Getting a good night’s sleep*

Since lockdown started, we have been creating and adapting to a new way of life.

Part of our day-to-day is having to live with uncertainty about how things will evolve. In addition, many are experiencing difficulties and added concern about health and safety.  Our routines have been interrupted, and it may have affected our sleep pattern as well.

In addition to adjusting to these changes, study and work demands may have continued or increased. In order to meet deadlines, we may work until late in the night to prepare for exams or finish projects,  further interrupting our sleep.

Add to this the tendency in Western cultures to override our need to sleep so that we can get things done.

There is also a tendency to equate time with efficiency, so it may be difficult to protect our time to sleep. And when we feel stressed, we may believe that there is not enough time to fit in everything that we need to do, adding pressure and reducing our energy level.

Why focus on sleep?

Sleep is essential to our body and mind as eating well and maintaining our physical fitness. Sleep restores our brain and body, and it sets us up for the day. You probably have noticed that when your sleep is interrupted, you feel sleepy and tired the next day. Our brain will not function effectively, we tend to have slower reaction times, and our ability to concentrate is reduced. This can be dangerous, especially when driving or when operating machinery.

In addition, poor sleep can produce increased irritability, and we can get easily upset. These symptoms may also impact our communications with others, affecting our relationships. 

As a result of lack of sleep, our body does not have the chance to repair and restore energy, so it is common to feel tired. 

Our brain triggers the stress response producing cortisol (stress hormone) so that we can have the energy to cope in the short-term. However, when this goes on for a long time, it can have a negative effect on our health. 

Furthermore, research shows that sleep is important for memory consolidation. Lack of sleep hinders our ability to remember the material we need to store in long-term memory (Walker, 2018).

Benefits of a good night’s sleep

Getting regular sleep benefits our body and mind to function optimally. During sleep, the brain can clear out toxins and restore energy. A good healthy routine that includes exercise, eating well, and keeping hydrated enables our body to regulate blood pressure, reduce the incidence of diseases such as heart disease, diabetes, and neurodegenerative diseases.

Research also indicates that sleep contributes to regulating our emotions and our immune system. When sleep is altered our immune system is suppressed leaving us more vulnerable to illnesses  (Machiocci, 2020).

So, what can we do to restore sleep?

 Create a regular pattern of sleep

If we have gone to bed late several nights and missed some hours of sleep, we cannot recover the lost sleep by sleeping in at the weekend. When we have had several nights of poor sleep, it is recommended that we do not nap during the day as this will reduce sleep pressure – part of the sleep cycle that helps us to get to sleep – keeping us awake when we most want to sleep.

Going to bed, and getting up at the same time every night of the week (including weekends), will contribute to restoring our sleep pattern.

Create a comfortable environment

Keep your bedroom at a cool temperature, quiet and dark.  Also, having a comfortable bed and a tidy space will make it more conducive to relaxing, which will aid sleep.

Create a sleep routine

Our body responds to cues in the environment, so creating a nighttime routine will help us to get to sleep sooner.  Dim the lights at least an hour before bedtime. Get into your pajamas and maybe read a book or listen to calming music.

Make sure that all electronic devices are turned off and out of the room at least an hour before you go to bed. 

Some research indicates that the blue light from the devices may prevent the production of melatonin, which is necessary for us to be able to sleep. Another reason could be that we may use the devices to distract us, so we delay getting to sleep (Gardner, et al, 2013).

Include relaxation in your sleep routine

If we are tense, trying and expecting to get to sleep, it is less likely that we will fall asleep. Instead, focus on resting and relaxing. Sleep is more likely as your muscles relax, and you can release distracting thoughts. If you find that worry thoughts keep coming up, write them down, and then you can deal with them in the morning. 

You can try listening to a mindful breathing exercise* – the practice of focusing on the present moment letting thoughts go by. This is a technique where the focus is on our breath. It is paying attention to the present moment as we breathe slowly and deeply. It is an effective way to release stress as the breathing taps into the body’s natural calming response. We can restore balance by practising taking a few deep breaths throughout the day. 

If you are not able to sleep, it is better to get up and go to another room where you can read or listen to music until you feel sleepy. Dim the lights so that the brain gets the signal it is night-time. This is to prevent the bedroom from being associated with restlessness and frustration that prevent sleep.

Manage expectations

When we do not sleep well, we worry that we are not sleeping. The more we worry, the less we sleep.

Rather than focusing on the little sleep we have had, it is better to focus on the time that we did sleep. This will help to reduce tension and restore hope that as we restore our sleep routine, and we learn to relax our body, our sleep will improve.

Limit stimulants
Some people take more coffee to keep alert when feeling tired due to lack of sleep. However, coffee is a stimulant that keeps us alert long after the time of drinking it, and it can prevent sleep. So, it is recommended to stop taking coffee after 2pm. 

Also, some people tend to drink some alcohol to get to sleep. Although alcohol can make people feel sleepy, it prevents deep sleep, it dehydrates, and it is likely to interrupt sleep during the night.

Exercise regularly

Regular exercise is good for the body and mind. It helps to regulate our emotions, and it helps to promote deep sleep, which is necessary to repair our body and restore energy. 

Go outdoors
Whenever possible, exercise outdoors. Go for a walk to green spaces – nature has a calming effect on our body and mind. 

Being outdoors, where your body can absorb some daylight, will help to regulate the production of melatonin (sleep hormone). This will help to restore our sleep pattern.

Experiment with some of these techniques and Identify what works for you.

*Register on the Life Tools Blackboard course to access a podcast with a mindful breathing exercise, a webinar on mindfulness and on getting a good night’s sleep. 

Reference:

Grandner MA; Gallagher RAL; Gooneratne NS. The use of technology at night: impact on sleep and health. J Clin Sleep Med 2013;9(12):1301-1302.

 Macciochi, J. (2020) The science of staying well. London, Thorsons

Walker, M. (2018) Why we sleep. The new science of sleep and dreams.
London, Penguin Books.