The importance of getting a good night's sleep is instrumental, not only for us to be able to function in our day-to-day lives, but also for our overall health.
And a new study has revealed that middle-aged adults who regularly sleep fewer than six hours a night are at greater risk of dementia. People between age 50 and 70 with a pattern of consistently shorter sleeping periods face a 30 per cent higher risk of the condition, found a study that tracked nearly 8,000 Britons over three decades.
The study, published on Tuesday in Nature Communications, is worrying in a year where people's routines – including their sleep patterns – have been uprooted by a global pandemic.
Dr Jessamy Hibberd, a chartered clinical psychologist, and author of The Imposter Cure and This Book Will Make You Sleep, says: "Sleep is not an indulgence, it's a necessity. It is essential to maintain a functioning brain and body, and is a simple way of looking after your mental health, which is especially important at the moment."
Here are some factors that may impact your sleep cycle and tips to better your sleep quality.
Stress and uncertainty
Uncertainty is one of the key triggers for anxiety. Dr Hady Jerdak, sleep specialist and chief executive officer of Harley Street Medical Centre in Abu Dhabi says: “Anxiety and stress decrease serotonin in the brain, which can lead you to wake up multiple times during the night.”
Hibberd further details the rationale behind this: “Thanks to evolution and survival of the fittest, our brains have a wired response to uncertainty, which shifts control to the limbic system – the place where emotions, rather than rational thought, are generated. In the face of uncertainty, fear ensured survival.
“The trouble in our modern world is that we’re far less able to manage uncertainty as everything is instant now. Generally our response is to increase certainty, but this is impossible - nothing in life is a given, and that’s more clear than ever at the moment. So, instead of trying to be more sure, the best way to manage uncertainty is to increase your tolerance of this feeling,” he explains.
One trick for when you’re too stressed to sleep, says Hibberd, is thought-blocking: that is repeating a word that has no emotional connotations (for example, “the” or “one”), as “it’s difficult to think of two things at once”.
More importantly, he says: “Allow time for thoughts and feelings in the day. If you ignore how you’re feeling, night can be a time when everything catches up with you. It’s important we give ourselves time to adjust to the current situation.”
Working from home has upped the amount of screentime we indulge in. Jerdak puts it simply when he says: “Electronics and screens spell catastrophe when it comes to sleep quality.”
He admits that while it is more difficult than ever to stay away from our gadgets, this needs to be inculcated at least one hour before bedtime. “Read books, not screens, to entertain yourself; even a Kindle is better than an iPad because the blue waves from the latter stops the secretion of melatonin in your brain, which disrupts sleep.”
“As noted, being unable to maintain quality sleep or to go back to sleep is a common disorder during these uncertain times, but the best tip for when you wake up is do not turn to your phone, because what would have taken you 10 minutes to go back to sleep will become an hour. Read instead, or eat an apple, but do not turn to an electronic device.”
Hibberd adds that red waves are the best for recreating the feel of natural light, so “stick with red-wave bulbs where possible and low watt bulbs in the bedroom”.
Restricted screentime aside, Shetty advises “practising sleep hygiene, which means avoiding arousing situations – arguments, watching or reading the news and adrenalin-bound exercises – before bedtime”.
As we increasingly spend more time at home, lines get blurred and the bedroom may function as your sleep space, home office and dinner table all rolled in one. This, say Hibberd, is a mistake. “Build a strong association between your bedroom and sleep, so that as soon as you walk into your room, you think sleep. If you can’t sleep, leave the bedroom.
“One tip is to trick yourself into believing you don’t care about sleep to let go of the pressure you put on it - this is called paradoxical intention therapy and is proven to work.”
Shetty adds: “Ensure the area you sleep in is reserved only for sleep. This means no eating in bed, no talking on the phone and certainly no working from there. Restrict this area as a zone for relaxation.”
Hibberd shares some tips to make your room conducive to sleep. “A comfortable bed is vital; it’s the foundation of a good night’s sleep,” he says. “Also reduce your light exposure – think a bright bathroom – 30 minutes before you sleep.
“Calm colours, and an uncluttered, comfortably cool and quiet space – so no noisy clocks –are some other ways to make your room conducive to sleep. Finally, when you wake up, use daylight: light exposure in the morning is very good at setting the biological clock.”
Napping in the day
As tempting as it might be while the hours away by indulging in a mid-day siesta, a long nap may do more harm than good. “As a general rule, we should not need to sleep at any other time other than the designated nocturnal sleep period,” says Dr Irshaad Ebrahim from the London Sleep Centre in Dubai, adding that a midday nap needs to be “well-calculated”.
He explains that our first deep-sleep phase usually starts within five to 10 minutes of falling asleep. This can actually be the most restorative part of our sleep cycle, because it’s when our growth hormones are active.
“A 20 to 30-minute nap should get you enough restoration to gain a second wind. But any more than this will result in you entering the deepest sleep stage, which is generally difficult to rouse from.”
In other words, a snooze – of 30 minutes or less – may well help you to get through each day with energy and enthusiasm, but avoid taking a long, deep-sleep-inducing nap as this could have a detrimental effect and leave you feeling more out of sync than before.