I don’t know about you, but there have been nights in the last few weeks where I just haven’t slept well at all. Right now, there’s just a lot of stress, a lot of worry and a lot of uncertainty going on.
But we must realize that sleep matters now more than ever. Especially because due to the isolation, many of us have, at least in theory, more time to sleep at the moment than ever before but find their sleep not restful and refreshing.
So let’s spend a little more time thinking about the different ways in which sleep can be beneficial now and what we can do to improve our sleep in these challenging times.
Do you feel anxious regarding sleep?
First of all, it’s important for me that I don’t feed into your anxiety regarding sleep because I know that for many people who are generally struggling with sleep, their anxiety heightens when they hear and read about how important sleep is. If you cannot sleep at night, then you know how important sleep is! Believe me, as someone who has suffered from insomnia for a long time, I know what you are going through.
But stay tuned, I have some simple but useful tips for you in this article on how to improve your sleep in these uncertain times.
What is the effect of sleep on your immune health?
The corona pandemic is undoubtedly a new threat to humanity. But what is not new is that like with other dangerous viruses, if you get infected, there is a battle between the virus and your immune system. So it’s obvious common sense to give your immune system every support you can, and like with so many other health issues, sleep is known to do precisely that.
Many studies prove the close connection between your sleep health and your immune health. For example, there was a study some years ago that demonstrated that people who reported getting less than seven hours of sleep had almost a three-fold increase likelihood of becoming infected by the rhinovirus, which is what we all think of as the common cold, relative to those who are getting eight hours of sleep or more.
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And another study in over 50 thousand women assessed the effects of poor sleep on pneumonia risk, a respiratory lung infection. And what they found was that individuals who were getting 5 hours of sleep or less had a 70% increased risk for developing pneumonia relative to those who are getting 8 hours of sleep or more.
Sleep before your flu shot is crucial
But I think perhaps one of the most striking findings in this relationship between sleep and immune health was a study that showed that if you don’t get enough sleep the week before your flu shot, you produce less than 50% of the normal antibody response.
This last point is especially important concerning the current Corona pandemic. You see, at some point, there will be a vaccination available, and then the question is if the same thing is true: If you’re not getting the sleep that you need in the week before you get your COVID shot, will the immunization becomes significantly less effective? I think that’s an important question that researchers will need to answer in the future.
So from the immune health perspective, sleep essentially restocks the weaponry in your immune arsenal, giving you the highest chance to fight off infection.
What’s the effect of sleep on your mental health?
There is a lot of noise on the internet on how to take a positive stance on this isolation time. And many people suggest making this a time of learning and creativity. I think that’s great. But let’s not forget to make sleep a key part of that program because sleep is incredibly beneficial for your learning memory and your creativity.
The effects of sleep on your memory
First of all, you must sleep before learning to successfully memorize the newly acquired information. Sleep does seem a bit like a dry sponge, ready to absorb new memories and lay down those new memory tracks.
But that is not all. You don’t just have to sleep before you learn to imprint these memories in your brain. You also need a healthy dose of shut-eye after learning to permanently cement those new memories into the neural architecture of your brain so that you don’t forget.
In fact, sleep almost performs a file transfer mechanism, taking memories and moving them from a short-term susceptible reservoir to a more permanent long-term memory in the brain.
How sleep boosts your creativity
But that is not all; sleep is an even more intelligent process. While you sleep, your brain absorbs new memories and begins to integrate them and link them to already existing information memories. So it’s almost a bit like memory alchemy at night, so you wake up the next day with a revised set of associations in your mind. And this can lead to remarkable states of creativity. It is estimated that sleep can inspire an almost threefold increase in creative insight.
This is probably also the reason why you’ve never been told to stay awake on a problem, but instead are advised to sleep on a problem. Have you ever experienced that when you wake up in the middle of the night and suddenly the creative solution to a problem that was on your mind just popped up? That’s the amazing sleep-mind connection in action. And in order to experience this kind of light bulb moment, your brain doesn’t just need time; it needs time asleep.
The relationship between sleep and your emotional and mood state
Sleep can also change your emotional and mood state. Do you know that feeling when you had a bad day, then went to bed and felt much better the next day? It is as if sleep provides a form of overnight therapy, as if sleep can eliminate difficult, stressful situations or problems.
So sleep almost acts like a nocturnal soothing balm taking the sharp edges off our emotional experiences so that you come back the next day, and you don’t feel as challenged or as triggered by those events anymore.
Therefore, it’s not necessarily time that heals all wounds. It’s time with a night of sleep that provides a form of emotional convalescence. Like the American entrepreneur, Joseph E Cosman said: “The best bridge between despair and hope is a good night’s sleep.”
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And that’s perhaps particularly important in these challenging and uncertain times where a lot of us are wrestling with various mental health issues. Sleep provides a form of emotional first aid. So again, don’t forget the simplest therapy of all, which is just enough sleep. It’s 100% natural and available free of charge!
What effect has sleep on your weight?
