Since the COVID-19 pandemic was declared, normal routines have been disrupted. Many are now working from home, and parents and carers have additional responsibilities as a result of normal services being limited or stopped to comply with social distancing and lockdown measures.

As a result of changes to routines, and a lack of structure in our everyday lives – many are finding it more difficult to fall to sleep – and sleep well.

The hashtags #cantsleep and #insomnia have seen an increase in use since COVID-19 lockdown measures were introduced, and many are posting to social media about the difficulties of falling to sleep.

Sleep and Productivity

Sleep can significantly impact productivity. The American Academy of Sleep has found that those who sleep for 5 – 6 hours per night will be 19% less productive at work the next day, compared with when they sleep between 7 – 8 hours per night.

Scientists don’t know exactly why we sleep, but they do know that without it we cannot survive. Our bodies use the time we are asleep to complete many essential functions – and without enough sleep, we can start to see our cognitive and physical health decline.

Sleep is crucial to our immune systems. When we sleep our bodies release proteins that help fight inflammation, infection, and trauma. Sleep deprivation can weaken our immune systems and make it harder for us to fight bugs.

Metabolism is also affected by sleep. Studies show that those who sleep less than 7 hours per night tend to gain weight more than those who sleep for 7 or more hours. This is because, after a poor night of sleep, we may be tempted to eat more than usual because a sleep-deprived body tends to have increased levels of ghrelin, the hormone which makes us hungry, and reduced levels of leptin, the hormone which makes us feel full.

Sleep is also important to mental health. Those with insomnia are 10 times more likely to have clinical depression, and 17 times more likely to have clinical anxiety. The link between sleep and mental health is complex, but many of us know when we are tired we are more likely to be irritable and find it more difficult to be enthusiastic or happy.

The stress and uncertainty of lockdown can make it harder to sleep. When we are stressed our bodies release a hormone called cortisol, which prepares our bodies for ‘fight or flight’ reactions. The release of cortisol can lead to physical and mental symptoms which make it hard for us to sleep – such as tense muscles and headaches.

See our full COVID-19 Health and Safety Advice and Guidance

The Quality of Sleep and How to Improve it

Feeling well-rested and ready to tackle the day is not just dependent on the quantity of sleep we achieve, but the quality too.

Generally, the quality of sleep is measured by:

  • How long it takes to fall asleep (with the ideal being 15 – 20 minutes)
  • How many times one wakes (waking no more than once per night)
  • The ratio of awake and asleep time in bed

Most of us know when we wake whether we’ve had a good or bad night of sleep. If we wake feeling tired, this is often a result of not getting enough sleep, or because the quality of our sleep was poor. To be prepared to tackle the day ahead and feel more productive, there are steps we can take to improve sleep quality.
If you do feel tired in the day, a short nap (between 10 – 20 minutes) can help to make you feel more alert and less tired. To ensure a nap doesn’t affect your sleep at night, make sure you do not take a nap after 3pm.

1. Creating a sleep routine

Our body clock, or circadian rhythms, are what regulates when we feel sleepy or awake. Our brains act as a complex timekeeper, reacting to external factors such as light, to determine when we should feel ‘sleepy’ and when we should feel awake.

Lockdown has disrupted normal routines, which in turn can disrupt the body’s circadian rhythms.

If you are struggling to sleep, try to create and stick to a daily routine. This routine should include scheduled meals, working times, breaks, bedtimes, and waking times. Following a routine can help rebalance and stabilise bodily functions and circadian rhythms, both of which are important to achieving quality sleep.

How we wake our bodies up is also important to stabilising and syncing the body’s circadian rhythm. Try to make sure you wake at a similar time every day, preferably using natural light. Exposing our bodies to natural light in the morning can help make waking up easier and more enjoyable. If we wake to an alarm in a dark room, the brain thinks it is still night time and this can make it harder to wake up.

