Friday 17th March is World Sleep Day. Sleep is as important to our health as eating, drinking and breathing. It allows our bodies to repair themselves and our brains to consolidate our memories and process information. In a 24/7 world, it’s harder than ever to ‘switch off’ and get the rest we need.
The global pandemic exacerbated this issue, and we look back at some of the ways COVID-19 affected our sleep and ask what we can do to get better, longer and deeper rest.
How to sleep better as an expat?
Even before the pandemic, it seemed the world was struggling to get a good night’s sleep.
According to a global sleep survey carried out by Philips in 2019, only 1 in 10 people said they slept extremely well, with 62% saying they slept somewhat/not at all well. Issues such as snoring, insomnia and chronic pain were cited as getting in the way of a restful night.
Unfortunately, it seems things have only got worse. Greater amounts of stress, later bedtimes and earlier wake-up times, increased exposure to screens, higher alcohol consumption and being affected by coronavirus all contributed to reducing people’s quality of sleep worldwide during the pandemic.
So, what lessons have we learned from the COVID-19 crisis, and how can we get back to having great sleep again? Let’s take a look at some of the many ways to improve our sleep beyond the coronavirus pandemic…
What has the COVID-19 pandemic taught us about sleep?
No doubt we’ve all had a few sleepless nights, particularly over the last few years.
Donn Posner of Sleepwell Associates called the pandemic the “perfect storm of sleep problems.”
A general decline in mental and physical wellbeing, crossed with an increase in depression, anxiety and isolation, has also led some neurologists to define a new type of sleepleness called COVID-somnia.
Another sleep-disturbing phenomena encountered during the pandemic is the trend of “pandemic dreams”. Scientific American reported than one-third of us are dreaming more often, more vividly and around common themes such as worrying about uncompleted tasks.
For many of us, these dreams mean we wake up more often during the night.
It’s hard to measure exactly how the COVID-19 pandemic affected sleep worldwide, but it’s fair to say that general quality of sleep seems to have declined, leading many people to not get the sleep they need.
How much sleep do I need?
We all want to sleep better. But how much sleep do we need? According to the USA’s National Sleep Foundation, the average human adult needs between 7 to 9 hours’ sleep per night.
Babies and toddlers sleep much more, requiring anywhere between 11-17 hours each night.
Children need to sleep for at least 9 hours per night, while teenagers need 8–10 hours.
And, while you may have heard that some people naturally have different sleep needs, these numbers are largely non-negotiable. A 2018 study found that anything less than the minimum of 7 hours’ sleep for adults can lead to cognitive impairment over time and could worsen the physiological effects of aging.
Dos and Don’ts: How To Sleep Better
We’ve put together some dos and don’ts on how to sleep better:
DO: plan your day in advance
One of the biggest challenges about being stuck indoors is that it’s hard to gauge when to go to bed and when to wake up. Without social cues, such as trains we need to catch or children to pick up from school, it has become harder to measure time. That’s why, during the pandemic, many of us ended up going to bed later and sleeping in. For some people, this habit stuck around.
The best way to combat this is to create your own cues. Sticking to a tight schedule throughout the day can help your body and mind develop a regular circadian rhythm. Write down a schedule that includes when to start work, take a lunch break, finish for the day, cook dinner and do any other daily essentials, like exercise. Sticking to this will make it easier for your body to know when to fall asleep and when to wake up.
DON’T: work from your bed
The brain tends to associate different spaces with different thoughts and feelings. If you’re the kind of person who flips open their laptop in bed, you may find that, over time, your brain tends to associate your comfy mattress with the emotions you feel at work – including stress, anxiety and confusion.
This is why it’s important to have separate spaces in your home for work and relaxation – and why you should make sure your bed is strictly for sleeping, not working.
DO: look after your general well-being
Regular exercise and mental health care can pay huge dividends when it comes to getting a good night’s sleep.
Research has shown that exercise can help your body to produce melatonin, also known as the sleep hormone. Just make sure you’re exercising in the middle of the day, rather than right before bed, so your body has time to cool down. Mindfulness and general self-care for mental health have also been shown to improve the quality of your sleep.
DON’T: eat right before bed
It can be tempting to reach into the refrigerator before bed for a mindless snack. But try to resist eating meals or big snacks too close to bedtime – your body will have trouble falling asleep if it is still digesting food, and worse still, you could experience heartburn or indigestion while trying to fall asleep.
Try to resist the call of the coffee machine, too. Limit the amount of caffeine you take per day, and try to limit the number of caffeinated drinks you take after lunchtime.
DON’T: stay silent
The importance of self-care has never been greater.
So often, all it takes to relieve the tension and anxiety is to talk about your problems. Make sure you do what you can to have regular conversations. Don’t be afraid to share what’s on your mind, and ask people for advice. Their kind words and encouragement could help you to take a load off your mind.
