Lockdown is changing how we spend every waking hour: from the way we socialise, to how we exercise, work, flirt, dress and eat. While many of us, by now, will have started to adapt our daily routines accordingly, being restricted to the confines of your own home because of a rapidly escalating global health crisis is the kind of thing that can play havoc with your sleeping pattern.
Maybe you're the type of person who finds it hard to relax when it feels as though there's a fatal disease tap-tap-tapping at your bedroom window every night. Maybe a busy day spent shuffling between your bedroom, sofa and fridge while wearing some old slipper socks and GCSE PE sweatpants just doesn't leave you feeling tired enough to drift away to the land of nod.
This can be problematic vis-à-vis sanity; all-pervasive senses of impending doom make sleep even more important for our mental health than usual. Also, our immune system relies on sleep; it's when we produce the handy T-cells that protect us from all sorts of nasty stuff trying to mess with our insides. As our body rests, all of its efforts can be thrown into keeping disease and anxiety at bay.
We caught up with Stephanie Romiszewski – an NHS specialist sleep physiologist and founder of the Sleepy Head Clinic – and Sleep Station's Dr Neil Stanley to find out how we can best adapt our sleeping patterns to this surreal new epoch, and what to do if dozing off is getting tough.
LIGHT AND DARK
Light exposure is the most influential external factor on sleep quality, but being stuck indoors makes it harder for our bodies to differentiate between night and day, especially if you don’t have access to a garden.
Try regulating the light in your home to mimic your usual environmental cues. "That means plenty of bright light in the first two thirds of the day, and then reducing it through the evening,” explains Romiszewski. "Turn off overhead lights as it gets later, and reduce the brightness of your screens.”
Vitamin D is also important in ensuring we sleep properly, so getting some sun during the day will help come bedtime. If you can’t make it outside, eat food that is rich in Vitamin D, such as oily fish, meat, egg yolks and dairy products. Or just try sitting by an open window, so that the UVB rays shine directly on your skin – maybe make sure no one can cough or sneeze through it, though.
START A ROUTINE – AND STICK TO IT
You might have nothing to actually get out of bed for any more, but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t. Our bodies need structure; if you can stick to regular time slots in your day for work, exercise, meals, relaxation and sleep, your body will ease itself into the new lockdown rhythms.
“Your brain and body start preparing to wake up 90 minutes before it happens,” says Dr Stanley. “If you have a routine, you’ll wake up feeling fresh. If there’s no pattern, you might wake up with sleep inertia – that grogginess you sometimes experience in the morning.”
That said, if you can't fall asleep at the time you normally do, feel free to reset your standard routine. “Give yourself permission to stay up later and enjoy yourself," says Romiszewski. “Eventually, you’ll be tired enough to fall asleep – once you do, try sticking to that new bedtime for a while.”
TAKE TIME TO WIND DOWN
Yes: all the liveblogs, death stats, Twitter japes and rolling TV disaster coverage might be your only remaining link to the outside world, and keeping on top of the latest pandemic action is probably sensible. Checking how many people have died in the last hour right before bed, though? There are more effective relaxation methods.
“In the 45 minutes before bed, don’t suddenly start opening your household bills, or talking about coronavirus – instead do something that relaxes you,” suggests Dr Stanley. “We all have different ways of doing it: reading, yoga, music, chamomile tea." For Dr Stanley, that means thinking where he’d "place all the furniture on my own private Boeing 747". Basically, focus on something that won’t turn your mind into a washing machine full of apocalypse dread and A&E death scenes.
If that doesn’t work, though, do not panic. However chill you are, if you’re not sleepy, you just won’t sleep. "There’s been a massive boom in relaxation apps, branded as aids to help you sleep,” says Romiszewski, “but really the only way to fix not being sleepy is to spend more time awake. Don’t feel inadequate and anxious if a relaxation app isn’t sending you off.”
LENGTH ISN'T IMPORTANT
We’re often told we should aim for a sweet eight hours of shut-eye, but both our experts are clear: that's a total myth. “Sleep is individual,” says Dr Stanley. "Some of us need a lot, others don’t. In fact, 1 percent of people can get by on four hours a night with no negative consequences. And because we’ll be less active over the next few weeks, you might end up needing less of it."
The way to judge your sleep is simple: do you feel awake and alert in the day? If you do, you’re all set. If you’re sleepy, you’re not getting enough. It’s not about hours, it’s how you feel.
That said, if you’ve suddenly started napping in the day more – or lying in till 1PM because your diary is now clear until 2022, and quite honestly what else are you going to do with your time – maybe stop? “If you’re struggling to sleep, creating a small window at night to do it in is the best approach," says Romiszewski. “Sleeping at other times will be confusing for your brain.”
And while sleep is important for your immune system, there’s no benefit in sleeping to excess. “Depending on how much your body naturally needs, once you’re getting that amount, your immune system has all it needs," explains Dr Stanley. "If you only need seven hours a night, ten hours won’t be any better for you.”
DON'T GET (TOO) DRUNK
Tempting as it is to start on the quarantinis at 5PM sharp (or midday on Fridays) to help pass the time and distract us, it’s actually not true that booze can help with a good night’s sleep. Yes, alcohol can act as a sedative, but only for an hour or so.
It’s not just the pounding 6AM headaches and overnight piss interruptions you need to worry about, either. “Alcohol is also highly calorific, and to get a good night’s sleep you need to lose one degree of body temperature," explains Dr Stanley. "If you’re burning off calories as you sleep, it’ll increase rather than decrease. A few beers before bedtime shouldn’t be an issue, but if you’re struggling to sleep, maybe put that second bottle of Pinot down."
AND IF YOU'RE ON THE FRONTLINE...
There are some people – healthcare workers, supermarket staff, medical researchers and plenty more – who right now are working harder than ever. And if that’s you, and you’re finding it hard to sleep, Romiszewski has a simple message: don’t let that worry you even more. “It’s totally understandable you’d be anxious, going into hospitals and having to do things the public don’t fully understand; coming home to find supermarkets are empty and another day looming.”
The best thing to do, she says, is focus on resting and enjoying yourself in your downtime. Whatever you can do to distract yourself and give your mind and body a break. “Don’t get stressed out if you’re not falling asleep right away, or struggling to. It’ll come when it needs to. Nothing bad will happen to you at all. Resting will be just as important as sleep.”