In the past few weeks, people around the world have been getting used to the “new normal” as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic. That means, for many, no commute to work, more time to themselves and a more flexible routine.
People may have more time on their hands, which would seemingly translate to having more and better sleep. But there is one problem: sleeping for longer does not mean you are sleeping better.
If you are among the many people who have finally started getting those eight hours of sleep, but are still waking up exhausted, it could be because of poor sleep quality.
Dr Upasana Gala, neuroscientist and founder of Evolve Brain Training, says there are several indicators that your sleep quality is lacking: “If it takes you hours to fall asleep, you keep waking up throughout the night, you can vividly remember your dreams or you’re waking up tired – these are all indicators that you have poor sleep quality.”
According to some experts, there are a number of scientific reasons why you might be sleeping for eight to nine hours and still waking up feeling less than well-rested in the current environment.
The first and most obvious one, according to Gala, is anxiety. “People are worried about the uncertain global situation at the moment, as well as about their jobs. Stress plays a huge role when it comes to sleep quality.” It’s also the reason people around the world have noted an increase in unusual dreams and insomnia since the pandemic started.
Try to incorporate as much of a normal routine as possible, she advises. “Talking to others and being social can actually help you sleep better. It makes us less anxious, which in turn leads to better sleep.” If you are living by yourself and not having a lot of social interactions, it might be time to ramp up those Zoom conversations.
Lack of sunlight
"Sunlight is an important factor in regulating the sleep-wake schedule – in other words, the circadian rhythm,” says Dr Vaishal Shah of Cleveland Clinic’s Sleep Disorders Center in Ohio, US.
“It can help a person to feel awake after a good night of sleep, and to keep sleep-wake patterns consistent. During current circumstances, it is plausible that less exposure to the sun due to increased indoor periods can disrupt your sleep-wake schedule.”
The solution to this may be as simple as ensuring you get a little bit of sunlight every day. Gala recommends moving your work station closer to the window or sitting outside on the balcony daily to help you get some sun, and therefore some shut-eye.
Lack of exercise
Another reason you might be restless is that you are simply not tiring your body enough if you're at home all day, says Shah. "Under normal circumstances, consistently exercising for 30 to 60 minutes daily has a positive sleep-promoting effect, and also helps us maintain our weight. Therefore, being sedentary during this time can reduce that effect and lead to weight gain, which in turn causes sleep problems like obstructive sleep apnea," he says.
A little walk outdoors can make a world of difference.
Late sleeping hours
Finally, the time you choose to sleep may also play a role, according to Gala. With people having more flexible routines, taking short naps during the day and choosing to fall asleep later in the night, this could all be wrecking overall sleep quality.
Gala says this is because the REM sleep cycles take place at certain standard times, regardless of when you go to bed. “Scientifically, the best time to go to sleep is between 8pm and midnight,” she cautions. “If you sleep at, say, 1am, your body may enter a REM sleep cycle earlier, which will give you lighter, more disturbed sleep.”
In order to break out of this cycle, it’s important to develop a consistent routine. This involves setting aside 30 minutes of quiet time before bedtime to relax, and making sure your environment is quiet and comfortable, says Shah.
Meanwhile, Gala recommends having a shower before bedtime, staying away from screens and simply developing a soothing wind-down routine. “For example, I’ve been writing down things I’ve grateful for before I go to sleep – it helps me end the day with positive thoughts.”
It may take a few days before you see the full effects of these measures, says Shah. But it is well worth it for a night of uninterrupted sleep.