If sleep continues to be an issue for you even as the pandemic inches closer to the endemic stage in the United States, you aren’t alone. The Lancet reports an “increased prevalence of sleep disorders in 2020 … highlighted in several other publications from different countries,” due to the stress, anxiety and PTSD associated with long-term isolation and financial distress, fear of getting the virus and actually getting the virus, among other causes. (There are of course some people are sleeping more, due to depression related to all of the above or triggered by it, for those who have struggled with depression in the past. Ugh, we can’t win.) Sleep is always essential, but even more so now, when we are under so much stress and need to do things to boost, not decrease our health and wellness.
In a September 2020 report by the Cleveland Clinic, sleep psychologist Michelle Drerup, PsyD, DBSM, says “When someone is chronically sleep-deprived,” she says, “they tend to have lowered immunity and that makes our susceptibility to viruses higher.
In fact, sleep, or lack of it, affects every system in our bodies. As I wrote in a 2014 post about sleep:
According to the Harvard Medical School Division of Sleep Medicine website, “many of the major restorative functions in the body like muscle growth, tissue repair, protein synthesis, and growth hormone release occur mostly, or in some cases only, during sleep.” This is known as the Restorative Theory, which states that sleep allows our body to repair and rejuvenate itself … This theory also maintains that sleep is an opportunity for the brain to clear adenosine (a by-product of cell activities, which is thought to lead to the perception of being tired). Speaking of the brain, the Brain Plasticity Theory, according to the website, is the most recent theory. It suggests that “sleep is correlated to changes in the structure and organization of the brain,” and that sleep deprivation can have an effect “on people’s ability to learn and perform a variety of tasks.”
So, what can we do to get better sleep? I referred back to my post from seven years ago, when I was — emphasis on was — a sleep champion. Here’s an edited and updated version of the advice from past me to current me and you.
- Exercise regularly: Physical activity gets your heart pumping, which contributes to increased metabolism, energy and vitality. Exercise affects body temperature, and the latter is connected to sleep. According to the National Sleep Foundation, “Sleep experts recommend exercising at least three hours before bedtime, and the best time is usually late afternoon. Exercising at this time is beneficial because body temperature is related to sleep. Body temperatures rise during exercise and take as long as six hours to begin to drop. Because cooler body temperatures are associated with sleep onset, it’s important to allow the body time to cool off before sleep.”
- Watch your eating habits: Obesity can cause sleep apnea, which inhibits sleep. Also, people who don’t get enough sleep are more likely to eat more. It’s a vicious cycle. The research of Dr. Eve Van Cauter — University of Chicago Professor of Medicine and Principal Investigator of the Program Project (which focuses on age related changed in circadian rhythms) shows that “people who don’t get enough sleep are more likely to have bigger appetites due to the fact that their leptin levels (leptin is an appetite regulating hormone) fall, promoting appetite increase,” (National Sleep Foundation). Also, be mindful of your caffeine intake. My personal cutoff for coffee is around 4 to 5 p.m., and I usually limit myself to two or three coffee beverages per day.
- Create an oasis: Your sleep chamber should be a place of retreat and comfort. Get the best, softest linens and the most comfortable mattress your budget will allow; paint the room a soothing blue or another neutral soft color; keep clutter and decoration to a minimum; and regulate the temperature at a consistent 60 to 67 degrees (the experts recommend this as the optimal temperature range). If your room is bright, invest in a sleep mask or blackout curtains. Combat noise with a fan or a white noise generating machine. Finally, put a drop of lavender essential oil on your pillow. Lavender has a sedating effect and can relax certain muscles.
- Take it easy on the booze: While one or two glasses of wine or cocktails can seem to relax you enough for a restful and rejuvenating sleep, in reality, alcohol interrupts the rapid eye movement sleep stage, which is the most restorative. Remember the adage: Moderation in all things, including moderation.
- Keep a routine bedtime and a bedtime routine: We are creatures of habit and if each night we power down the electronics, the lights and the chitchat at the same time, our bodies will follow suit. Setting a cut off time for electronics is key. According to the Sleep Foundation, “using electronic devices at night can interfere with both the quantity and quality of sleep.” There are several reasons listed, but a big one that I know I tend to forget is “blue light emitted by many devices disrupts the natural production of melatonin, a hormone that facilitates sleep and can throw off your circadian rhythm.”
- Take a long, hot soak in Epsom Salts: Here’s my recipe for creating a perfect bath that’ll have you relaxed and ready to catch those Zs.
- Try an herbal concoction: Drink a cup of steaming, calming herbal tea. Chamomile is a relaxing variety. Add a little honey to taste and sip yourself to slumber.
- Prepare for tomorrow: Write down anything you want to remember to do the next day, so that you aren’t thinking about it once you lay down to sleep.
- Meditate or do a few stretches: Clear your mind and relax your muscles. Anxiety is a contributing factor to sleep loss and recent studies suggest that mindfulness meditation “can help ease psychological stresses like anxiety, depression and pain.” Try the 4-7-8 breathing technique. It works like a charm!
- Reserve the bedroom for only two things: The rule in our household for more than 20 years has been no TV in the bedroom. It’s a place for sleep and romance. Soft music and maybe a little light reading are on the approved list, but other than that, no exceptions. Find a rule that works for you and stick with it.
OK, we have the information and the tools. Let’s get to work and go the heck to sleep!
Do you have a suggestion for the perfect night’s rest? Pop it in the comments or email email@example.com.
(NOTE: A version of this post published on 02/19/202)