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The importance of quality sleep

Dr Rebecca Robbins explains the science behind quality sleep and uncovers the levers to healthy sleeping.
Taryn Toomey

Our daily lives have changed dramatically during the COVID-19 pandemic, so it is no surprise that our sleep has also altered significantly. To uncover the importance of quality sleep and learn from the changes to our sleep as a result of the pandemic, we have partnered with sleep researcher Dr Rebecca Robbins.

Sleep expert to Savoir, Dr Robbins is an Instructor of Medicine at Harvard Medical School, Associate Scientist, Division of Sleep and Circadian Disorders at Brigham and Women’s Hospital and co-author of Sleep for Success! In her research, Robbins designs novel behavioural interventions to improve awareness about sleep. We are on a journey with Dr Rebecca Robbins to bring together her research and our expertise of crafting bespoke beds, to truly understand the sleep science and the fundamentals of quality sleep.

Dr Rebecca Robbins, Sleep Expert to Savoir

Our partnership with Dr Rebecca Robbins will explore all areas of our health, from immunity and anti-aging to performance and brain function, which can all be impacted by sleep. To begin, we wanted to understand how our sleep has changed since the COVID-19 pandemic and how this may impact us in the future. We talk to Dr Rebecca Robbins about how much quality sleep we really need. We also explore the impact of quality sleep and how to implement good sleeping habits.

How has our sleep changed during the COVID-19 pandemic?

Our daily lives have changed dramatically amidst the COVID-19 pandemic. So it is no surprise that our sleep has also changed significantly since the onset of the pandemic. Our research found that in 2020, in the early months of the pandemic, we slept almost 25 minutes longer than we did in the same month in 2019 as a global society. However, as the pandemic has raged on for almost one year, many are struggling with sleep difficulties.

At the beginning of the pandemic, there was so much uncertainty and the lockdown was so new to us. The lockdown may have provided more time in a typical 24-hour day to sleep. However, as the pandemic has dragged on, many of us have returned to our pre-COVID pace of life with deadlines for adults and school activities for children. We have all adjusted to our new normal.  Our sleep in the later months of the pandemic has begun reverting back to shorter pre-pandemic durations. The shorter sleep and increased sleep difficulties amidst the pandemic also likely reflects the prolonged nature of the pandemic and continued unknowns. Such as vaccine access and new SARS-CoV-2 strains, which are starting to take a toll on our collective conscious and health. 

Do we need more or less sleep at the moment?

Sleep actually plays an important role in our immune function. From experimental studies, we know that insufficient sleep can leave us limited in our ability to mount a strong immune system when exposed to viral pathogens. Studies show that insufficient sleepers are at more than 2x greater risk of contracting the common cold. Although this study has not been replicated in Sars-COV-2 we believe that the same mechanisms is at work. Sufficient sleep strengthens our immune function and allows us to mount a stronger immune response in the face of exposure to a viral pathogen.

You mention sufficient sleep, what does that mean?

We need sufficient sleep to power our waking lives, but we also need quality sleep. Quality, restorative sleep can be achieved by practicing good sleep strategies.

If we simply sleep enough (i.e., meet the recommended duration which ranges from 7 to 8 hours for most adults) but have poor quality sleep. Or, if we obtain good quality sleep but not enough (i.e., less than the recommended 7 hours) we are in both cases missing the mark. Likely realising the consequences in terms of poor mood, lower productivity, and greater long term health risks.

Therefore, getting as much quality sleep as we can, and keeping a healthy sleep routine – comprised of good sleep habits, a consistent sleep schedule, and a sufficient duration of sleep – are more important than ever.

Can sleep impact our perspective on the COVID-19 pandemic?

Data collected during the COVID-19 pandemic have shown that many more of us are struggling with poor mental health as compared to prior years. Unfortunately, if you are struggling with sleep, this can increase our risk for negative mood and feelings of anxiety. It can also hinder our healthy outlook and perspective, causing negative experiences to loom larger than positive ones.

How can sleep impact our response to uncertainty and change?

Change can be difficult, and we are experiencing a lot of it these days! Our working lives have been transitioned to virtual platforms. Our social interactions are limited and we spend extended periods of time with the same people in the same places. While these changes are vital to protect our health and curb spread of the virus, they can negatively impact our sleep. Healthy sleep is all about routine. In terms of the schedules we maintain and the practices we engage in leading up to bedtime. Therefore, sleep can be compromised in the face of changes and uncertainty. Then, in the face of disturbed sleep, our ability to cope with uncertainty and change can be hindered. One of the keys to good sleep amidst uncertainty is to establish routines and rituals that you can keep day in and day out. The small routines, whether it is making your bed in the morning or making a cup of herbal tea before bed, go a long way toward providing the comfort we all crave as human beings. It is this comfort that allows us to slip into sound sleep at night.

