Whether you’re lying awake at 3 a.m., oversleeping due to loss of structure or literally dreaming of life pre-lockdown, the coronavirus has brought challenges to more than the millions of people who already suffer from insomnia. From disruption to our circadian rhythm due to low levels of light while at home to a lack of routine anchors, anxiety, stress and excess screen time pose significant disruptions to what has been called “the most powerful elixir of life”.
Mental Health America states that “All healthy routines should include eating a nutrition-rich diet, exercising, and getting enough sleep”. While these foundations are common knowledge, they’re still not common practice, with two-thirds of Americans losing sleep due to stress.
As essential as air and water, we spend a third of our lives asleep, during which our bodies restore and rejuvenate, grow muscle, repair tissue, consolidate memories and synthesize hormones—it’s our body’s own ready-made medicine. Poor sleep has been linked to numerous significant problems including greater risk of depression and anxiety, increased risk of heart disease and cancer, impaired memory, reduced immune system functioning, weight gain and greater likelihood of accidents.
Professor of Neuroscience and Psychology at the University of California, founder and director of the Center for Human Sleep Science and author of the international bestseller Why We Sleep, Matthew Walker discusses the repercussions of poor sleep at length in his TED Talk Sleep is your superpower, most sensationally giving the example of the impact of sleep loss on the cardiovascular system: “There is a global experiment performed on 1.6 billion people across 70 countries twice a year, and it's called daylight saving time. Now, in the spring, when we lose one hour of sleep, we see a subsequent 24-percent increase in heart attacks that following day. In the autumn, when we gain an hour of sleep, we see a 21-percent reduction in heart attacks.”
Matthew also highlights the critical role of sleep in keeping our immune system healthy, presenting the results from a study in which restricting sleep to four hours a night caused the activity in natural killer cells that fight tumours and infection to drop by an alarming 70%. “The link between a lack of sleep and cancer is now so strong that the World Health Organization has classified any form of nighttime shift work as a probable carcinogen, because of a disruption of your sleep-wake rhythms,” he remarks.
While immunity is especially relevant in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, so is our emotional wellness. Russell Foster, Professor of Circadian Neuroscience, summarizes the benefits of sleep on mental health: “If you get sleep, it reduces your mood changes, your stress, your levels of anger, your impulsivity, and your tendency to drink and take drugs.”
The National Sleep Foundation’s Sleep Guidelines During The COVID-19 Pandemic highlights that sleep is especially important at the moment while many of us are experiencing grief, increased work or family stress and isolation due to its ability to heighten brain function, reduce irritability and alleviate symptoms of depression. They recommend persisting at practising good sleep hygiene through a number of techniques in setting your schedule and routine within dedicated hours for work and exercise: regular meal times, having extra wind-down time and getting showered and dressed regardless of whether you’re leaving the house.
They also advise optimizing your bed for sleep and sex only by keeping your sheets fresh and comfortable and avoiding using technology in bed like scrolling through Instagram or watching Netflix—which also interferes with your body’s natural sleep-promoting processes due to blue light. Get your light naturally with daily exposure outdoors, which will not only help regulate your circadian rhythm but increase your levels of Vitamin D too. Whether you’re exercising outdoors or live-streaming a yoga class from home, staying active can help you relax and reduce stress.
Of course, alcohol and caffeine can disrupt sleep so being cautious of intake later in the day can help, as can avoiding excessive sleep during the day. According to sleep specialist Rafael Pelayo, there is however a direct benefit in taking a short nap: recent research found that even for healthy adults that slept well, taking a 90-minute nap improved their memory by 21%. Matthew Walker reiterates this in his TED Talk Sleep is your superpower—which has views in excess of 10 million, demonstrating how vast the issue is: “What we've discovered over the past 10 or so years is that you need sleep after learning to essentially hit the save button on those new memories so that you don't forget.” While so many of us are working remotely from home or at home on furlough, what better opportunity to utilise the convenience of being able to wander to our bedrooms on our lunch hour to recharge and increase the afternoon’s productivity?