In times of uncertainty often the first sign of stress is trouble sleeping.
Most of us take sleep for granted and give little thought to the quality we are getting, assuming it’s just about getting enough hours. But actually, the quality of your sleep has a huge impact on learning, memory, physical and mental health. And in times of high stress it’s more important than ever.
How to get good quality sleep
Professor Alice Gregory is a sleep expert and author of ‘Nodding off: The science of Sleep from Cradle to Grave” – her advice recommends a combination of factors that work together to achieve good quality sleep:
1. A consistent routine
With daily lives disrupted by the Covid 19 pandemic, everyone is adjusting to new routines and bedtimes are somewhat more fluid with no commuter journeys or fixed working office hours to adhere to. Whilst this fluidity can be liberating it can also have an impact on your bodyclock and affect the quality of your sleep as well as the ability to get to sleep easily. As much as possible try to implement a consistent routine to help your body know when it’s time to be asleep or awake.
2. get some daylight
With indoor isolation a necessity for the moment, where you can, ensure you get some external daylight and exercise if possible too. Get out for a lunchtime walk or run, soak up some Vitamin D and help your body get physically tired before the evening.
3. Adjust for evenings
Working from home can mean you feel like your on 24/7, with average screen times shooting up more than 20% in these first few weeks of lockdown already. It’s important to create some barriers and allow your body the time and space to unwind before bedtime. As Professor Gregory says: “Prolonged exposure to bright light at night (whether sitting in a well-lit room, or looking at a computer screen for example) can tell our bodies to hold off releasing the darkness hormone melatonin. This means that our bodies do not receive this particular cue that it is time to sleep – so it can be difficult to nod off.”
4. Avoid alcohol and caffeine
Reports of stockpiling alcohol alongside other bizarre ‘essentials’ like loo roll have been widely condemned, recent health studies have also shown that excessive alcohol consumption significantly depletes your immune system making your more susceptible to the virus. Of course, it’s tempting to pour yourself a night cap to unwind at the end of a day. Whilst this gives you a short term feeling of relaxation, because the alcohol depresses the nervous system, the body’s reaction to this is to boost levels of adrenaline and cortisol to counter this – called the neurological rebound effect - and this can often impact on the second half of your night’s sleep with restless and wakeful early hours.
Similarly, working from home has certainly increased our intake of snacks and hot drinks but if you can try and limit yourself to caffeine before 12pm to avoid it impacting on your sleep.
5. Temperature regulation
Despite being largely neglected in most people’s understanding of what a good night’s sleep consists of, body temperature is incredibly important, and scientists and sleep researchers have done much work to explore this. It’s well established that our body temperature decreases while we sleep and in fact those with cooler body temperatures are able to achieve deeper, better quality sleep than others. Being too hot has been shown to significantly contribute to more fractured and lower quality sleep. The optimal temperature for sleep is 16 – 18°C. Of course, you can control the room temperature with a thermostat but controlling your own body temperature is a more complex task. Stress and hormonal changes can impact your circadian rhythm and your body temperature in different ways from one day to the next. The most important thing is to ensure you are wearing breathable clothing to allow the body to self-regulate. Natural fibres and loose-fitting garments are best for this. Cotton is a great option for bedsheets and pyjamas as well as other natural fibres such as lyocell which is made from eucalyptus wood pulp and is 50% more absorbent that cotton, making it a great choice for anyone with a tendency to sweat at night.
6. Try to keep a lid on the disaster scenario train of thought
Obviously stress has a huge impact on the quality of our sleep and in turn, not getting good sleep is linked to depression and has a proven negative impact on general physical and mental wellbeing. Where you can, try not to let your mind go into overdrive at night. Reading a few pages of an easy-read fictional book to switch off before you got to sleep, or if you find yourself waking up, can be very helpful. In fact, reading has been proven as the best way to relax, just six minutes can be enough to reduce your stress levels by more than two thirds.