breus, aka The Sleep Doctor, says that if he could tell everyone one thing while stuck at home due to the coronavirus, it would be this: don’t let your new, abnormal schedule ruin your sleep. “Good sleep helps regulate mood, increases productivity, and gives our immune systems a much-needed boost,” he says.
To protect your sleep, here are some tips:
- Maintain your normal sleep schedule: If you’re working from home, it can be tempting to go to bed later and to sleep in later. After all, there’s no morning traffic to deal with. But maintaining a consistent sleep routine trains our bodies to go to sleep at a certain time, which makes it easier to fall asleep at night.
- Up the comfort in your bedroom: Is your bedroom set up to give you the best possible sleep? Your pillows and bedding are important, but you might need blackout curtains to shut out early morning light. Bedroom temperature is important too. And, of course, sleeping on a mattress that gives you good comfort and support is critical for good rest. Find out about buying the best bed for your needs here.
- Spend time in the sun (sensibly): According to Dr Breus, sunlight early in the day is an important first step to regulating your body’s natural sleep-wake cycle. It increases production of serotonin, which is an important hormone when it comes to regulating sleep and mood. Serotonin is also a precursor to melatonin, aka the sleep hormone, so sunlight helps our bodies prepare hours in advance for quality sleep by kicking off the natural production of melatonin. If you can’t get outside, sit near a sunny window for 10 minutes within a few hours of waking up.
- Get moving: It might be harder for you to exercise than usual if you’re avoiding the gyms because of social distancing, but if there’s something good to have come from the pandemic, it’s a fresh abundance of online exercise programmes (many of which are free). If you struggle to stay motivated, schedule socially distanced runs or rides with a friend to keep you accountable, or block off exercise time in your diary ahead of schedule, so you’re mentally prepared to work out. Just remember that exercise too close to bedtime can interfere with your ability to fall asleep. Be sure to build in time to rest and soothe your anxious mind later in the day too.
- Leave work, even if you’re working at home: Working from home can mess with your carefully balanced work/life schedule if you don’t intentionally put boundaries in place. Kitchens are for eating and bedrooms are for sleeping but if you’re spending your workday at home now instead of an office, it may be necessary to rethink your home. Even though it may only be temporary, try to keep work out of your bedroom. A sleep space that your brain associates with rest and relaxation will furnish a very different night’s sleep than one that’s associated with stress and worry. And don’t check your phone for emails and messages if you do wake up in the middle of the night – it’s likely you won’t be able to fall asleep again. Rather ban electronics from the bedroom if that’s a temptation for you. When you wake in the morning, get up, get dressed and move to a space in your home you’ve designated for work. It doesn’t have to be an office – just make sure it’s not in your in your bedroom.
- Cut down on caffeine and alcohol: While coffee gives us that morning boost we need to kick-start our day, drinking it in the afternoon or evening can interfere with your sleep. Read more about caffeine and sleep here. And while alcohol helps us wind down in the evening, it can dehydrate us, causing disruptive sleep/wake patterns throughout the night. Exercise restraint when it comes to both to ensure better sleep.
- Cut down on doom-scrolling: Ever feel like scrolling through your social media feeds and seeing disturbing news articles and posts is more upsetting than helpful, but you do it anyway? The social media term for this is “doom-scrolling”. Instead of giving in to this bad habit, try to self-regulate your exposure to the news. Force yourself to turn the news and your social feeds off once in a while. Then do whatever you need to do to relax, whether it’s making a cup of tea, doing some gentle yoga or saying a quiet prayer.
Whatever you do to protect your sleep tonight, know that you’re protecting your mood and energy levels tomorrow and your long-term health, far beyond the pandemic.
For more fun sleep facts and expert sleep advice, visit our Sleep Blog.