Here’s how to beat ‘coronasomnia’
How many hours of sleep did you get last night? Was it fewer than the number you would normally get prior to the pandemic? If it was, you are certainly not alone. Just as Covid-19 has severely impacted mental health around the world, it has also negatively affected our sleep patterns, prompting sleep experts to coin the term ‘coronasomnia’.
According to sleep psychologist Dr Guy Meadows, who co-founded The Sleep School, coronasomnia is a term used to define the collection of sleep disturbances that are happening because of the pandemic.
“It’s not just difficulty sleeping at night, but excessive daytime tiredness too. Classic signs include three nights or more of poor sleep a week, taking 30 minutes or longer to drift off, or trouble getting back to sleep in the middle of the night,” he said.
The pandemic is a “perfect storm” for sleep problems
Covid-19 and its various containment measures, from physical distancing to extended lockdowns, have led to disrupted routines, job losses, and social isolation, to name just a few. It’s really no surprise that so many of us are struggling to get enough sleep.
The British Sleep Society has found that 70% of Britons aged between 40 and 63 reported changes to their sleep patterns during the pandemic, such as disrupted sleep, falling asleep unintentionally, difficulties falling/staying asleep, and later bedtimes.
Another study, conducted by the University of Southampton, found that one in four Britons is now reporting anxiety-induced sleep problems. Worldwide, Google searches for ‘insomnia’ increased during the first five months of the global health crisis.
Sleep is essential for our immune system
The difficult reality is, during the Covid-19 pandemic, when you actually need to try to be as mentally and physically healthy as possible, getting enough sleep is as important as ever.
Insomnia affects your mental and physical health in myriad ways. Last month I wrote about the importance of digestive health for supporting your immune system, and how it may help to fend off coronavirus and prevent severe symptoms. Like poor digestive health, insufficient sleep can also directly impact your immune system.
According to Dr Ivana Rosenzweig, consultant neuropsychiatrist at Guy’s & St Thomas’s Hospital, our immune system releases proteins called cytokines during sleep. “Sleep deprivation may decrease production of these protective cytokines, as well as antibodies and other infection-fighting cells.”
Lack of sleep can lead to weight gain
Studies have shown that a lack of sleep increases our desire for high calorie and sweet foods, while also decreasing our ability to resist them. This is because not getting enough rest can lead to an imbalance in our appetite hormones, ghrelin and leptin.
Ghrelin signals hunger in your brain, while leptin signals fullness. When you don’t get enough sleep, your body tells you that you need more energy by producing more ghrelin and less leptin. Think about how you usually feel the day after a big night out; do you eat a large breakfast and then continue consuming more than usual as you just can’t seem to feel full?
Author of The Power of Rest, Michael Edlund, explains that many combined studies have found that partially sleep deprived people consume on average an extra 385 calories a day. “You don’t need to eat those additional calories very long to gain weight. And the bigger people get, the less efficient their sleep,” he said.
Not enough rest can increase risk of diabetes and heart disease
According to the NHS, studies have suggested that those who usually get less than five hours a night have an increased risk of developing diabetes. “It seems that missing out on deep sleep may lead to type 2 diabetes by changing the way the body processes glucose, which the body uses for energy.”
Research has shown that insomnia can also lead to an increased risk of cardiovascular disease. A large-scale study of nearly half a million people was conducted in China in 2019 and published in the journal Neurology. Participants reported on their experiences of three insomnia symptoms: problems falling asleep or staying asleep, waking too early, and struggling to focus during the day.
The study found that participants who reported experiencing all three insomnia symptoms had an 18% increased chance of developing cardiovascular diseases, compared with those who did not experience the symptoms.
Both quantity and quality of sleep is important
Although the sufficient amount of sleep is unique to each person, most adults need around eight hours of good quality sleep each night, according to the NHS. The Sleep Foundation recommends between seven and nine hours per night.
Although it’s easy to know whether you’re getting the recommended quantity of sleep, it’s not as simple to know whether you’re getting enough quality sleep. The Sleep Foundation lists these characteristics of good sleep quality:
- You fall asleep within 30 minutes of getting into bed.
- You typically sleep straight through the night, waking up no more than once per night.
- You’re able to sleep the recommended amount of hours for your age group.
- You fall back asleep within 20 minutes if you wake up during the night.
- You feel rested, restored, and energised upon waking up in the morning.
What are the best ways to improve sleep quality?
Psychologists refer to the behavioural and environmental practices that lead to the best possible night’s sleep as sleep hygiene. Here are our nine tips to improve yours:
- Go to sleep at the same time each night and wake up at the same time each morning. Maintaining a sleep routine helps to keep your circadian rhythm—commonly referred to as the body clock—in sync.
- Get a sunny start to the day. Exposing yourself to natural light in the morning has been found to increase the brain’s release of the mood-boosting hormone serotonin, which can help us feel calm and focused, leading to a better night’s sleep. Further, when your skin is exposed to sunlight, it makes Vitamin D, which I’ve written about extensively here.
- Create a bedtime routine. Taking a warm bath, drinking caffeine-free tea, meditating, and reading a book before you go to bed are all great ways to help you unwind. Plus writing a gratitude journal every evening can also improve our sleep quality.
- Switch off devices at least half an hour before sleep. Electronic devices such as phones, e-readers and computers emit short-wavelength enriched light, also known as blue light. This type of light has been shown to reduce or delay the natural production of the sleep hormone melatonin and decrease feelings of sleepiness.
- Ensure your bedroom is as cosy and inviting as possible. A bedroom environment is often key to a good night’s sleep, so it should enable you to feel as calm and clear-minded as possible. Try your best to avoid working in your bedroom and keep it free of all reminders of work. Darkness is also essential, as darker lighting triggers the brain to produce melatonin.
- Avoid caffeine and alcohol well before bed. To avoid sleep impacted by caffeine, it’s a good idea to avoid drinking coffee after 2pm. If you drink alcohol, a drink at lunch time rather than dinner time will also improve your sleep hygiene.
- Avoid eating a heavy meal at least 2-3 hours before bed. Consuming a big dinner just before bed can cause heartburn, as the digestive processes that are supported by gravity (that is, us being vertical, not horizontal, after we eat) are disrupted if we lie down.
- If you’re really hungry, eat foods that contain melatonin. Bananas, nuts and seeds, and honey contain melatonin. Just be sure to only have a small amount, though.
- Take good care of your gut. New research from the University of Colorado shows that prebiotics can improve sleep and boost stress resilience, by influencing gut bacteria and the molecules they produce. Here are our six tips to keep your gut microbiome happy and healthy.
Here’s to a good night’s sleep and bouncing out of bed each morning!