Our lives have changed dramatically since the pandemic lockdown began in March. Our usual daily routine - including commutes, meal times, and the amount of time we spend outside - has had an impact on our sleep pattern. But now as restrictions begin to ease it's time to get your sleep cycle back on track.
1 Disruption of patterns
We are creatures of habit and our brains love when we fall into rhythm. For most of us, the patterns we have developed of waking, work life, social life and sleep were ingrained in our systems and psyche. There has been a profound disruption in those patterns, and this is causing havoc with our body clock. The three most powerful natural drivers of health and rhythm are sleep, nutrition, and physical activity. Taking control of these will help alleviate uncertainty around how things will progress and regulate the natural order of our internal body clock.
2 Working from home
Many people now find themselves in the unfamiliar position of working from home which can present many difficulties never experienced before. Some are forced to work from their bedroom and struggle with finding space and dealing with the limitations of this. Creating two distinctive environments in the same space with clearly defined time boundaries will really help when it comes to sleep and help to keep the bedroom a sacred space for sleep.
3 Demands from Children
Parents that work from home now find themselves spending much more time with their children than ever before. Many will find the demands and regular disruptions to normal working and living conditions very challenging. Some people are deferring work to a later time when the house is quieter. This is then having the knock-on effect of eating into their sleep time. Planning, communication and sharing responsibilities is crucial here for smooth functioning of family life leading to better sleep.
4 Food habits
Our food habits may have taken a hit while in lockdown. Not having the usual access to a canteen or restaurant is forcing us to either cook our own food or dial it in. High fat foods take longer to digest and cause disruption to sleep quality if consumed too close to sleep. The recommendation from experts is to have your last meal about three hours prior to bed. Our gut bacteria have their own circadian rhythm which helps clean up our digestive system while we sleep.
5 Pandemic Dreaming
Have you experienced strange dreams in the past few months? If you have, you're not alone. "Pandemic dreaming" as it is labelled is not new. Dreams act as a defence mechanism for mental health and offer a "simulated opportunity" to work through fears and release stress experienced during the day. Withdrawal from our usual routine and environment, lack of input material and anticipatory stress have left our brain struggling to process what is happening and forcing our subconscious to draw on experiences from our past. Setting an alarm for 5-10 minutes into your sleep is the only thing scientists believe will reduce the incidence of vivid dreaming episodes. Otherwise enjoy the dreams.
6 Worry & Anxiety
The common denominator globally since Covid-19 started is the amount of uncertainty it has created for us. We are more inclined to look at the world through a negative lens. Our very survival is dependent upon our ability to foresee threats. Covid-19 has acted as a fertiliser for stress and anxiety, generating a breeding ground for worry which seems to intensify when we are lying in bed. It is important to recognise the thought pattern, acknowledge it, gain a little perspective, and recognise that it is outside our control. Having a notepad and pen by the bed can really help. Jot down your worries and an action plan that might help you. Be mindful of the amount and quality of media that you take in prior to bedtime.
7 Our partners
Since restrictions have come into place, we are either spending more time with our partners or maybe less for those essential workers. Either extreme can put a strain on relations. This can translate to sleep difficulties which can leave one partner lying awake while the other sleeps soundly. Consider getting a bedroom divorce. Research shows that partners get better sleep without negatively impacting on other aspects of the relationship.
8 Exercise & Physical Activity
It's not all bad news when it comes to sleep and Covid-19. We're seeing a rise in people out walking, cycling, and exercising generally. All this activity will help us sleep better at night. Be sure to leave time to wind down from exercise a couple of hours before your bedtime. A hot shower will help you relax and reduce core body temperature for sound sleep.
9 Alcohol has increased
The Central Statistics Office reported that 21pc of men and 23pc of women increased their alcohol intake in April due to Covid-19. Alcohol interferes with sleep in several ways. It stops people going as deep in the restorative phases of sleep, it also inhibits dreaming and people have more wake episodes. Leave an hour per unit of alcohol consumed before sleeping or consider leaving it out if you want a restful, deep, restorative sleep.
10 Wake episodes
Covid-19 has thrown us into a spin and raised issues we've never experienced before. We are exceptionally sensitive consciously and unconsciously, so it is no wonder that people are waking up more often. If we look after and prioritise our sleep routine, we will give our bodies and brains the opportunity to deal with these new challenges and come out stronger and well rested.
Tom Coleman is one of the experts on the 'Vhi Health Squad' a new eight-week digital lifestyle programme that includes mindfulness, fitness, nutrition, sleep, environment, financial and parenting support. Vhi Health Squad is available to everyone, not just Vhi customers. Register today at vhihealthsquad.ie/sign-up.
Food & Drink
This week I found myself talking to a food retailer with a hotline to the man above, some intrepid food producers in West Cork, a chef with a love of baking, and the owners of a five-star boutique hotel in Dingle about the challenges of doing business during the current crisis.