If your sleep patterns have been negatively affected during the pandemic, rest assured you are not alone. Studies have shown that two thirds of the UK population are experiencing sleep problems as a direct result of worries related to the pandemic.
Sleep is at the heart of mental and physical well-being. It is essential for tissue repair, cell regeneration, immune functioning and for the regulation of daytime emotion. After just a couple of nights of poor sleep you may notice a loss of energy, impaired concentration and disturbed mood. Suffering from a persistent sleep disorder can lead to loss of memory, increased risk of hypertension and type 2 diabetes, and an increased risk of anxiety or depression.
The problem is that worrying about your lack of sleep can cause stress which can produce an even bigger sleep problem thus creating a vicious cycle. Sound familiar? The solution is to try and focus on making small changes rather than the end goal.
There are things you can add into your diet to try and get that 7-9 hours uninterrupted sleep. Melatonin is a unique hormone and research shows that it is essential for good sleep. It is produced by the pineal gland, located in the middle of the brain and functions with the rhythms of the sun. There is the option to take Melatonin in supplement form, however for some people this can lead to side effects such as nausea, headaches and dizziness. Melatonin can be found in cherries, goji berries, eggs, milk, salmon, sardines, pistachios and almonds. Another dietary addition that you can use a potential sleep aid is magnesium. This magical mineral has wide ranging positive effects on the body, every cell and organ in your body needs this mineral to function properly.. including your sleep process. The Institute of Medicine suggests a dietary intake of 310–360 mg of magnesium for adult women and 400–420 mg for adult men. You can get plenty of magnesium through supplements or through drinking lots of water and eating foods such as leafy green vegetables, nuts (particularly cashews, brazils and almonds,) oily fish, avocados, dark chocolate, legumes (for example lentils and chickpeas,) and bananas.
Caffeine & Alcohol
Another easy change you can make is to reduce your caffeine. Caffeine can stay elevated in your blood for 6–8 hours therefore drinking large amounts of coffee after 3-4pm is not recommended. Also be mindful there can be high levels of caffeine in fizzy drinks, chocolate and puddings. Alcohol is another area of your diet to consider when it comes to sleep. Alcohol is a depressant which slows down the functioning of the central nervous system so it can make you fall asleep more easily due to the sedative effect. However, the sleep disruptions come later in your sleep cycle when the liver enzymes try to metabolise the alcohol.
Exercise is a key factor when it comes to insomnia. Studies at John Hopkins Center for Sleep have proven that those who exercise will fall asleep more quickly and will experience better sleep quality and duration. Exercise shows more benefits than most prescription drugs. People who exercise have been shown to fall asleep 55% faster. There is still much debate over what time of day to exercise is best in relation to sleep. I believe it is completely personal and will vary from person to person. I would suggest keeping a sleep & exercise diary for a week. If you find a pattern emerges where evening exercise has a negative impact on your sleep, then set your alarm 20 minutes earlier in the morning and get your workout done first thing. Alternatively, you may find evening exercise will happily tire your mind and body allowing you switch off more easily when the lights goes out. Whatever time of day works for you, try and create a realistic, manageable routine that you can stick to.
If tiredness is getting the better of your motivation and the thought of working up a sweat is just too much, try a gentle Yoga session. Just one Yoga class per week, whether in person, on zoom or on YouTube, has been proven to reduce stress levels and improve your sleep. Yoga incorporates breath work, meditation and movement and can reduce blood pressure and lower your heart rate. It has been shown in multiple studies to reduce the feelings of depression and anxiety, improve your sleep and help combat fatigue. All of these mental health and emotional benefits in addition to physical benefits such as improved posture, injury prevention, improved heart health and reducing unnecessary inflammation in the body, there’s definitely lots of reasons to give it a try.
Similar to sleep worries, sometimes the thought of trying to reduce stress can just lead to more stress. However there are a couple of simple steps you can take and you may just be surprised by the outcome. Just a small change can have a huge helpful effect on your stress levels and this in turn will have a positive impact on your sleep habits and also your happiness and quality of life. This year, more than ever, lots of us have had elevated stress levels. When we are stressed, the immune systems ability to fight off antigens is reduced leaving us more susceptible to infections. The stress hormone corticosteroid can also suppress the effectiveness of the immune system.
Exercise has long be proven to reduce stress levels. It’s does this by reducing levels of the body’s stress hormones, such as adrenaline and cortisol. It also stimulates the production of endorphins, the chemicals in the brain that are the body’s natural painkillers and mood elevators. Even just 15 minutes per day of physical activity will help… dancing, walking, jogging, or riding a bike are all easy and fun options.
Breathing techniques can also help to reduce your stress levels. Simple techniques that you can do in a few minutes while at home or at work can have surprisingly great effects. There are numerous techniques you can learn online. I would suggest started with something simple like the 4-7-8 technique. To try this technique: close your mouth and inhale quietly through your nose to a mental count of 4. Hold your breath for a count of 7. Exhale completely through your mouth, making a whoosh sound to a count of 8. This is one breath. Now repeat 3 or 4 times.
Meditation can alleviate stress and anxiety by interrupting patterns of thinking that perpetuate stress. Listening to a guided meditation can take just a few minutes out of your day but can have a hugely positive impact on your stress levels. New research from Victoria University and Queen’s University Belfast reveals the link between meditation and improved mental health outcomes. The 2020 study found a clear connection between meditation, the endocrine system and health and well-being.