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The science of healthy sleep with Dr Robbins

Dr Rebecca Robbins explains the science of healthy sleep and uncovers the levers to quality sleeping.
Taryn Toomey lying on a Savoir

Our daily lives changed dramatically during the COVID-19 pandemic, so it’s no surprise that our sleep has also been impacted. To uncover the science of healthy sleep and learn how our sleep has been altered, we’ve partnered with Dr Rebecca Robbins.

Sleep expert to Savoir, Dr Robbins is the co-author of ‘Sleep for Success!’. In her research, Dr Robbins designs novel behavioural interventions to improve awareness about sleep. We are on a journey with Dr Robbins to bring together her research and our expertise in beds, to truly understand the science of healthy sleep and the fundamentals of quality sleep.

Our partnership with Dr Rebecca Robbins explores all areas of our health. From immunity and anti-ageing 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.

Dr Rebecca Robbins - Sleep Scientist

Dr Rebecca Robbins, Sleep Expert to Savoir, uncovers the science of healthy sleep


Firstly, how has our sleep changed during the pandemic?

Our daily lives have changed dramatically amidst the pandemic. So, it is no surprise that our sleep has also changed significantly. 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.

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 to shorter pre-pandemic durations. The shorter sleep and increased sleep difficulties amidst the pandemic also likely reflect the prolonged nature of the pandemic and continued unknowns.


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.


Do we need more or less sleep now?

Sleep 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 are 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 practising good sleep strategies.

If we simply sleep enough (i.e., meet the recommended duration of 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.


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 the 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.

One of the keys to good sleep amidst uncertainty is to establish routines and rituals that you can keep day-to-day. The small routines, whether it is making your bed in the morning or 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 a 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 moods. We also dramatically underperform in our working lives in several ways. First, we demonstrate more ‘presenteeism’. This refers 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 cellular level, research has explained why this may be. Specifically, that research demonstrates that toxic build-up in the brain, simply a byproduct 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 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 2 pm if you want to fall asleep between 10 or 11 pm. Make time for exercise. Those who exercise regularly get better sleep. Manage your stress. Stress is all around us, but it’s the way we react to stressful experiences that determine if it 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 at least 2 hours 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 bed

From the science of healthy sleep, staying in bed and wishing for sleep to come is one of the biggest mistakes many of us make.


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 to fall asleep and continue to stay in bed and toss and turn, you are conditioning yourself to look at the bedroom as a very stressful place. The key is to get out of bed, change your environment and return to bed only when you are tired. This will allow you to slip off to sleep faster than if you had stayed in bed.


How can we improve our sleep quality?

If you want to improve the quality of your sleep, you should be mindful of the amount of caffeine you consume in a typical day, the timing of your meals, and your exercise. It is also about maintaining a good sleep schedule, falling asleep at the same time, and waking up as close to the same time. Do this Monday to Monday if possible – including the weekends! If you keep a consistent sleep schedule and do not vary more than one hour, you will find yourself slipping off to sleep faster than ever before.

Find out more about Dr Rebecca Robbins and join us on our journey, as we explore the impact of a good night’s rest.