2. Create the right sleep environment

If you’re struggling to get to sleep, focus on creating the right environment. Light can be one of the biggest barriers to sleep. Our brains use light to regulate our internal body clock, so if a bedroom is too bright, you may find it harder to sleep. Try to make sure that the room you sleep in is dark and light sources are blocked, covered, or dimmed.

Our brains process sound when we’re asleep, so it is important to consider the sounds which may be disruptive to sleep. Silence is not always the answer, as a bedroom which is too quiet can make our brains more sensitive to sound. To aid sleep, try to eliminate sounds such as device beeping or unnecessary alarms. Some people find specific sounds encourage sleep and use sound machines that make artificial noises – such as rain sounds.

Temperature is also critical to sleep. Being too hot or too cold can make it hard to fall asleep and cause us to wake throughout the night. The brain prefers to be colder for sleeping, so a room of between 18C – 20C is generally the ideal and it also advised to open a window in warmer months to encourage fresh air and good air circulation.

Vasodilation, the dilation of blood vessels, can signal to the brain that is time to sleep. If you’re struggling to feel ‘sleepy’ – try taking a hot bath and warming cold feet. Research has shown that the more vasodilation in the hands and feet, the less time it takes to fall asleep.

Lastly, if you’re struggling to fall to sleep – get up and do something before trying again. The anxiety of not being able to sleep can, in turn, make it harder to sleep.

3. Switch off digital devices

In lockdown many of us are spending more time on our digital devices, scrolling news and social media feeds, or video calling with our family and friends. Digital devices can impact our sleep in many ways, making it harder to switch off and fall asleep.

Digital devices, such as smartphones, emit a blue light which delays the production of melatonin, a hormone which is essential for sleep. Therefore, watching a film or scrolling social media feeds before you go to sleep can make it harder for us to feel ‘sleepy’ – extending the time it takes to fall asleep.

4. Food, drink and other substances

Normal routines are likely to have been disrupted in lockdown, and this can include eating and drinking routines. If you’re struggling to sleep, review your daily meal schedule and what you are eating and drinking.

It’s important to try to eat your last evening meal at least 3 hours before you aim to go to sleep, to give your digestive system a chance to work. Stimulants such as sugar and caffeine should also be avoided, as they can make it harder to fall asleep. Caffeine is found in coffee and tea, but also in soft drinks, protein shakes, and chocolate. Check what you’re eating and drinking before you sleep and try to remove stimulants to encourage quality sleep.

Other substances, such as alcohol, nicotine and some medications can also affect sleep. Many believe an alcoholic drink before bed, or nightcap, can aid sleep – but the opposite is true. Studies show that although alcohol can make it easier to fall asleep, it can shorten the REM sleep stage (the stage of sleep when we dream) and lead to sleep apnoea, a shortness of breath which can decrease sleep quality.

Nicotine in cigarettes and smoking replacement products is a stimulant that can produce side effects similar to caffeine. Research has found that smokers are more likely to report poor sleep quality than non-smokers. Prescribed medications such as Beta blockers, cold and flu medication, Clonidine, and diuretics can also disrupt sleep, and insomnia is sometimes listed as a side effect of such drugs. If you think a new medication is disrupting your sleep, speak to your doctor.

5. Exercise is important

Lockdown and social distancing measures mean many of us are doing less physical activity and exercise than our bodies are used to. Physical exercise can be crucial to achieving quality sleep and can help those who struggle to fall asleep quickly.

Heart pumping exercises such as walking, running, or swimming will help improve overall fitness and encourage better sleep. Try to exercise on a regular schedule and avoid doing it exercising 2 hours before you aim to go to sleep. Exercise late in the day can stimulate the nervous system and make it harder for our internal body clocks to recognise it is time to sleep.

COVID-19 Health and Safety Hub

If you would like more information, guidance, advice and solutions to managing health and safety in these unprecedented times, visit our COVID-19 health and safety hub.

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