There’s another issue you may struggling with right now: as a response to being isolated and feeling a bit stressed, you may be craving more and more delicious things to eat and cook. As a consequence, even more now than usual, you may be facing some weight issues. And again, sleep has a role to play in the battle against gaining weight.
It’s simple: if you don’t sleep well you’re more easily starting to gain weight. One reason for that is the balancing effect of sleep on your hormones, or more precisely on two specific hormones, leptin, and ghrelin, that control your hunger levels.
Leptin, when it’s released, is the signal to your brain to say you’re full, you don’t want to eat anymore. Whereas ghrelin does the opposite; it says you’re not full, you’re not satisfied with your food, you should eat more.
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If you’re sleep-deprived, what happens is that these two hormones start to work in opposite directions. Leptin levels decrease, and you lose the signal that says you’re full, and you’re satisfied with your meal. And at the same time, the levels of the hormone ghrelin increase, which sends the message that you’re still hungry even though you’ve just eaten. So as a consequence, people who are underslept often start to eat somewhere between two to four hundred extra calories per day!
Sleep deprivation makes you craving carbohydrates
But that’s not all. It’s not just that you start to eat more; it’s also that when you are sleep deprived, your preference for different food groups actually shifts. So you begin to desire more heavy-hitting carbohydrates and more simple processed sugary foods rather than those more healthy nutritious foods.
Another reason for your unhealthy food cravings is related to how your brain operates in response to food. Studies have shown that when people were not getting the sleep that they needed, the deep hedonic centers of their brains were ramped up in response to desirable foods like ice cream or chocolate but not to healthy leafy greens. They simply started to want those more unhealthy foods.
And this is because the frontal lobe in our brain, which almost acts like a sort of CEO regulating and controlling our impulses and our emotions, switches off if we lack sleep. And as a response, you start to reach for those unhealthy food choices. So, in other words, sleep is an essential tool in your box to help you manage your weight more efficiently.
We have more sleep opportunity now – let’s use it!
It depends on your circumstance, but for many of us, it’s a time like no other where we have more sleep opportunity time, and we should use it. And apparently, that’s what’s happening! The latest sleep tracker statistics demonstrate that since March 13th, which was when the national state of emergency was proclaimed, there’s been almost a 20% increase in sleep time on average as a nation in the United States.
Now I know that’s not true of everyone. While some people might sleep more, others are sleeping significantly less because of anxiety about the virus itself, concerns about whether they can keep their jobs, or because they’ve already lost their job.
What can you do if you’re struggling with sleeplessness and anxiety at night?
I think beyond the typical sleep hygiene factors which we all know such as avoiding screen time before bed, making your room a cool place, removing all clock faces from the bedroom, and avoiding caffeine and alcohol there are mainly two things you should be doing at the moment: first to stick to your sleep schedule, and second to accept all that’s going on in your mind.
Your body’s internal clock, also known as your circadian rhythm, plays a crucial role in regulating your sleep-wake cycle. This clock tells your body when to wake up in the morning and when to become tired at the end of the day. Your sleep cycle is closely linked to the light around you, so your inner clock helps you feel naturally more awake during the day and tired at night.
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Ideally, you should follow the same sleep plan every night so that your body can find its natural rhythm and settle into a regular sleep-wake cycle. But we often forget to give priority to our natural sleep/wake drive, which can upset our body’s internal clock. If you constantly change the time at which you fall asleep and wake up again, your body will not be able to adapt to a set schedule.
Therefore, stick to your sleep schedule as much as possible and avoid deviations of more than 20-30 minutes. Changing your sleep pattern too often will confuse and make your sleep worse.
Accept your current feelings and stop trying to sleep
I know being asked to accept feelings like anxiety sounds a bit crazy or maybe even impossible for you. Why should you accept something that’s making your life so difficult?
But the truth is that the harder that you try to force yourself to sleep, the more stressed and anxious that you become, and the further that you push sleep away from you. Accepting your anxiety and all the unwanted sensations associated with it is, therefore, one of the most critical steps in overcoming it.
Acceptance allows you to choose how to respond to your anxiety
The act of accepting can be really powerful because it gives you the flexibility to choose how to respond to your anxiety and to let go of it. By allowing your anxious feelings, you put an end to the nightly struggle and pave the way back to healthy sleep.
If you start to accept your current fears, then it looks something like this: In the beginning, when you lie awake in bed at night, you will still be anxious and worry, but you will stop giving in to your exhausting, useless defense patterns. This approach will give you this little extra space so you can make a conscious decision to struggle less. As a consequence, your stress decreases, and your mind calms down, both being essential prerequisites for falling asleep.
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Of course, this will not happen overnight. This process requires patients and some training. But what you will often feel immediately is that you have more energy during the day. This positive development will gradually intensify the less you struggle at night, and it will eventually lead to a restful sleep.
If you’re are struggling with sleep, check out The DIY Insomnia Cure, my powerful online training for self-healing insomnia.
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