More than half of Brits are struggling to sleep during the coronavirus lockdown. Researchers have found that people facing financial hardship are more likely to suffer with sleep problems, while two in five people in the UK are experiencing more vivid dreams than normal.
The study by King's College London and market research company Ipsos MORI surveyed 2,254 UK residents aged 16-75. Researchers found that two-thirds of people had reported negative sleep-related problems, demonstrating how unsettling the coronavirus lockdown has been. They also found that some groups of people – women, younger people and those struggling financially – were more likely to have their sleep impacted.
'As with so much about COVID-19, the crisis is affecting people very differently depending on their circumstances, and that includes the most fundamental aspects of life, such as sleep,' explained professor Bobby Duffy of King's College London.
Sleep health benefits
According to the NHS, some health benefits of a good night's sleep include:
- Boosts immunity
- Helps to maintain weight
- Boosts mental wellbeing
- Prevents diabetes
- Increases sex drive
- Wards off heart disease
- Increases fertility
We speak to insomnia expert Kathryn Pinkham, who runs The Insomnia Clinic, and Ana Noia, Senior Clinical Physiologist in Neurophysiology and Sleep at the Bupa Cromwell Hospital. about their expert sleep tips.
1. Increase your sleep appetite
When we can't sleep, we become more focused on it. Panicked by our lack of shut-eye, we make constant changes to improve the situation – whether that's going to bed earlier, having longer lie-ins, or watching TV or reading our tablets in bed. Consequently, we spend less time actually sleeping in the bedroom. The result? The connection between bed and sleep becomes weak, and we effectively un-learn how to sleep.
'Improvements can be made by only being in bed for the time you're sleeping,' says Kathryn. 'Going to bed later and waking up earlier keeps your sleep window very short, and increases your sleep appetite.
'If you stick to a routine of doing this, your quality of sleep will gradually become better. Instead of lying in bed for hours unable to sleep, start getting into bed when you're really shattered, and wake when it's early. Gradually you should be able to increase the hours you're sleeping.'
2. Stop relying on medication
Sleeping tablets are prescribed by doctors generally for short term scenarios often with specific instructions not to use every night to try and reduce the chance of dependency. They may be used in situations like after a medical procedure or with insomnia related to a bereavement or acute event. It's tempting to reach for sleeping aids when you're anxious about not sleeping, but the cycle is tricky to escape. 'Sleeping tablets are for a short period of stress, or if you've found yourself in a new environment and are struggling to adjust,' says Kathryn.
'They'll sedate you and you'll get respite, but they're not designed to work longer than that. If you keep taking them, your body will get used to them and they won't be as effective – so keep them for emergencies and short-term use only.'
Sleeping tablets have side effects and with certain preparations a hangover effect the next day, rebound insomnia when you stop and withdrawal symptoms. Setting a good night time routine and prioritising sleep by following good sleep hygiene methods is a far better way to help your sleep long term.
3. Set your perfect temperature
Achieving the ideal temperature in the UK can feel like a challenge – especially during those extreme summer and winter months. But according to Senior Clinical Physiologist Ana Noia from the Bupa Cromwell Hospital, it's crucial. 'The temperature tends to drop at night, giving your brain a signal that it's time to sleep. That's why when we're on holiday somewhere hot, nodding off can be trickier. Equally, sleeping somewhere too cold isn't great – if your hands and feet are uncomfortably chilly, you might struggle to sleep at all.'
According to Ana, the ideal temperature is somewhere between 18-21°C but this can vary depending on sex, age and any existing medical conditions (people with underactive thyroids or bad circulation for example, tend to be colder). Work out your happy temperature (that includes pyjamas too – avoid fabrics that irritate, or cause you to overheat) and stick to it. Many people find they drift off easier with socks on if they suffer cold extremities but you may have to remove your socks later in the night if you are too hot!
It can take up to six hours for your caffeine levels to drop, so say not to that second coffee!
4. Give apps the cold shoulder
If you're a smartphone user, you'll have seen countless devices and apps that promise to measure sleep cycles. But Anna is dubious. 'Equipment like Fitbits aim to record levels of activity, measuring each time you move the device. The way they measure 'sleep' is by noting a period of motionless – predicting that's when we're sleeping. But there are issues with this – people often wake but don't move, for example. Just because we're still doesn't mean we're necessarily asleep.'
Apps are even less reliable – promising to measure sleep stages, but it's just not possible (we need to monitor brain activity to measure that). 'Instead, stick to measuring daytime activity with your FitBit or Apple Watch, and stop second-guessing your sleep cycles.'
