“The shorter your sleep, the shorter your life. The leading causes of disease and death in developed nations have recognised causal links to a lack of sleep.”
Prof. Matthew Walker Ph.D. Neuroscientist and Sleep Expert
What are you like without a good night’s sleep? Are you grumpy and irritable like a bear with a sore paw and overload on as much caffeine you can get your hands on just to cope with the day ahead and repeat the same cycle all over again the next day?
Are you struggling to get a proper night’s sleep during this quarantine? Is your routine disrupted completely? Are you struggling with managing your day job as well as schoolwork and childcare and you’re too anxious to sleep with all this overwhelm? Have you awakened from vivid dreams or horrible nightmares?
You are not alone. A recent study of 2000 people by Zevo Health has shown that 34% of people in Ireland are sleep deprived; over 53% of people are experiencing vivid dreams and interrupted sleep patterns, 21% are experiencing nightmares and almost 30% state that the lockdown itself has had a significant impact on their sleep. This pandemic has affected our whole conscious an subconscious and more crucially, our sleep patterns.
In this article, I highlight the critical importance of good sleep hygiene in maintaining good physical and mental restorative health. .
Commentators are calling the next phase of life and work the “new normal,” but this crisis is anything but normal. We have all faced the most challenging onslaught to our physical, mental and emotional health. The biggest factor as we emerge from this crisis is to rebuild our personal restorative energy in the longer term. The world is opening up, but our lives and our attitudes to the routine and stresses of the daily commute as we once knew it, have changed dramatically.
Sleep is the foundation of good brain health. According to neuroscientist and sleep expert Dr. Matthew Walker, our sleep enriches our ability to learn, memorise, and make logical decisions. Often, we don’t prioritize it. We say to ourselves, “I’ll catch up,” but we don’t. Less than 5 hours sleep has the same effect as arriving into work drunk and we certainly wouldn’t be congratulated!
Sleep recalibrates our emotions, replenishes our immune system, fine-tunes our metabolism, and regulates our appetite. In order to be at our best, we need to develop a healthy brain and the most fundamental part of that is our ability to obtain restful sleep, something which is even more challenging in the current environment. Understanding the importance of good sleep hygiene will not only help you develop in a positive way in building your resilience through this crisis, but also for your long-term health.
In this article we will explore 3 key aspects:
- Why sleep matters and why it is the foundation of good brain health
- What happens to your brain during the sleep cycle
- Provide you with 7 key tips to optimise your sleep to reset your sleep hygiene and leave you restored and refreshed for the day ahead.
Why sleep matters:
Sleep deprivation is the underlying factor in many diseases, as it underpins our physical and mental restorative energy. During this pandemic, it has been reported that sleep deprivation has increased by 30%. Sleep is critical to good brain health, as it regulates our emotions, consolidates long-term memory and our physical repair, and even more importantly, it flushes harmful toxins from our brain through the glymphatic system and allows us to awake refreshed the next day. Disrupted sleep is the biggest contributor to all-cause mortality in illness and accidents.
Why then do we often take sleep for granted?
I remember listening to a former US academic, who stated that as a young student of neurology, he naively thought that he could do without sleep and just started to cram for his degree throughout the night. Needless to say, he found that his performance and memory deteriorated completely as he failed to understand that rest and restoration is just as important as mental and physical activity to perform at his best. Having less than 5 hours sleep significantly lowers out cognitive ability, our memory. Not a good start! Fortunately, he saw the error of his ways!
Sleep has huge benefits. It helps us regulate our physical and mental restoration; it helps us handle stress and builds our immune system and makes us less susceptible to illness.
What happens to your brain during sleep?