DO: speak to your doctor
If the quality of your sleep has declined, or if you regularly find yourself unable to fall asleep at night, it could be a sign of something more serious. If insomnia has been affecting you for a while, it might be time to speak to a doctor. They may offer you treatments or medications, or look into whether you may have an underlying condition.
Don’t ignore the problem – if bad sleep is affecting your life, speak to a professional.
When it comes to getting a great night’s sleep, there is a lot of misinformation out there. We’ve addressed some popular sleep myths to help you tell fact from fiction.
Sleep myth #1
We need less sleep as we age.
Fact: Somewhat true
Between infancy and adulthood, we start to sleep much less.
A baby aged 6 months needs around 11 hours of sleep per day. As the child grows into a teenager they require around 9 hours of sleep per day. And adults require 7-9 hours of sleep per day.
Sleep myth #2
Sleep deprivation can’t affect my health.
According to the National Health Service (NHS) in the UK, sleep boosts your mood and immunity, while increasing fertility and libido.
Sleep deprivation, on the other hand, has been linked to long-term mood disorders such as depression and anxiety, type 2 diabetes, increased heart rate and higher blood pressure.
When the University of Surrey’s Sleep Research Centre in the UK studied the effects of reducing sleep by just one hour, the results showed that sleep deprivation affects our genes – approximately 700 of them.
Researchers found an increase in the activity of genes that govern body processes such as inflammation, immune response and stress, and also the genes associated with diabetes and cancer risk. The reverse happened when an hour of sleep was added.
Research by the University of Zurich found that male students – aged 18 to 28 years – sleeping for 5 hours a night made riskier decisions about money than if they had slept for 8 hours. The research concluded that lack of sleep can lead to an increase in what they call risk-seeking behaviour.
Sleep myth #3
Some people need less sleep than others.
There is no hard and fast rule about the number of hours you should be getting, and the exact number will change according to the individual. But we should all be getting at least the minimum number of hours required for our age.
Sleep myth #4
It’s not about how many hours we get, but how many ‘cycles’.
Fact: Somewhat true
According to sleep coach Nick Littlehales, we sleep in cycles of 90 minutes. Each restorative cycle takes us down into a deep sleep, where we place the day’s memories in our long-term storage, and then up into rapid eye movement sleep (REM), where we begin to process the emotions of the day.
Five cycles is the optimum amount to enable your body to recover, so if you need to get up at 7am you should be aiming to go to sleep at 11.30pm.
The body gradually eases itself into a state of pre-sleep. The mind is still aware of what’s going on in the world, but is slowing down and starting to rest.
Brain activity increases as the brain creates ‘spindles’. These help to preserve memories. Meanwhile, the body gradually falls into a state of pure sleep.
Your brain is now producing delta waves. Your muscle activity drops as you enter deep, restorative sleep.
REM stands for “rapid eye movement,” which is what your eyes do while you are in this stage of sleep. Your brain becomes more active and you start to dream while in this phase.
Sleep myth #5
A glass of wine before bed helps you sleep.
Alcohol may help you fall asleep but as little as two drinks can cause less restful sleep and lead you to wake up more frequently.
Sleep myth #6
While asleep, your brain goes dormant
While the body rests during sleep, the brain remains active and still controls many body functions.
The US National Sleep Foundation says the brain ‘recharges’ during sleep. It also sorts and processes information from the previous day, vital for learning and memory.
Quickfire ways to get better sleep
There is still a long way left to go for the world to recover from the COVID-19 crisis, but the rules for getting a good night’s sleep will always be the same.
Here a few top tips to help you always sleep soundly:
- Sleep at regular times – your body craves routine, so don’t be tempted to lie in at the weekends, and limit naps during the day to no longer than half an hour.
- Wind down before bed – as well as the baths and warm (de-caffeinated) drinks we had as children, it’s important to calm your mind. Try writing a to-do list to get the next day’s tasks off your mind.
- Understand the impact of light – blue light, emitted by phones, tablets and TVs simulates daylight, which causes your body to start waking up. Avoid phones and TVs for an hour or so before bed, and seek daylight in the morning before you turn on your electronic devices.
- Build the right environment – in your bedroom, avoid gadgets, bright lights and laptops. Make sure you have good curtains, a comfortable mattress and, if you find it hard to sleep in the heat, good air conditioning.
- Keep a sleep diary – if you’re still experiencing problems, keep a journal of when you sleep well and when you don’t, taking into account factors such as diet, stress and bedtimes. If you regularly struggle to fall asleep, you may have insomnia and it’s important that you speak to your doctor.
Sleep is vital to your well-being. An international health insurance plan can provide you and your family with access to GP consultations and wellbeing benefits, such as health checks, to help ensure you’re in the best possible health while overseas.