It is a good idea to remove tech from the bedroom full stop and anxiety about apps at night does not help your brain switch off.
5. Check your liquid levels
Caffeine and alcohol are two huge no-no's when it comes to sleep deprivation. 'It can take up to six hours for caffeine's levels to drop to half the dose you originally took, making us anxious and delaying sleep,' explains Ana.
Alcohol's effects are different. 'Alcohol depresses the brain and central nervous system, so while it might make you feel sleepy (and find it easier to drop off) you won't enjoy good quality sleep. When we experience hangovers, most of that is caused by dehydration – that's what wakes us up in the night, and disrupts sleep. You'll find yourself experiencing sleep fragmentation, feeling totally exhausted when you wake.'
We also find sleeplessness occurs within the night after a hefty dose of alcohol due to the heat generated from metabolising the alcohol. This can add to a restless sleep pattern.
The solution? Avoid alcohol at bedtime as much as possible, and caffeine after 4pm. It's worth being mindful of your evening liquid intake in general – even too much water might see you waking in the night. Some caffeine fans may be more sensitive than others - many benefit from sticking to decaff after midday. Keeping a cool glass of fresh water by the bedside to rehydrate when you wake up is a healthy habit for the day ahead.
6. Enforce a blackout
Think back to when you were a child – your bedroom was just for sleeping and playing, right? But as adults, the lines start to blur – with many of us checking emails, watching TV and even working on laptops in bed.
'Working in the bedroom causes us to associate that space with anxiety and pressure, and light exposure from TVs/laptops/tablets can have a hugely detrimental effect on sleep,' says Ana. 'Because they emit blue light (the light that affects our levels of the sleep-inducing hormone melatonin) it makes it harder to get to sleep in the first place.'
According to Ana, the solution is total darkness – think blackout blinds, no hallway lights, even the light from your alarm clock can be disruptive. And definitely no gadgets. If noise is an issue, try a 'white noise' radio station or app instead of ear plugs (you can set them to turn off after 30 minutes, too).
Use a comfortable silk eye mask if it is difficult to completely reduce the ambient lighting or if your partner wants to read longer. Just the habit of putting it on will help signal to your brain that sleep is coming.
7. Set a routine
Both experts agree this is one of the most important things we can possibly do. 'You're not going to sleep well every night, but if you maintain your bedtime and 'rise' time regularly, eventually you won't need an alarm clock to wake,' says Ana.
Unsurprisingly, our jobs can interfere with this. 'I see a lot of people with busy lives and jobs, who tend to sleep very little in the week, and then compensate on the weekend – sleeping for hours,' explains Ana.
'It doesn't help regulating a sleep pattern, and makes it much harder for our body to know when we're meant to be sleeping. It's the most difficult rule to follow – especially when you're tired and want to sleep all day – but following a routine is key.'
8. Assess your exercise regime
We know we should all be practising moderate levels of exercise on a daily basis, but did you know the timing of that gym session can have a detrimental effect on sleep? 'It's best to avoid high-intensity cardio workouts close to bedtime,' advises Ana.
'You'll experience a 'peak' of energy afterwards – your temperature rises and you'll feel a rush of adrenaline which makes getting to sleep harder. The timing of that varies between individuals, but it can last several hours.' Your safest bet? Sticking to a relaxing form of exercise in the evening, like yoga or pilates.
9. Keep a sleep diary
People sleep badly for a huge number of reasons – from mental health problems, to stress or seemingly insignificant factors like having a cough or cold. 'I always encourage somebody visiting me to keep a sleep diary – it helps you notice links between lifestyle and sleep you might ordinarily miss,' explains Kathryn.
Begin by making a daily note of what you're eating, drinking, doing (including exercise) and feeling – and how well you slept each night. Are there any similarities? Even if you can't spot any links, it's a great tool to show a therapist or doctor.
10. Consider CBT
A recent study indicated that on average, 70 per cent of people with sleep problems will see lasting benefits from CBT (Cognitive Behavioural Therapy). 'It's a programme that requires a lot of motivation, but the effects are relatively fast - typically within four weeks,' says Kathryn.
But when you visit a therapist it's important they know the full picture, so if you have any idea of what's causing your sleep issues (young children, new pets, any medical problems or particular anxieties) flag it up.
And don't feel bad if you're struggling on seven hours, while your partner survives happily on five. 'We all need different amounts of sleep,' explains Kathryn.
'Some people run fine on just a few hours (men typically need less sleep than women) and others need eight or nine – just work out what's right for you.'
If you have tried everything and are still not sleeping and it is affecting your quality of life then consult with your healthcare professional.
Last updated: 04-06-2020
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