Covid-19 and sleep: maintaining a healthy cycle during lockdown

15/04/2020

With the work-life balance of most individuals shifted due to restrictions regarding Covid-19, many may find themselves faced with difficulty in getting a good night’s rest. After news of placing the country on lockdown came on the 23rd March, #cantsleep began trending on the popular social media platform Twitter. Factors that may be affecting why people aren’t sleeping optimally may include: a lack of exposure to natural light; reduced physical activity; higher levels of stress and anxiety; higher exposure to technology lighting, and taking more frequent and longer naps during midday, among others. 

Most people will spend, on average, one third of their entire lives sleeping, with the majority of 18-64-year olds requiring 7-9 hours of sleep per day as recommended by the National Sleep Foundation. However, a British sleep survey conducted in 2018 found that Britons on average were attaining between 5.78 and 6.83 hours a night, suggesting that the majority do not meet the recommended guidelines

While many may consider sleep deprivation to be staying up all night and gaining little to no sleep, accumulated sleep deprivation can also have harmful effects. Accumulated sleep deprivation encompasses frequently sleeping less than the recommended 7 hours; therefore, if you sleep for 6 hours a night, you may be slowly depriving yourself of the necessary sleep needed for maintaining a healthy body and mind, without even being aware of it. Researchers have found that individuals who were restricted to 6 hours of sleep a night for 14 days performed at a cognitive level equivalent to those who were sleep deprived for 2 days straight. However, the sleep restricted individuals often were not aware of their cognitive deficits.

A lack of sleep is detrimental for physical and mental well-being, and has been linked to changes in alertness, mood, and stress levels. Studies have also suggested that a lack of sleep (<7 hours) is a risk factor for weight, suicide ideation and attempt, anxiety, and emotional problems to name a few. Further, a lack of sleep can compromise your immune system, leaving you more susceptible to falling ill. Therefore, it’s important to optimise your sleep cycle. Below outlines why certain factors may affect you negatively, and how to manage your sleep better to restore a healthy routine:

 

Managing stress and anxiety during isolation 

Many people may find themselves kept up at night due to rushing thoughts and feelings of intense anxiety. In a period of high uncertainty in regard to the near future, job security, and economic outcomes among many other issues, struggling to sleep due to the stress and anxiety that come with these thoughts is unsurprising. Further, life stressors may become exacerbated due to tight and constricting living circumstances, particularly if you live with multiple people.  To combat this:

  • Take time out of your day to find a quiet space in your house to relax and clear your mind. 
  • Stay connected to the people in your life. Video calls, social media, and phone calls are all a way of staying in touch with the ones you love in a time where you may not be able to be with them physically.
  • Practice mindfulness to enhance your well-being. This may include trying something new, watching your thoughts, and noticing your everyday surroundings. 
  • Use apps to keep track of and take part in well-being activities. NHS staff are eligible for free use of ‘Unmind’, ‘Headspace’, and ‘Sleepio’, all of which are focused on promoting either healthy well-being or sleeping patterns. 

 

Increase you natural lighting and decrease technological lighting 

Humans are naturally diurnal, that is, they are active during daylight hours. Working from home can take away the potential to be exposed to natural sunlight if you find yourself in a room with that doesn’t allow for this. A lack of exposure to natural light has been suggested to be related to depressive symptoms and poor quality of sleep due to increased cortisol and reduced melatonin during night time. Working from home also means that more people will be turning to their laptops and desktops for longer periods of time. These screens can emit ‘blue light’, which can affect your body’s natural melatonin release time. This can make it harder to sleep at night as your body takes longer to feel drowsy. To combat these problems:

  • Set up your workspace in a room with plenty of natural lighting, with the curtains drawn wide open. If possible, try spending some time working outside in your garden. 
  • Try to avoid technology late at night and take up an evening hobby such as reading or crafting. 
  • If you do use technology in the evening, download apps or change your settings so that your device emits a warmer light rather than the standard blue light it emits during the day. 
  • Keep your phone away from your bed when you go to sleep to avoid the temptation of using it.

 

Reduce the length of your naps

The comfort of working from home allows for the potential to have a midday nap. While naps can be useful for increasing your alertness when you feel fatigued and unproductive, typically these positive effects are only seen for those lasting less than 20 minutes. Longer naps can leave you feeling groggy and tired, as they require waking up from a deeper sleep cycle. To optimise your afternoon:

  • If you need to nap, set an alarm for 20 minutes to ensure it is short. 
  • Don’t nap too late in the afternoon to avoid making it difficult to fall asleep late at night.
  • Swap highly sugary foods at lunch for healthier option to avoid an energy crash in the afternoon.

 

Monitor your caffeine intake

While taking small breaks often can be beneficial for productivity, if you’re reaching for a cup of coffee every time, you may find that you’re highly exceeding your caffeine limits when it’s time to sleep. The NHS recommend a maximum limit of 400mg of caffeine a day – which equates to 4 cups of coffee. Caffeine has a peak in the blood roughly 30-60 minutes after ingestion, with a half-life of 3-5 hours. This means that it can take up to 5 hours for just half of the caffeine you take to leave your body. To make sure caffeine doesn’t drastically affect your sleep schedule:

  • Take note of how much caffeine you’re having each day. A cup of coffee has roughly 95mg of caffeine, but be sure to take into account that other sources such as black tea (47mg), coca cola (46.5mg), and dark chocolate (43mg per 100g) will also add to your daily recommended allowance.
  • Drink pure herbal teas such as chamomile or peppermint in the evening if you’d like a hot drink.
  • Avoid caffeine consumption past 2pm, or 7 hours before you expect to go to sleep.

 

Create a sleep environment in your bedroom

Where you choose to rest is important, and creating the right environment to maximise your chances of sleeping well is important. You may find that since working from home, you are more tempted to work or stay in your bed for most of the day. But, your body is sensitive to signals from both psychological and physical cues, and therefore associating your sleep space with other activities may be detrimental for your sleep cycle. Therefore, to optimise your sleep space:

  • Only use your bed for sleeping or sex. If you are not able to sleep after 20 minutes of trying, leave your bed and come back when you feel drowsier.
  • De-clutter your bedroom to minimise distracting cues and sensory inputs.
  • Keep your bedroom at a cool temperature. Your body temperature changes as you sleep; a cooler core temperature is associated with sleep, whereas a higher temperature is associated with activity (for example, when exercising). 
  • Keep your room as dark as possible when you go to sleep to ensure you do not have any lights that serve as a distraction.

 

Overall, sleep is integral for a healthy body and a healthy mind. Although Covid-19 may have changed daily life quite considerably for those affected by lockdown, it’s important to keep a consistent and healthy sleep cycle throughout your time inside. By practicing good sleep hygiene, you can optimise your well-being, mental health, and physical health, something that is particularly important to manage during uncertain times. 

 

Article author: Aleks Saunders