There are two main stages of sleep: non-REM sleep and REM sleep. Our natural circadian rhythm is made of four main stages of sleep-wake cycles, which last approximately 90-110 minutes each. During the initial stages we go progressively into what is known as NREM, (Non Rapid Eye Movement), which focuses on the deep physical restoration of our joints and muscles that we’ve used during the day, neurological restoration and memory consolidation. Recent neurological studies have also shown that during this phase, the glymphatic system in the brain acts a bit like a ‘washing machine’ and gets rid of all the harmful toxins in our brain. In the last stage, the sleep pattern is more active and is the REM state, (Rapid Eye Movement) or dream state. People who wake after this sleep cycle tend to remember vivid dreams. Whilst there is no hard and fast rule, neuroscientists recommend that we need on average 7-8 hours sleep a night to be at our physical and mental best, to perform at an optimum level.
What has happened during COVID-19, is that our entire system has been attacked and has given us the feeling of being attacked by an invisible predator. Therefore, our “mortality salience,” which is our awareness and anxiety of our impending death or that of a loved one, is significantly heightened.
7 Key Tips for Better Restorative Sleep
Take ownership of your sleep pattern
Take stock of your life. Are you smoking too heavily, drinking too much coffee or alcohol or eating the wrong foods late at night? Do you fail to exercise as part of your daily routine? Do you eat spicy or heavy meals late at night that put too much strain on your digestive system? Journal your sleep pattern for a week and see if there are key triggers that affect you.
Get some sunlight within 5 mins of waking and exercise preferably in the morning.
Being out at sunrise resets our circadian rhythm and promotes cortisol which gives us a boost of energy for the day. Studies by Dr. John Ratey, Associate Clinical Professor at Harvard University, have shown that 30 minutes cardio four or five times a week has been shown to increase the protein BDNF (Brain Derived Neurotropic Factor) in the brain which mitigates ageing – like a form of ‘Miracle-Gro’ for the brain. If you can, walk in sunlight in the morning without sunglasses as light hits the retina at the back of the eye and then onwards into the pineal gland in the brain which regulates light/dark signals.
Practice good habits to reset your sleep routine.
Go to bed and get up at the same time each day, even on your days off as it is critical to have a good sleep hygiene and resets your circadian rhythm. Get up a half hour earlier than normal if you can to give you time to yourself and plan your day and avoid giving yourself micro-stressors even before you leave the house.
Write down your worries and get them out of your head two hours before you sleep to reduce mental chatter. Write down 2 or 3 key things you want to do tomorrow so your brain can rest. Julia Cameron also has a very good technique to just “brain dump” your thoughts by writing 3 pages morning or evening and keep going for 30 days. Keep your pen on the page even if you have to say, “I can’t think what to write.” Eighty percent of what we are worrying about today, we worried about yesterday as well.
Dim the lights – create a ‘sundown’ for yourself.
As we go through the day our sleep drive increases and as darkness approaches our level of the hormone melatonin is enhanced and thus promotes sleep. Melatonin is extremely important as it also is a powerful antioxidant. Blue light from phones and laptops does the opposite affect and disrupts our natural sleep cycle and increases cortisol which is a stress hormone. Put your electronic devices to ‘sleep’ or on ‘airport mode’ from about 8-9pm. Getting to bed at 10.30pm to 11pm allows you instead to work with your natural circadian rhythm. Use an old fashion alarm or radio to wake you instead of your phone and preferably, leave your phone to charge outside your bedroom. Use blackout blinds or an eye mask to counteract surrounding lights. Studies have shown that the blue light even from someone else’s phone triggers our brain.
Keep it cool.
Your body needs a cool temperature to sleep so make sure the heat is turned off in your bedroom and change the duvet if need be to a lighter tog rating.
Slow your body down.
If you’ve been going at high speed all day, it’s important to slow down your routine going to bed. Exercise at least 3 hours before bedtime. Take up a relaxing routine of a hot bath, read a good book or meditate for 10 mins to lower your heart rate and allow your mind to rest.
For the next 30 days, write out your plan to reset your sleep hygiene. Ask yourself, what is the first thing I would do? Stick with it and you will reap the rewards in the longer term! Here’s to a good night’s sleep!