Has the coronavirus pandemic ruined your sleep? Insomnia, waking at 3am, vivid dreams and feeling sluggish in the morning are common changes in sleep patterns for many Melbournians. The blurred boundaries of working from home, late night tv binge watching, juggling homeschooling and global uncertainty have increased our levels of stress. And without our usual routines, exercise and friends, we have had limited ways in which to regulate our stress response.
A dysregulated stress response underlies many health challenges, including sleep problems. Our autonomic nervous system has 2 branches – the sympathetic (fight or flight) and parasympathetic (rest and digest). We are evolved to deal with stress in short bursts (running away from a lion) and spend the rest of our time in the parasympathetic state (healing, resting, digesting, reproducing). The conditions of modern life leave most of us existing in a state of chronic stress – our bodies don’t switch to the parasympathetic state properly, compromising all the functions that happen in that state, including sleep. To make things worse, a lack of sleep is a stressor in itself, causing a self-perpetuating loop of exhaustion and insomnia – if you’ve ever felt wired but tired, you know what I mean.
Some people report feeling fine after only 4 hours sleep, but more likely their bodies are pumping out stress hormones to make up for the lack of sleep. Most adults need 7-9 hours of sleep a night. Even a moderate level of sleep deprivation impairs your concentration and performance – this study found that driving tired was worse than driving drunk.
Decreased sleep quality is also associated with a number of mental health concerns including anxiety and depression. It is essential for the housekeeping of the brain – a number of chemical and electrical changes occur in the brain during sleep, including the removal of toxins and metabolites. When we’re asleep, our brains reconfigure connections between neurons to allow learning, memory formation and emotional processing.
With restrictions easing and life returning to familiar patterns, your sleep may improve on its own. Give it a little nudge with these simple changes.
1. Limit Blue Light After Sundown
Our ancestors lived with the rising and setting of the sun – artificial light is a relatively new development, and we are poorly adapted to manage it. Melatonin is a hormone produced by the pineal gland in the brain that regulates our natural sleep wake cycle. Levels of melatonin are naturally higher at night, promoting sleep, and lower during the day. Its secretion is also suppressed by blue light – daylight hitting our retinas early in the morning decreases melatonin production, creating alertness and helping to support our circadian rhythm. Melatonin production naturally increases around sunset, signalling to our body that it’s time for sleep.
Exposure to artificial blue light from screens including phones and television, as well as the incandescent lighting in our homes disrupts this natural system, decreasing the production of the sleep hormone melatonin and keeping us awake. This recent study found that brighter home lighting is associated with increased wakefulness at night, reducing the onset and efficiency of sleep. Energy efficient lighting has the greatest impact – LEDs emit more blue light and cause double the interference to melatonin when compared to traditional lighting.
Reduce your blue light exposure by
* Wearing blue light blocking glasses after sundown, especially if you’re working on a computer or watching tv
* Using night shift on your phone to reduce blue light emission at night
* Leaving overhead lights dim and turn off lights in rooms not in use after sunset
* Keeping your bedroom cool and dark – cover any power button lights and use block out blinds
Start the day with some sunlight on your face in the morning – this supports your circadian rhythm. Aim for 30 minutes; sit by a window if you can’t be outside.
2. Reduce your stress hormones
The stress hormone cortisol fluctuates in response to physical, emotional and mental stress. Higher levels of cortisol will keep your body in the fight or flight state, making it difficult to fall asleep and stay asleep. Even if you don’t feel stressed per se, using techniques to reduce stress hormones will help you get a more restful night’s sleep. Some strategies to reduce your cortisol levels:
* Meditation or mindfulness. Sarah Wilson says it best – “Just Meditate”. A regular practice is one of the best ways to moderate your stress response. Belly breathing also works – deep controlled breathing reminds the body that everything is ok.
* Cut out or reduce caffeine. Limit caffeinated drinks to the morning; switch to decaf if you really must have that afternoon latte.
* Gentle exercise. High intensity exercise and consistent long duration exercise both raise levels of cortisol. Gentle exercise such as yoga help to deactivate the stress response
* Try a magnesium supplement. Magnesium modulates the stress response system in the brain and it’s difficult to get enough through diet alone. Magnesium glycinate is a well absorbed form.
3. Declutter your Mind with a Brain Dump
Overthinking and worrying about unfinished tasks is a common reason why we struggle to switch off at bedtime. Journaling or using a notebook to write down the things you need to do tomorrow helps to clear your mind and allow you to let go of the day. One study found that that writing a to do list before bedtime decreased the amount of time it took to fall asleep. This can also be helpful if you are waking at 3am worrying – a notepad by the bed can help you file away the thoughts and let your mind relax back to sleep.
* Any bit of paper will do, but a nice notebook will help to reinforce the technique and remind you to prioritise it
* Aim for at least 5 minutes of journaling
* Keep it by the bed – if you do wake in the night, jot down any thoughts, tasks or worries
Trouble sleeping is a pretty good sign your nervous system needs support. If these lifestyle changes don’t improve your sleep you may need more help to uncover the source of your insomnia. Hormones, inflammation and poor gut health are other factors that may be affecting your sleep. Acupuncture and herbal medicine can bring balance and help you find the calm you need, an important foundation on which to build a great night’s sleep.