My name is Dr Carolyn Ee and I am a GP, researcher, health and wellbeing advocate and runner who is based in Sydney.
No matter where we are in the world or how we’ve been impacted by COVID-19, many of us will have experienced some disruption to our sleeping routines.
Firstly, this isn’t all bad news! The upside is that we are talking about sleep and the important role it plays in our wellbeing more than ever before.
Sleep is a crucial part of a healthy lifestyle, and it’s something that I find people often don’t prioritise enough. Yet it’s actually relatively simple to establish healthy sleep habits, and the benefits can be profound.
Why is sleep important?
Getting the right amount of sleep can have a wide range of important benefits including keeping us physically healthy, helping our brains work well, and promoting emotional wellbeing.
Speaking as a GP, poor sleep might signal a few things to me: it might be associated with a health condition of concern (such as obstructive sleep apnoea or depression) therefore it can be a warning sign that something’s not right.
If we are not sleeping well, this can lead to problems with memory and learning, metabolism and immune function, and emotional and behavioural control. Poor sleep may also lead to poor lifestyle habits, increase the risk of infection, have a negative impact on mental health and increase chronic disease risk.
Who is at risk of poor sleep?
You may be at risk of poor sleep if you:
How do I know if I’m getting enough sleep?
Your sleep needs are individual and also change with time.
If you are waking up naturally without needing an alarm, and feel refreshed when you wake, it is likely you are getting enough sleep*.
If you’re not getting enough sleep you accumulate a ‘sleep debt’ during the week, which is difficult to ‘pay back’. The irregular hours that you are sleeping and waking may upset your body clock.
*Some people wake early in the morning due to depression or suffer from insomnia. If this sounds like you, please see your GP straight away.
What can we do during the day to improve our sleeping habits at night?
Prioritise: Make sleep a priority and value it for its amazing restorative qualities. Sleep is as important as eating and drinking water.
Timing: I recommend getting up at the same time each day, and going to bed at the same time.
Daylight: Getting enough daylight is an important part of establishing a good circadian rhythm and promoting sleep at the right time. At night make sure the room is dark and cool.
Stay active: Getting enough physical activity can be difficult and many of us need to be creative at the moment in how we do it, but this definitely helps! You may want to try online exercise classes (including yoga), dancing, strength training or cycling. Chasing your kids around a park can also be incredibly beneficial! If you’re having trouble sleeping you could try a morning walk or run rather than doing this in the evening.
Have a warm bath: A warm bath 1-2 hours before bed will help you fall asleep faster. This might be due to our bodies cooling down faster after a warm bath and helping the circadian rhythm.
Avoid excessive caffeine, especially in the afternoons (remember that green tea, cola and energy drinks contain caffeine).
Avoid naps or limit them to 20 minutes maximum (set an alarm)
Limit smoking or, ideally, quit. Nicotine is a stimulant and has been shown to objectively affect sleep. It takes smokers longer to fall asleep, they sleep for less time and have more sleep apnoea and restless legs than non smokers.
Practise relaxation techniques to manage stress. For example deep breathing, yoga and meditation, which are very effective ways of calming down the nervous system. Smiling Mind has a great Thrive Inside program [https://www.smilingmind.com.au/thrive-inside] especially for the COVID-19 pandemic. Yoga with Adriene [https://www.youtube.com/user/yogawithadriene]is a wildly popular and very calming Youtube channel!
What are good habits for before bedtime?
Our bodies need darkness in order to create ideal sleep conditions. Two hours before bedtime, avoid or limit screen time, and keep lighting low.
For many of us, lockdown has meant more time looking at screens. As well as being the way many of us now work, it’s also how we are connecting with each other and keeping track of what is happening in the world. However, this can be counterproductive when it comes to sleep. In the evening you need a couple of hours of relative darkness to induce melatonin production and a good night’s sleep, so it’s a good idea to limit screen time and use this time to wind down gently.
What if I am still not sleeping well?
Difficulty sleeping can be a sign of anxiety or depression. If you’re worried about your moods, speak to a GP or try one of the COVID-19 specific resources. For example, Beyond Blue in Australia and the NHS in UK.
So if you want a simple and effective way to reduce your risk of chronic disease, maintain a healthy weight and eat healthily, improve your moods and brain function, and keep your immune system healthy, try to make sleep a priority today!
Dr Carolyn Ee
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