Are you struggling to sleep at the moment?
This isn’t surprising; with the increased worry, anxiety and uncertainty about so many things in our current climate.
As with many issues we would like to solve, we frequently overlook the most basic principles, in preference of more complex, exciting and even expensive resolutions to our problem.
With sleep, lots of things can affect its duration and quality, and this is highlighted when your routine changes – such as working from home for an extended period, not working at all, becoming a makeshift teacher to your children, or even when on holiday!
Some of the factors we can control to influence our duration and quality of sleep are:
- Establishing (some kind of daily) routine
- Ensuring you keep active (weekly exercise and daily step counts)
- Exposure to light(s) at certain times of the day
- Consuming the news (including via social media)
- Caffeine intake; volume and timing
I thought it would be helpful to break these points down, so you can appreciate why we need to control and utilise them consciously to our advantage when it comes to sleeping!
- Establishing Routine
Waking up at the same time each day is a great start and has been shown to improve both our energy levels and mental health. You do not have to wake up as early as normal, because you might not have to commute presently, but try to ensure this time is consistent, and gives you enough time to have a relaxing build up to starting work or your day!
In relation to your work, if you can, you should try to ensure you are doing the same amount of hours as before. Obviously if there isn’t the need for as many hours your workday can be reduced, but contaminating your time by blending working with Netflix and surfing social media, throughout the day and well into your evening, is not good practice.
Try to work outside your bedroom if at all possible, but if you need to work in your room, try to ensure it isn’t from your bed, and you put your work stuff away once you are finished. We want to associate your bedroom with sleeping rather than the stresses and responsibilities of your occupation, to make it easier to relax and encourage your parasympathetic nervous system to take over.
Around bedtime, finding routine around this is incredibly important as it signals to the body that we are winding down for sleep. Avoiding TV, phones and tablets 30-60 minutes before bed is a great place to start – for both reducing exposure to emotive news, triggering current affairs and blue light – and replacing these gadgets with deep breathing, reading or meditation could all work well.
I actually always work from home, and another underappreciated couple of aspects are getting changed into a ‘work uniform’ and maintaining your personal hygiene. They sound like trivial things, but these were ever present parts of your routine before we were all banished to our humble abodes by coronavirus. Resist the urge to work all day in your pyjamas or sweats, and shower daily. Both are important for your mental health, as well as establishing routine that will help with more consistent sleep.
We do not know how long this period of working from home will continue, so it is best to treat it like a three month minimum stay, so we actively try to make the best out of the situation, rather than bumble through a fleeting home working arrangement.
- Keep Active
It is quite simple. If you are more sedentary than usual, and thus not burning as much energy as you usually would, you are likely to feel restless throughout the day, and more awake when it comes to falling to sleep (and staying asleep).
Activity – whether it be exercise or just plain old movement – is beneficial for your long-term health and body composition (ratio of fat to muscle mass).
It is relatively easy to track both the amount of exercise sessions you do per week, and your step count. Your step count can be tracked easily by your mobile phone, but a more accurate method is to use a fitness tracker or sports watch. If this goes down markedly (especially in combination with reduced exercise sessions or team sports), you will likely struggle to drift off as easily as you did beforehand.
Timing of exercise can also be a big factor in your ability to fall to sleep. Doing intense exercise in the late evening will increase your heart rate, body temperature and fire up your sympathetic nervous system, which will all make you feel more alert and awake post-exercise. However, strangely, a hot shower can help bring your body temperature down more quickly, as your blood vessels dilate to remove heat quicker than it would otherwise dissipate naturally.
- Exposure to Light
Exposure to blue and white light at the right time of day can help wake us up, but unfortunately this same light is given off by our television, laptop and mobile phone screens. This is fine for most of the day, but as you approach bedtime this light is signalling that it is morning or midday (where blue light is present), which our simple caveman brains cannot distinguish is actually a device rather than the sun.
Lights that are warm, dim and of more red tones are best for us to see in the evenings, as this aligns more closely with the variety of colours seen at sunset. This is why it is good practice to wear blue light blocking glasses in the evening, and to switch your devices to night light at around 7-8pm too. Both reducing your exposure to light similar to that experienced in the morning and peak daylight hours.
Walking outside (even on a cloudy day) for around 15 minutes in the morning is enough to increase feelings of energy and alertness, and get our bodies functioning effectively. This is because all the aforementioned points will allow us to be more in sync with our natural circadian rhythm, which matches our body’s daily cycles to that of the rise and fall of the sun.
Consider using candles (sensibly and safely) instead of bright, white lights in the evening, or even just switching on a lamp which produces a more yellow or red shade of lights than the more commonly used overhead, bright white spotlights. Dimming the lights is also a smart move, and using a daylight alarm clock can be transformational for people who really struggle to get out of bed in the morning.
- Exposure to Emotive News, Programmes and Films
The news tends to be on emotive subjects, as reporting that divides, scares or intrigues is more popular than happy, easy to digest stories. This means that it can cause us to feel lots of emotions, of which some can prevent us switching off and falling asleep, and can even cause nightmares. The current news is almost exclusively focusing on Brexit or Covid-19; both of which have the ability to create feelings of anger, fear, worry, anxiety, depression and heated debate.
For these reasons turning the news off and avoiding apps that are heavy on news and or current affairs in the hours before you get into bed is a wise move. You may also wish to limit watching or accessing the news to 2-3 times daily, as this can reduce anxiety and increase your productivity, focus, mental resilience and the stability of our mood.
Avoiding very scary films, hard-hitting thrillers and emotive programmes in the late night can also be another good move in periods where you are really struggling to sleep. This is because just like watching the news during a pandemic, or playing a competitive football game, it fires up your fight or flight response, and moves you further from the state we want to be in to allow for a greater chance of uninterrupted and rejuvenating sleep.
- Caffeine Intake; Volume and Timing
The problem with caffeine (mainly as coffee) is that we use it more and later into the day when we are tired. We are more tired when we cannot seem to sleep well, and thus ingest more caffeine when we are suffering with insomnia. This causes an annoying cycle where we need coffee to stay awake in the day, but that same coffee keeps us awake at night, and as we ingest more caffeine, its beneficial effects lessen as our tolerance to caffeine increases.
Caffeine is great to help increase both physical and mental performance, to aid fat oxidation, and even in some cases help upkeep mood. Ingesting it increases alertness, but having too much can trigger anxiety and panic, which can both detract from good quality sleep come bedtime.
Caffeine also has a long half-life, which means around a third of the caffeine from your lunchtime coffee will still be in your system at around 10pm. For this reason, switching to caffeine free or decaf beverages after lunch is a good move (as is checking the ingredients list of your favourite carbonated beverages, as many of these contain caffeine).
This rule applies to those of you (us) that proudly say “I can have a coffee at 8pm and fall asleep straight away”. This sleep could still be near to the suggested 7-9 hours of sleep, but it will not be good quality or rejuvenating sleep, due to the high levels of caffeine present in your system throughout the majority of your sleep.
Sleep is of course vital to so many things, physically and mentally, so protecting it and addressing insomnia when it arises is essential to progress with our fitness related goals, as well as helping bolster and maintain a good mindset and positive outlook to power our healthy lifestyles forward.
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