How to get a better night’s sleep
How have you been sleeping over the past year? Background anxiety caused by the global pandemic, with its changes to routines, stress and potential decrease in activity, has meant more of us suffering insomnia, with a rise in online searches for sleep help. Several studies have confirmed a link between coronavirus and insomnia. And an ongoing study at Oxford University, led by Professor Colin Espie, is investigating the pandemic’s impact on sleep and daily rhythms in adults. Professor Espie says, ‘In times of high stress and disrupted daily routines, sleep is all the more important for our health and overall wellbeing. Sufficient good-quality sleep helps us cope, so it’s worrying to see trends of poor sleep during this pandemic.’
However, some of us may have slept better. I know I’ve had more nightmares (Boris Johnson trying to electrocute me in a cellar), but I’m no longer fretting as much about being awake at night – normal for me since menopause – because working from home means I don’t have to get up as early. Rising at 6am to commute left me exhausted, but as I haven’t worked in an office since February 2020, I don’t have to catch a train, so I go back to sleep much more easily, because I’m not stressing about waking up tired.
Types of insomnia, and why it’s bad for you
You may have trouble with falling asleep, staying asleep, waking up too early or daytime tiredness. Insomnia may be short-lived, often caused by a period of stress or a life event, or last longer, aka chronic insomnia.
The odd ‘sleepless’ night (it may feel like you’ve had literally none, but that’s unlikely) makes you tired and irritable next day, but has no lasting effects. However, prolonged sleeplessness leads to brain fog, lack of concentration, difficulty with decision-making and low mood. Long-term sleep loss can have serious effects on health, making you more prone to obesity, heart disease, high blood pressure and diabetes, and lowering your immunity.
Most of us think everyone needs eight hours’ sleep. However, if you wake feeling rested and aren’t sleepy during the day, you’re probably getting enough.
Help for insomnia
If you’ve suffered sleeplessness, you’re probably familiar with the ‘sleep hygiene’ recommendations. However, if insomnia is new to you, here are the NHS guidelines: go to bed and get up at about the same time every day; no screens an hour before bedtime, darken the room (key for me), keep it cool; take exercise; cut down on caffeine; don’t over-indulge in food or alcohol late at night; don’t smoke. See more NHS advice here.
You can assess your problem with this NHS sleep test – the good news is that most cases can be ‘cured’ by sleep hygiene.
Some things I’ve tried
Aromatherapy Associates’ Deep Relax blend rollerball (£22, 10ml) with the earthy, mossy aroma of vetivert, camomile and sandalwood essential oils (known for their tension-easing, sleep-promoting properties), makes for a moment of quiet contemplation before laying myself down to sleep.
This Works Sleep Mist (£19.50, 75ml) produces a super-fine spray, with a lovely, soothing lavender, vetivert and camomile smell.
There are numerous podcasts designed to send you off, from Radio 3’s Slow Radio, featuring sounds of nature to the Max Richter Sleep app, inspired by his epic eight-and-a-half-hour piece of music, described as a ‘personal lullaby for a frenetic world.’
During the night I use an exercise from mindfulness app Headspace. When you wake in the night, take a couple of deep breaths, exhaling longer than inhaling, then count backwards from 10,000: ‘nine thousand, nine hundred and ninety-nine; nine thousand, nine hundred and ninety-eight’ etc. This engages the brain just enough to distract from those middle-of-the-night preoccupations: ‘What was that noise?’ ‘I must remember to apply for a refund from the energy company’, ‘What do I have to do tomorrow?’
When your eyelids flip open at 3am (my usual time), it’s easy to feel like you’re the only one in the world who can’t sleep – but you’re really not. And simply accepting that you’re awake can help ease the stress of it. Part of the problem of insomnia is worrying about it, and that worrying keeps us awake: a vicious circle.
Best not for bedtime reading, The Insomnia Diaries: How I Learned to Sleep Again by Miranda Levy (Octopus, £9.99) is an entertaining and upbeat account of a 10-year battle with insomnia, and may make you feel better about your own situation.
Hopefully, the return in part at least, to a more normal life, will ease at least some sleep problems. Sweet dreams!
Adrienne Wyper is a health and lifestyle writer and regular TNMA contributor.