Taryn Toomey

Taryn Toomey, wellness expert and founder of The Class, shot by Jaimie Baird for Savoir

What are the short-term cognitive benefits of improving our sleep at this time?

In the short term, we all know the consequences of insufficient all too well. After a night of short sleep we become more irritable, anxious, and prone to negative mood. We also dramatically underperform in our working lives in several ways. First, we demonstrate more ‘presenteeism.’ A term referring to the fact that you may show up to work but accomplish very little such you may have been better off not going to work at all. Second, we are more likely to make risky decisions. Third, our creativity suffers. We are much less able to develop creative solutions to complex problems when sleep deprived.

What are the long-term cognitive benefits of improving our sleep?

There is a rich and growing evidence base to show that sleep is critical for our brain health. In a longitudinal study we examined sleep among older adults and monitored them and their risk for Alzheimer’s disease and dementia over time. Our results found that those getting insufficient (less than 6 hours) were at a 2-fold greater risk for incident dementia in the following years. At the very cellularly level, research has explained why this may be. Specifically, that research demonstrates that toxic build up in the brain, simply a by-product of our waking activity – learning things, making decisions, meeting new people – comes to a screeching halt at night. In addition, the pathways that excrete toxins from the brain expand at night. Therefore, providing our brains with enough time for sleep may be critical for maintaining a healthy brain now and into our older years.

Can you share some strategies for managing disturbed sleep?

If you are struggling with poor quality or disturbed sleep, here are a few suggestions.

First, good sleep starts as soon as we wake up. What we do during the day (or do not do) matters for our sleep at night. During the day, monitor your caffeine consumption. You do not want to have more than 2 cups of coffee or doses of caffeine any later than 2pm if you want to fall asleep between 10 or 11pm. Make time for exercise! Those who exercise regularly get better sleep. Manage your stress. Stress is all around us, but it is the way we react to stressful experiences that determine if stress will negatively affect our lives. Consider starting a brief mindfulness practice in the afternoon to ease tension and stress.

Second, nutrition is linked with our sleep. Ideally, you want to have a hearty breakfast and lunch and a lighter dinner. A dinner that is too heavy or consumed too close to bedtime can interfere with our ability to fall asleep. Endeavour to have your last meal 2 hours at least before bed. Then, transition to soothing herbal tea.

Third, the bedroom environment is vital for our good quality rest. Ensure that you have a mattress that is supportive of your head, neck, and spinal column at night. The mattress is of course the foundation of our good sleep. An unsupportive mattress, or a mattress that retains heat, will limit the quality of your sleep. Also, ensure your curtains can close and your bedroom can be completely dark when you are attempting to sleep. Whereas bright light wakes us up, darkness is what allows the sleep-inducing hormone melatonin to secrete in the brain.

Savoir No 2

What if you can’t get to sleep?

If you find yourself tossing and turning, get out of bed! Staying in bed and wishing for sleep to come is one of the biggest mistakes many of us make. If you struggle falling asleep or if you wake up and struggle to fall back asleep and continue to stay in bed and toss and turn. We are actually conditioning ourselves to look at the bedroom as a very stressful place. The key is to get out of bed, change your environment (ideally, go to another room room) and return to bed only when you are tired. This will allow you to slip off to sleep faster into a deeper stage of sleep than if you had stayed in bed and tossed and turned.

Should we change our sleeping habits following the COVID-19 pandemic?

While many of us are struggling with sleep at the moment amid the uncertainty, confusion, and fear amidst the pandemic. It is a compelling proposition that now might be the perfect time to refine your sleep routine, change unhealthy habits, and find a rhythm that works for you. Not only is healthy sleep critical for our immune system, our brains and bodies, sleep is also vital for our mood, productivity, and the quality of our lives.

How can we improve our sleep quality?

While we often focus on sleep quantity, we can obtain good sleep quality with small changes to our daily behaviours. If you want to improve the quality of your sleep, you may be mindful of the amount of caffeine you consume in a typical day, the timing of your meals, and your exercise. Another key to sleep quality is maintaining a good sleep schedule, falling asleep at the same time and waking up as close to the same time Monday to Monday as possible – including the weekends! If you keep a consistent sleep schedule and do not vary more than 1 hour, you may find yourself slipping off to sleep faster than ever before.

Find out more about Dr Rebecca Robbins.

Join us on our journey with Dr Robbins as we explore the impact sleep has on our immunity, anti-aging, performance and brain health. Sign up to our newsletter via the enquire button on the top right-hand corner of the page to be the first to receive our findings.