Our sleep has taken quite the battering over 18 months of restrictions. The stress of the pandemic has led some to experience sleep difficulties dubbed ‘coronasomnia’, adding to the third of us who already suffer from sleep problems, according to the Sleep Foundation. Now, as schedules shift and more people are drifting back to the office, commutes mean that our schedules are shifting again.
Just one hour’s change is enough to throw you off track, says Dr Rebecca Robbins, a sleep expert for Savoir, a British bed and mattress maker, and co-author of Sleep for Success! "One hour can indeed be enough to throw our internal clock out of sync," she tells me from her laboratory in Boston, where she is instructor in medicine at Harvard Medical School and an associate scientist at the Division of Sleep and Circadian Disorders at Brigham and Women’s Hospital. "When we change our sleep schedules by an hour or longer from one day to the next, we are sending signals to the brain that we are attempting to transition to a new time zone, making the next night’s sleep challenging."
I am obsessed with sleep: largely because a blissful night’s rest has remained tantalisingly out of my grasp for most of my life. I’ve had regular – and long – spells of insomnia, and this, coupled with having two kids, the youngest of whom is still only 10 months, means I don’t often top about four or five hours a night.
It’s not a brag – I know it is way short of what I need. Studies that warn of the dangers to my long-term brain health, high risk of Alzheimer’s, heart problems and life expectancy do nothing to relax me into a good night’s sleep. Newer studies tell of the need for a consistent sleep routine to keep my immune system on top form – not only to fight off the regular cold and flu viruses, but also Covid-19.
These past 10 months, with a baby who wakes for three hours straight in the middle of the night, have been particularly brutal. There has also been little chance to "sleep when the baby sleeps" (among the most irritating advice I’ve been offered) when you have another child at home and a job.
It’s an extreme solution, admittedly, but I’ve decided to check into a hotel for the night and ask Dr Robbins to help me get on track.
Dr Robbins, a new mother like me, is sympathetic about my sleep problems – and my concerns about the long-term effects. I tell her I read a study by the University of California which found that new mothers who don’t get at least six hours’ sleep a night can add three to seven years to their biological age. She is kind: "We believe we can halt the damage – starting tonight. We just need to look at your sleep routine, freshen it up and address any bad habits." I can almost feel the relief of a restorative good night’s sleep starting to happen.
First, she reminds me how vital it is to prioritise sleep. Along with making us feel good right away, one of the long-term benefits comes from the new research published in the journal Science that shows just how sleep helps protect the brain.
"We discovered that over the course of the day, the brain produces toxins, the accumulation of which is associated with neuro cognitive decline such as Alzheimer’s disease and dementia," Dr Robbins explains. "When we sleep, not only does the brain stop producing these toxins, but it also produces a cerebral fluid which, in essence, pressure-washes the brain to remove the toxins that have built up."
In addition, as cold and flu season strikes – with what feels like particularly nasty variants this year – Dr Robbins says "how sleep affects our immunity is so relevant right now". Research shows that our bodies produce and release proteins called cytokines that target infection and inflammation when we sleep. "There is one very interesting study that has looked at rhinovirus, a sister pathogen of SARS-Cov-2. The researchers found that those who are sleep-deprived had more than a twofold greater risk of colds and flu," Dr Robbins says.
Not only that, but being sleep deprived can affect how well we respond to vaccines – both Covid-19 booster jabs as well as seasonal flu. "In those people who are vaccinated, we see an increased development of antibodies to combat the viral pathogen, and that’s accelerated when you couple vaccine appointments with healthy sleep duration," Dr Robbins says.
I don’t really need convincing – I’ve always longed for more sleep. So, tonight is my chance. I’m staying in The Savoy on a bespoke Savoir N:2 (created for the hotel in 1905 and slept on by guests including Winston Churchill and Marilyn Monroe). They have served me a sleep-inducing dinner in my room – salmon and rice, which separate studies show can help with sleep – I have a bath, which Texan researchers found can help you fall asleep an average of 10 minutes faster, then snuggle into bed. Alone. It’s bliss.
Dr Robbins has already advised me that despite a fairly elaborate bedtime routine involving CBD oil, white noise and old podcasts, I’m making one crucial error: not setting a consistent bedtime. Sometimes I work late or just want an evening with my husband; other times I hit the hay early. "It’s a really common mistake, but just as kids need set bedtime routines, so do we," she says. Instead of stressing about how many hours I’m getting (or not: research suggests most adults need between seven to nine hours), I need to set a time to go to sleep and stick to it every day, including weekends. Just as I’m strict with my children at bedtime because I know it’s good for them to have a good night’s sleep, so I need to practice what I preach.
She suggests counting back eight and a half hours from when I wake up (5.50am on a good day) to allow for eight and a half hour’s sleep wind-down period, another important tip. Screens are out, of course, so after getting into bed, I read and then turn on Dr Robbins’ meditation. She takes me through breathing exercises and a visualisation – and it definitely gets me sleepy. Not quite enough to fall asleep straight away, but it’s helped clear my brain.
As for my nighttime wake-ups – instead of lying there hoping to drop off again, I need to get up. "When it comes to this wake-up, resist looking at your phone and get out of bed and try sitting in an armchair or in a cross-legged position on the floor and doing a meditation or visualisation exercise." Studies, she says, show that getting out of bed in the middle of the night help you fall asleep 15 minutes quicker than if you stay in bed.
You’re also more likely to stay asleep if you’re in a cool room (18C) with a mattress and bedding made from natural fibres, which help regulate your body temperature further, according to a study reported in the journal Nature and Science of Sleep.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, I don’t wake up when I’m in my hotel room on my own, armed with the tips of a world-renowned sleep scientist. I have the first full night sleep in over a year, and wake refreshed at my regular 5.50am. I text my husband: "The solution is I have to move into a hotel"; he’s had a bad night with the children and doesn’t find me funny.
I know it’s not the long-term answer to my problems, and I am still carrying a sleep debt that might have had untold bad effects on my brain. But I truly feel like I’ve had a sleep education from Dr Robbins. Which is exactly how she says we need to approach sleep. "There is an expectation that sleep should just come easily because it’s a natural process," she says. "Then when it doesn’t, it can feel like something is wrong. But the truth is we need to learn how to sleep and how to prioritise it. Sleep is an investment, but one that will pay off," she says. Just like children, we all need telling sometimes.
"Naps can absolutely be part of a healthy sleep routine," Dr Robbins says, "but I recommend sticking to 20 minutes, unless you’ve had a really terrible night’s sleep, when you can stretch it to 90 minutes." Studies back her up: New Zealand researchers found that those in high-pressured jobs scored better on tests of alertness and performance after they had a short sleep during work hours.
The best time to take a nap is after lunch, between 2-4pm.