Almost 40% of Brits complain that they are not getting enough shut-eye, but now two months into a nation-wide lockdown, sleep deprivation appears to be on the up.
So why are we struggling and what can we do about it? Here’s what the sleep scientists had to say about insomnia.
Clinical Psychologist Dr Helen Nightingale explains the different kinds of insomnia.
‘You are not alone is suffering from insomnia. Tens of thousands are fighting the same night-time battle. It’s acute if you have a stressful problem in your life and worry is causing your sleep to be affected night after night.’ The good news is that this usually passes and things return to normal. But what if it doesn’t? Read on to find out what to do.
If you’ve had ongoing poor sleep issues for years and are constantly tired, then you are suffering from chronic insomnia.
‘There are a couple of parts of our brain that control our sleep and regulate it,’ explains Dr Helen Nightingale. ‘The cortex, which is the ‘thinking’ brain and the subcortical – the ‘animal’ brain – which is responsible for keeping us protected while we sleep. For example if you’re a mum and you’re currently in a deep sleep, you’ll immediately wake up if you hear your child crying, or you’ll wake up if you need the toilet. When the cortex shuts down it transfers control to the limbic system, which is concerned with instinct and mood. It controls the basic emotions and drives.Our objective is to quieten the cortex and avoid worrying. The cortex needs to go quiet so that the subcortical can work. People who have been good sleepers can start having problems when their brain actively focusses on unimportant negative thoughts.’
‘Usually it is anxiety that disrupts our sleep and that is related to thoughts that interrupt us during periods of light sleep during the night if we have worries during this time. Everyone’s own pattern of sleep will vary and some need more than others. And it also depends on age and our personal sleep patterns both across the night and also the week. There are also chemicals that can change our sleep most importantly alcohol, and mediations. So sleep is a complex issue. One important point to remember is about real sleep. Sometimes we think we have not slept a wink, but this is actually not true (paradoxical sleep) we feel as if we have not slept. But indeed we have.’
Have a sleep-friendly environment
Leading sleep therapist and neuroscientist Hope Bastine was studying psychology and cognitive-Behavioural Hypnotherapy when she discovered how mindfulness can cure insomnia. She explains that the environment that you sleep in, the temperature and the conditions you sleep in are key. First off avoid alcohol and have a wind-down period between eating and watching TV. Allow yourself an hour before bedtime with no phone, no TV, no tablets, etc. But she also advises the following tips.
1. Get a room with a sleep view: According to Hope, every room in our home has a specific purpose. As we walk into it we begin associating specific activities with the space. So it’s important to create an environment that promotes the desired activity – in this case sleep and rest. She says: “Bedroom décor is key to promoting a good night’s rest. Research has found that red is exciting while blue promotes competence. Another study showed that reds and yellows increased anxiety compared to blues and greens. In general, softer, muted colours like grey, pink and purples are neutral and promote tranquility.”
2. It’s all in the head: Hope adds: “A comfortable bed and the right supporting pillow are by far the most important items to challenge the sleep thief. The National Sleep Foundation recommends keeping your head in ‘neutral alignment’ – the way you would when standing up with good posture. Meanwhile, the quality and comfort of your bed is the secret to good slumber. A 2009 study in the Chiropractic Medical Journal found that new, medium-firm beds increased sleep quality, reduced back discomfort, and moderated stress-related symptoms that interfered with restful sleep.
3. Get a good mattress: Hope recommends getting your hands on the king of mattresses – the Simba Luxe. It is a unique combination of 10 layers, hand-picked fabrics, 10,500 patented conical springs and an high-definition ‘7-zone’ support base. These combine to reduce pressure on key compression points across the body enhancing movement throughout the night. ‘In testing, people said sleeping on it felt like floating’. The mattress’s hypoallergenic sleep surface also aids freshness keeping your temperature stable – bear in mind that if your temperature spikes during the night you are innately programmed to wake up. So this is key.
4. Keep it cool: The average room temperature is around 20 degrees; however, maintaining a bedroom temperature of 18 degrees or lower will mimic the body’s hibernation state and help maintain a calmer state of mind. Air circulation also moderates temperature. Having plants in the bedroom provides a good supply of oxygen – this is especially beneficial for breathing problems relating to allergies or asthma. Some well-researched suggestions include: Aloe Vera; Lavender; Jasmine; Snake plant and English Ivy.
5. Pure PJs: The right bedding and pjs are key to managing optimum temperature and air circulation for good sleep. Hope says: “Choose natural fabrics such as cotton, bamboo, silk, satin because they absorb excess moisture, thus regulating body temperature. Simba mattresses follow this principle. They have 2,500 conical pocket springs between the visco elastic foam thereby promoting better circulation of air than a solid foam mattress.”
6. See the light: Banish the blue. Modern light sources (particularly fluorescent lights, laptops, and cellphone screens) contain a high level of blue light that disrupts melatonin production and throws off our natural circadian rhythms, keeping us awake when we should be sleeping. Many sleep specialists suggest that this widespread exposure to blue light, long after sunset, is a major contributor to the modern epidemic of insomnia. The American Medical Association, 2012 says ‘this effect can be minimized by using dim, [warm] lighting in the nighttime bedroom environment.’
7. Start a sleep ritual: Hope says: “Research shows that simpatias (formulaic rituals), such as sleep rituals, are extremely effective in producing the desired outcome when they are repeated at a specific time and have a certain number stages. A sleep ritual should begin 1-2 hours before bedtime but some practices need to be considered well before then. Stimulants such as caffeine stay prominent in your system for at least 6 hours (if you are sensitive, 12 hours). So plan your last cup of coffee/tea accordingly. Exercise should be completed 2 hours before you plan to go to bed. Cardio is stimulating whereas resistance training and yoga are sleep promoting. Weight training triggers the release of growth hormone (which heals and repairs) and helps us fall into deep sleep. Alcohol (in large quantities) is generally best avoided before bed as it disrupts the sleep cycle. Dinner should be finished at least 2 hours before bedtime.
8. Keep a sleep diary: If you’re serious about breaking the cycle, start a sleep diary for a couple of weeks to monitor it. This should include time to bed, time you fell asleep and then time you first wake up and the number of disturbances through the night. It is also helpful to record the quality of sleep. Use a scale of 1-10 and then rate the sleep. Also record the time you wake up in the morning and the time you actually got out of bed. Try to record this quite accurately, but don’t do it until the morning, (it’s not a good idea to be turning on the light and writing things down during the night.)
The NHS recommends that you should see your GP if changing your sleeping habits has not worked, you have had trouble sleeping for months or your insomnia is affecting your daily life in a way that makes it hard for you to cope.