Even before the pandemic, it was estimated that somewhere between 10 to 30 percent of the global population suffered from insomnia and other sleeping problems, with some studies placing it as high as 50 to 60 percent.
Over the past year, Covid-19 has had its own impact on our sleep. Unfortunately, feeling tired isn’t the only side effect of insomnia. The severely sleep-deprived have a much higher chance of developing chronic conditions such as Type 2 diabetes, cardiovascular disease, depression and obesity. According to the Centre for Disease Control and Prevention in the US, hypertension, stroke, coronary heart disease and irregular heartbeats have been found to be more common among those with disordered sleep.
So what is keeping us awake? And what can we do to improve our sleeping? We asked Claudine Gillard, certified Sleep Sense Consultant at Dubai-based Sweet Dreams Sleep Consulting to explain.
How much should we be getting?
The recommended guideline is between seven and nine hours a night. Our sleep comprises different stages and different types. There is light and deep and then something called REM sleep, which is also known as dream sleep. We need proportionate amounts of these: approximately 50 percent light sleep, 25 percent deep sleep and 25 percent REM sleep. All are vital and disproportionate amounts can feel like a bad night’s sleep. Your sleep should adjust over the subsequent nights to compensate, though. The important thing is to go to bed at approximately the same time every night, so your body knows to prepare itself for sleep around that time.
What’s happening when we sleep?
Apart from rest, there’s rehabilitation of our brain and body, so our organs and our functions are regenerating as well as our muscles, blood, tissues and the neural pathways. Tests and studies to suppress dream sleep show this can affect our health and our performance the next day, showing all three stages are equally important.
What has been the impact of Covid-19?
It has numerous effects. There’s the fact that there’s no separation between school and home and work and home, which makes switching off difficult. Being inside more isn’t really conducive to the human body’s understanding of when it’s day and when it’s night. We prefer exposure to daylight during daytime hours to help us to recognize and regulate, so that when sunset comes, we recognize that as our sleep time. If we’re restricted to being indoors, we’re less exposed to sunlight and we’re also using artificial light more. That not only suppresses melatonin, it also pushes out that natural rhythm of the sun indicating when we should go to sleep.
Does sleep affect men and women differently?
Women’s cycles can affect their sleep, so there are times in the month where some women will feel more restless and their sleep will be more disturbed. It also happens to women when they’re perimenopausal and menopausal; hormonal changes do have a knock-on effect on sleep. Keeping a diary to identify and track changes in sleep and how you’re feeling the next day can help understand what’s happening. Men are less affected by hormonal changes but are more susceptible to things like snoring, which is often linked to either enlarged adenoids or sleep apnea or both.
What about sleeping and nutrition?
I wouldn’t advise eating your biggest meal of the day late at night. It could make you feel your body processing the food and consequently, it may feel both uncomfortable and/or difficult to fall asleep. I would absolutely avoid caffeine after 4pm and other caffeinated drinks such as tea, colas, energy drinks and dark chocolate, and avoid spicy foods and heavy meats. Whereas some believe that alcohol helps them sleep, it doesn’t help the quality of sleep. It can also make you sweat, which makes for an uncomfortable night’s sleep. Slow-release carbs are a good option as you are less likely to be disturbed by digestion. I would suggest oats and also some healthy protein like nuts.
How about exercise and sleeping?
We thrive on movement. Being stuck in a chair all day is not how we came to be as a species. Our bodies crave movement. We will definitely rest better if we exercise frequently and there have been studies that have shown that even a small amount of exercise can reverse the ageing process.
In terms of timing, anything after 7pm should be light relief type exercise. Walking is fine, but avoid anything that really raises your heart rate and takes a while to return to normal. Save that high-intensity exercise for the morning and set yourself up for the day, or train before 5pm to give yourself enough time to relax afterwards and revitalize, which can help promote a good night’s sleep.
How should we handle technology?
We’re in a digital world: working on screens and on our phones and using them for social media is the norm, but any devices that are backlit by light mess with our circadian rhythm – our connection to day and night. My advice is to put devices away at least two hours before bed. If this is not possible, get a blue light-blocking screen for your device, or glasses that will support this recognition of day and night. Also, issues like Zoom fatigue and work/life balance are affecting sleep if your home office is in your bedroom. The same can be said for gaming in your bedroom –it’s not relaxing. If bedroom working can’t be avoided, then come out of the room for a while before going to bed – do not go from laptop or desk to your bed as that will be very confusing for you and your brain and your sleep is going to be compromised. Try and have the workstation out of view behind a screen if necessary.
And don’t forget television. It’s something that we often use to wind down before bed, but be very conscious of what you watch. If the subject matter is heavy – say, violent or crime-based – then the message that you’re receiving is not cheerful. It will linger with you and affect your sleep.
What’s the best bedroom setup for sleeping?
As a species, we evolved sleeping in caves, so a dark and fairly cold room can make all the difference. Opt for blackout shades or an eye mask and keep the AC at around 18 degrees Celsius. An element of non-stimulating white noise such as an air purifier or the sound of the ocean or waterfalls is also helpful in switching off and staying asleep. Make the bedroom your comfort cave. This can mean everything from keeping it clean, getting the right pillow and sheets and having the perfect mattress.
This article is part of Livehealthy’s first Sleep Week. Starting on March 13 and running up to and including World Sleep Day on March 19, we have seven full days of coverage on everything to do with the one-third of our lives we spend in – or trying to get to – slumber.
Devinder Bains is journalist of 20 years, working as a writer and editor on some of the biggest national magazines, newspapers and online publications in the UK and the Middle East. She specialises in women’s empowerment, fashion, race, culture and travel, and as a qualified personal trainer and nutrition coach, she is an expert in health and fitness. She splits her time between freelance writing and running Fit Squad DXB – Dubai’s largest personal training and wellness company.