If you have been struggling to sleep during the COVID-19 pandemic, you are not alone. A change in our work or daily routine, a change in eating, drinking and movement patterns, a lack of sunlight, money worries, relationship problems, working from home, uncertainty, increased screen time can all cause an increase in stress and disrupt our circadian rhythms and hormones that control our sleep.
While sleep deprivation at any time in life is both frustrating and takes a major toll on our physical and mental health we need adequate sleep now more than ever. Research has shown that getting seven to eight hours of sleep each night helps enhance the function of T-cells, a type of white blood cell that attacks and kills viruses. Sleep also plays a role in producing cytokine, a protein required for our immune systems to quickly communicate with our cells and fight off any infections.
So get back on track with a better sleep routine by following the tips below to help ensure a happy, healthy household and bulletproof your immune system against COVID-19.
Sleep is regulated by our internal body clock, called the circadian rhythm that controls our sleep and wake times and our ability to move through the five, 90-minute sleep cycles that help us achieve quality sleep and function at our best. The crucial hormones that are linked to our circadian rhythm are serotonin, adrenaline, and cortisol that help us feel awake and alert and the hormones Gaba and Melatonin that help us feel calm focused and relaxed to send us off to sleep.
Many of us are disrupting our circadian rhythms at the moment staying up late watching screens, sleeping in or taking day time naps. Take back some normality and wake up at the same time you did pre lockdown life. Try to get your whole household up at the same time if you have children, or relish the solo time if you have housemates.
While for many of us the commute may have been the bane of your working days, it was an important part of your routine. Set up a fake commute by taking a 20-30 minute walk around the block keeping a 2m distance from others.
Your circadian rhythm is also controlled by your hormones and digestion and research shows that eating breakfast within 90 minutes of waking (especially for females) will help to support a metabolic and hormonal response that can help you sleep at night.
Skip the overly processed, sugary breads and cereals and make the most of your time by cooking or preparing a real, whole food breakfast. Try an omelette or frittata, baked eggs, scrambled eggs and vegetables, a breakfast burrito bowl, sweet potato bruschetta or a breakfast pizza.
With the cupboards and fridge so close it is tempting to snack and pick all day leaving less room for real, whole-food meals. This not only leaves you prone to consuming more energy-dense, nutrient-poor food but also consuming food that is high in sugar, additives or other preservatives that could also impact your sleep. Stick to consistent times for lunch and dinner and base these around whole, fresh or frozen, seasonal foods. Try to have dinner at least two hours before bed so digestion doesn’t interfere with your sleep and include a source of quality protein, carbohydrate and healthy fats to help you’re your insulin and blood sugar levels stable throughout the night. If you are consistently waking up between 2-3 pm it could be due to your digestion or a drop in blood sugar levels.
With unlimited coffee and alcohol on tap, it’s easy to overindulge on these especially if you are feeling tired or stressed. Try to keep to your normal caffeine intake and swap to non-caffeinated beverages after 2 pm. Alcohol before bed may help us drop off to sleep but interferes with our ability to achieve the deep, restorative REM sleep we need. It also puts pressure on our liver and stimulates our stress hormones which is generally why we find ourselves awake at 2 am after alcohol. Try to limit your alcohol consumption to 1-2 drinks as early as possible in your evening or skip altogether if you really struggling to sleep. If you find yourself waking through the night to go to the toilet, try to have your last beverage at least three hours before bed.
With plenty of time to move, it’s important to make the most of it and get outside for at least 20-30 minutes of daily movement for your physical and mental health. If you are feeling stressed, tired or sick stick to low intensity movement like walking, gentle cycling, yoga or other forms of movement you enjoy.
Try not to undertake any high-intensity movement 2-3 hours before bed and swap this out for a calming yoga or stretching session to help you relax before bed.
If you have had a stressful day in the remote work office or running a home school, take the time to destress and wind down. At least an hour before bed, switch off from technology and swap to an activity you find relaxing such as reading a book, taking a bath, doing some yoga, playing some music, doing some deep breathing or anything else that helps you relax.
With many of us glued to our phones or devices for the news, social interaction and entertainment it’s no wonder these blue light-emitting devices are interfering with the production of melatonin, the sleep-inducing hormone. Research shows it’s not just important to reduce your screen time before bed but also throughout the day to ensure this doesn’t interfere with your sleep. While this is difficult throughout the day, try to avoid looking at multiple devices and limit screen time before work, during meals and breaks and after work.
If you are finding it hard to sleep or waking through the night it could be your conscious or unconscious stress or worries at play. When our head hits the pillow the brain has a chance to process the day’s thoughts and stressors. The area of the brain responsible for this is the default mode network or the DMN. And it’s designed to focus on the negatives, which is an evolutionary throwback to keep us safe. This can lead to us ruminating or overthinking throughout the night.
It’s important to identify and accept your concerns before bed or when you wake. Labelling your concerns and emotions will lessen them slightly. It may also help if you wake throughout the night to acknowledge it is normal to wake through the night and tell yourself you will go back to sleep. When you wake, try a deep breathing or meditation or mindfulness clip like this one to help ease your stress levels and send you back to sleep.
It’s important we stay informed but try to mindful of how it is impacting your mood and stress levels. Watch the relevant news and updates but try not to read every click-bait article or listen to everyone's opinions on the COVID-19 pandemic. Try to limit your exposure and spend this time on activities that you want to do. Seeing endless posts about baking, decorating, learning new languages or DIY projects can stress you out. Think for yourself and focus on creating the right routines for you and your household.
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Why is sleep important?
Inadequate sleep increases our risks for a huge number of lifestyle related diseases, including cardiovascular disease, type 2 diabetes and even cancer, not to mention increasing the likelihood that we will carry excess body fat!