Lockdown has changed many things, but most importantly, our usual routines have suffered. Even though things are slowly easing up, we’re still not as active as we were before, or able to get out as much.
For many, poor sleep has become the norm. Once this habit settles in, it can be difficult to rectify, especially if you’re not yet heading back to your usual work and exercise routines or are anxious about your future employment.
63% of people have experienced worse sleep since lockdown according to a study by Kings College London. So, if you’re one of them, you’re certainly not alone.
Good sleep is such a fundamental part of your health. It’s well known that lack of sleep can dramatically impact your mental and physical health. Importantly, it can affect your immune system.
Studies show that people who don’t get enough quality or quantity of sleep are more likely to get sick after being exposed to a virus and take longer to recover.
So, in essence, your body needs sleep to fight infections (as well as various essential vitamins – more on that here).
How much sleep do you need for you immune system to working optimally?
Most adults require between seven and eight hours of good sleep a night. Teenagers need nine to 10 hours and school-aged children may need 10 plus hours to function well.
What should you do if your sleep has been compromised for a while, and you’re struggling to get it back on track?
First learn the facts..
Sleep is governed by hormones.
Exposure to light stimulates a nerve pathway from the retina in the eye to an area in the brain called the hypothalamus. This then signals to other parts of the brain that control hormones (in particular melatonin) that make a person feel sleepy.
Getting some direct sunlight in the morning and middle of the day is an essential way to get the hormonal pathways functioning.
This will also provide valuable vitamin D, needed by the immune system (more on that here).
Exercise not only tires your muscles out, but the physical movement helps you produce adenosine.
Adenosine is a chemical that promotes sleepiness and helps melatonin do its job.
So, if you’d usually walk or cycle to work, but are now working from home, you could do the commute anyway incorporating a brisk walk around the block or park for 30 minutes, and another round at lunch time. Even better, do this with a friend. Positive social interactions improve your mood, increasing happy hormones that contribute to good sleep.
In the evening…
In the evening, the opposite needs to happen. Help your body produce the sleepy hormone melatonin by dimming lights and slowing down to facilitate the body calming ready for sleep.
Screens emitting blue light are the worst for inhibiting melatonin. Instead opt for a gentle red light bulb. Think the colours of a glowing sunset or simmering log fire.
An early dinner that’s not overly rich and heavy helps improve sleep quality. This prevents the body being overburdened and busy digesting through the night.
Avoid caffeine after midday
Caffeine lingers in the body, disrupting sleep hormones for up to ten hours after consumption. So, make midday your last cuppa.
Minimise alcohol consumption
We’ve all been drinking a little more than normal during lockdown to ease the boredom. But alcohol disrupts sleep, by keeping your liver active and may be the cause of early morning waking for some.
Sleep inducing foods
Everyone knows that a Christmas turkey sends you into a food-induced stupor; well it’s thanks to the amino acid tryptophan which the body uses to make serotonin.
Serotonin is a neurotransmitter that slows down nerve traffic to your brain, thus helping you feel contented, calm and relaxed.
There are many foods that contain high amounts of this sleep inducer.
For example: spinach, eggs, sesame seeds, fish, chicken, duck, tofu, broccoli, milk & yoghurt, beans, oats, peanuts, whole grains, brown rice, lentils, chickpeas, bananas, and cherries to name a few.
Without adequate levels of tryptophan journeying into your brain, you might have a hard time getting to sleep soundly. The challenge is that tryptophan competes with other amino acids for brain access.
The key to getting enough of it to the brain is to combine tryptophan-rich foods with complex carbohydrates. This is because carbohydrates cause the body to release insulin, which diverts many other amino acids away from your brain, thus allowing tryptophan an easier passage.
This stress relieving mineral calms the nervous system and can assist with falling quickly and staying asleep for longer by helping improve sleep quality. Research revealed magnesium deficiency to be found in 95% of hyperactive children, and when orally supplemented a significant decrease of hyperactivity was achieved.
High magnesium foods include nuts, seeds and green leafy vegetables.
Foods to Avoid
Just as certain foods help you wind down to sleep, other foods delay the easy passage to sleep.
Some obvious ones include caffeine in fizzy drinks and chocolate, though high sugar foods can also be problematic.
Whilst a small amount of raw honey seems to be beneficial for sleep, sugary snacks and even simple carbohydrates, such as white bread or rice, have a negative effect on deep sleep. They cause a sharp rise in blood sugar levels which inevitably comes crashing down, leading to a release of adrenaline, causing you to wake up in an agitated state.
Also beware of additives, preservatives and MSG in foods which have also been shown to disrupt sleep.
A few easy sleepy meal ideas…
Turkey bolognaise with brown rice pasta
Tofu and broccoli stir fry with brown rice noodles
Fish pie with celeriac mash
Almond milk, banana and cherry smoothie
Jacket sweet potato with tuna with green salad
Sweet potato and kale fritters with hummus
Lentil spinach dahl and brown rice with natural yoghurt
Spinach omelette with wholemeal toast
Flax seed and oats porridge with stewed apple and natural yoghurt
Sliced banana, nuts, seeds and natural yoghurt
Mackerel pate or hummus and seeded oatcakes
Warm almond milk with honey
Herbal Tea for Sleep
Everyone, not matter what age, can benefit from a small cup of chamomile tea before bedtime. Dried flowers are best, if not use two bags in one mug to make it nice and strong.
If you like herbal teas, check out my stress relieving tea recipe here.
Supplements to support the body’s natural sleep /wake cycles
When my sleep/mood is suffering, I like to take 5-HTP.
5-HTP is known to enhance mood as it acts as a precursor to serotonin, which is a neurotransmitter essential for a good night’s sleep, as it converts to melatonin in the evening.
Studies found those who took a combination of this and GABA (both easily found in supplement form), needed less time to fall asleep, slept longer and improved sleep quality.
How’s your mood and sleep been through lockdown? Have you had to take measures to improve sleep quality?
To note – none of these supplements should be taken if pregnant, nursing or if there is a known medical condition in conjunction with certain prescribed medications. Check with your doctor first. Full Disclaimer.