“Doesn’t it feel like the zombie apocalypse?” I recently asked my boyfriend. We were taking our daily sanity stroll when suddenly the sleep-deprived eyes peeking over surgical masks started to feel extra eerie. I may have even traumatized a small child in a window when I waved excitedly, forgetting a big black piece of fabric was covering half my face and I hadn’t bothered with concealer. Honestly, the lack of concealer is probably what drove the poor thing to run. The insomnia has been brutal lately.
I’m certainly not alone. Everyone I speak to, from my grandmother to Kaia Gerber, mentions how badly they’ve been sleeping. That’s because the current situation is a veritable perfect storm for sleeplessness, and that goes for sassy 80-year-olds and teen top models alike.
“The biggest issue is stress and anxiety: worrying about your health, worrying about your job, worrying about your finances,” says Dr. Atul Khullar, medical director at the Northern Alberta Sleep Clinic and senior consultant at Medsleep. Then there are the changes to your routine. “Being more restrained, not being able to get out as much, less light, less exercise, worse eating habits—it’s just a hurricane of things that can disrupt sleep.”
While we can’t control what’s going on in the world, there are some things we can do to help rest our minds and bodies and get that much-needed shut-eye.
MAKE SLEEP A PRIORITY
In our performance-obsessed culture, rest is too often undervalued, but it’s truly essential to our health. A chronic lack of sleep has been linked to a whole host of issues including heart disease, stroke, obesity and diabetes. “There are some studies showing that you’re less likely to catch things, including the coronavirus, if you get proper sleep because sleep deprivation weakens your immune system, even in the short term,” says Khullar. Poor sleep also hikes up stress hormones, which make it even harder to deal with everything going on on top of making us more testy and irritable. “Sleep is going to get your entire family in a better mood, in a better temperament,” says Alanna McGinn, sleep expert and founder of the Good Night Sleep Site. “We’re all stuck together, so we need to be as happy as we can.”
STICK TO A SCHEDULE
With no commute or school run to worry about, it’s tempting to sleep in more and pop out of bed mere minutes before you have to be online. And since you don’t have to wake up so early, you might be going to bed later, too, falling into a Netflix black hole or buying overpriced throw cushions at midnight (just me?). But all of this can throw off your sleep as well as your energy levels throughout the day. “A lot of people don’t have the discipline to keep the structure, so we find people not keeping consistent bedtimes or sometimes napping excessively,” says Khullar. For McGinn, the first step is setting an alarm. “It doesn’t have to be as early as you would have woken up when you were going to work, but getting up at a more reasonable hour builds up more drive for sleep, which will help you fall asleep a lot better at night.” Regular exercise, including sanity strolls, also helps with that on top of promoting a deeper, more restful sleep.
MAKE YOUR BED SACRED
Both experts are adamant your bed should be for sleep and sleep only. “Protecting your sleep space provides a positive association between sleep and your bed,” explains McGinn. “Now, our bedrooms are becoming our home office and command centre, and that can make falling asleep even harder.” What happens is your brain no longer equates being in bed with just sleeping, so you lose that signal to wind down. “If you start doing many other activities in bed, you can get very strong behavioural insomnia,” warns Khullar. This is also why you shouldn’t lie awake for long periods. “We should be sleeping 85 per cent of the time we’re in bed, so if you are struggling with that it’s okay to get out of bed for 10 to 15 minutes,” says McGinn. “Do a quiet activity—don’t turn on every light or check your email, but a quiet activity in low light like reading or doing a puzzle—then get back into bed and try again.”
OPTIMIZE YOUR SLEEP SPACE
There are plenty of small tweaks that can make your bedroom more conducive to sleep, especially going into the warmer months. Mornings are getting brighter, so incorporating blackout drapes can help keep your room dark. There’s also the matter of temperature. “The best sleeping temperature is usually a little cooler than people think—between 16 and 19°C,” says Khullar. McGinn suggests switching to more breathable bedding and moisture-wicking materials like bamboo, eucalyptus or linen. And if you sleep with a partner, don’t be afraid to customize your side. “You don’t need to have to have the same pillow, comforter and sheets,” she says. Finally, pay attention to how your room smells, too. Certain scents like lavender and chamomile have been shown to promote sleep, so don’t discount those trendy diffusers and pillow sprays.
IMPLEMENT A BEDTIME RITUAL
Much like a toddler, I find a bath and book a surefire way to get me to sleep. That kind of pre-pillow quiet time is actually key to telling your brain you’re about to go to bed, say the pros. “It can be 10 minutes or 40 minutes, but there should be some time where you don’t do any other activities except prepare for bed,” says Khullar. For McGinn, that means putting down devices and steering clear of all things stressful. “We need boundaries on what we’re absorbing with the news and the scary stuff that we’re bringing into our brains right before going to bed,” she says. You also want to limit screen time in the evening as the artificial light confuses your internal clock. That’s not to say all tech is bad, though. Things like meditation apps or relaxing podcasts can help get you into a calmer state.
GIVE YOUR BODY A BREAK
Another important part of prepping for bed is what you put in your body. It’s important to avoid big meals at least four hours before bed so that your body is focused on sleep and not digestion. “A lot of people are turning more to carbs and desserts right now—please tell me I’m not the only one [laughs]—and if your body is not used to that, it might have a harder time metabolizing it,” says McGinn. She also suggests satisfying your sweet tooth earlier in the day rather than in the evening so that you’re not hyped up on sugar. Then there is the question of alcohol, which many of us might be consuming a bit more regularly than in pre-isolation times. “Alcohol is probably one of the worst things you can do for your sleep,” says Khullar. “It can put you to sleep, but that effect wears off quickly, and the sleep it gives you is artificial and not restful. Long-term, it damages your ability to sleep.” What about weed? “If cannabis is helping you sleep, then maybe there’s something else that you need to look at such as anxiety, depression or chronic pain,” says Khullar. “As a general rule, we don’t recommend people use anything to help them sleep without addressing it and getting assessed by a medical professional.” Many sleep clinics are offering virtual consultations right now, so if you try all these tips and still find yourself tossing and turning, don’t hesitate to reach out for help. From coping with the stress to staying healthy, you need your rest more than ever.