Before the very first lockdown just over a year ago, only 44% of UK adults were satisfied with the length and quality of their sleep. For many, remote working presented freedom from the pre-dawn commute and late nights at the office that little by little eroded what limited time we’d had for shut-eye. Although the past 12 months have been a dark time, the thinking went that might gives us all a chance to slow down, and to stock up on that horribly scarce commodity in modern life: proper rest.
Reality had other ideas. Social isolation and apocalyptic news headlines have induced higher levels of anxiety, rendering adequate sleep ever more elusive. The stress of unemployment, financial pressures, homeschooling kids and increased screen time left many of us tossing and turning. On Twitter, #cantsleep was trending. Celebrities began recording bedtime stories as sleep aids. A recent survey from King’s College London found that half of the UK population say their sleep was more disturbed during lockdown, taking longer to sleep and waking up repeatedly in the the night. Three in ten said they sleep longer but feel less rested, suggesting a steep decline in sleep quality.
But getting a good night’s sleep might be more important during the pandemic than ever before, being clinically proven to strengthen one’s immune system. A 2009 study found that people who have poor quality sleep are six times more likely to develop a cold. Moreover, sleep bolsters physical recovery and the ability to regulate emotions, anxiety and stress. It is crucial to cognitive function and to our ability to perform well at our jobs.
Now, as we slowly emerge from COVID - hopefully, permanently - life as we knew it could well change. I don't think anybody has the answers how it will change but one thing's for sure, you'll still need sleep. So, evaluating sleep quality seemed like a good idea to us!
To help you harness the transformative benefits of better sleep, here are five ways to go about improving your daily routine that are proven to turn your restless night into restful slumber.
1. Go to sleep at the same time every day
Our bodies have an internal clock. Often called the circadian rhythm, it governs our 24-hour cycle from sleeping to waking, regulating bodily functions from blood pressure, digestion, body temperature and hormone release to hunger and general alertness. This internal clock is heavily influenced by your environment and going to bed late one night but early the next will throw it off kilter, resulting in almost constant physical and mental fatigue.
Going to sleep and waking up at the same time every single day, honouring your circadian rhythm, has been proven to enhance sleep quality. It will improve your physical health and crucial bodily functions as well as alertness and cognition. It will also help you get to sleep quicker; your body’s natural clock will know exactly when to begin producing melatonin, the hormone that induces sleepiness.
Try developing a regular sleep routine with the same rigidity as your morning routine at work. You can even set a “go to sleep” alarm to remind yourself that, for example, every day, no matter what, you’re in bed by 10:30pm.
2. Get outside
Being stuck at home means we’re exposed to less sunlight, nature’s cue for wakefulness and sleep. Research shows that exposing yourself to natural light for at least 30 minutes every day can help regulate your circadian rhythm. In people with insomnia, daytime bright light exposure improved sleep quality and duration and even reduced the time it took to fall asleep by 83%.
Even a quick morning walk will do wonders for your body’s ability to wind down at the end of the day. Exercise will also do the trick. Not only will going for a run or a long walk outside relieve the anxiety and stress that often keeps us up at night, but you will find that you’re much more tired when you get into bed and drift off faster to a deeper and longer sleep.
As always, make sure that sunlight works in your favour and not against you; use a daily moisturiser with SPF and, of course, sunscreen or UPF 50+ clothing, to protect your skin.
3. Impose an electronic curfew
While exposing yourself to light in the day is beneficial to good sleep, at night it has the opposite effect. We live in a dark-deprived society; once the sun sets, artificial lighting and screens flood our world in blue wavelengths, suppressing our natural secretion of melatonin and tricking our bodies into staying awake and alert at the exact time when we want the opposite. We’ve all been there before: one episode of your favourite show or 10 minutes texting in bed can lead to an hour’s tossing and turning.
Enforce a strict electronic curfew: try 60-90 minutes without social media, email or TV before lights out. You’ll be surprised by your body’s natural ability to wind down when free from these visual stimulants. You might also find the time to finally get around to that hobby you were meaning to try out or that book you told yourself you’d read.
The brain is an incredibly associative organ; if you scroll through your phone, watch Netflix on your laptop or even have a Zoom meeting while beneath the sheets, you’ll begin to associate your bed with wakefulness or entertainment rather than sleep. Leave all your gadgets at the door and treat your bedroom like the prehistoric cave your ancestors slept in - it’s how it was meant to be!
4. Cut down on the stimulants
Many of us are powered through the week by mild to severe coffee addictions. A glass (or more) of wine in the evening is very often our go-to relaxation crutch. I know you won’t like this, but these stimulants are wrecking your sleep!
Caffeine blocks the signal from adenosine, one of your brain’s vital sleep chemicals. Adenosine continues to accumulate and eventually breaks through, causing that familiar afternoon crash, often at the most inopportune time. Moreover, caffeine’s natural half life is five hours, meaning that even a late morning hit could stay in your system well into the night. Have you ever felt exhausted in the afternoon yet somehow wide awake at night? Consider cutting your coffee intake to one cup per day and drink it as early in the morning as possible.
While a very small amount of booze might help you relax, a little too much alcohol will devour REM sleep - the deep, optimal rest your brain needs to fully replenish itself. Going to bed tipsy will also hinder your breathing, which will mean you’re more prone to waking up several times in the middle of the night.
Lastly, if you’re a late night eater, prioritise small snacks over heavy meals or sugary nibbles. A sugar buzz or indigestion can severely interrupt your sleep.
5. Get a wind down routine
We tend to think of going to sleep like a light switch. You get under the covers in the dark and expect to nod off immediately. Sleep scientist Matthew Walker urges us to imagine bedtime more like landing a plane; a slow, intentional descent of progressive relaxation that begins an hour or two before head touches pillow.
It’s no wonder so many of us are beset with anxious thoughts as we lie in bed - we simply haven’t given ourselves the time to relax. Try out a night time routine alongside your electronic curfew; do some light stretching, some mindful breathing techniques, meditate or read. Walker even recommends keeping a worry journal, making sure you process difficult emotions before they rob you of rest. More simply, a hot shower or bath can do wonders for your ability to fall asleep quickly, as getting warm and then cooling off helps produce melatonin.