Do you take afternoon naps? Is it difficult for you to get to sleep at night? Are you in front of your computer or cell phone all the time? What you are doing to keep yourself occupied during lockdown is bad for you. According to the European Sleep Research Society, exposure to electronic devices has, on average, increased by two hours during lockdown.
Perhaps this figure does not alarm you, but watching movies, series, making video calls, being on WhatsApp, playing video games, or watching television late at night means that you do not allow your brain to carry out its natural processes.
During sleep, new neurons grow, the immune system backs itself up, memory is consolidated (so you are able to remember what you did a day or even a year ago), and all systems are cleaned and restored. “Plus, getting a good night’s sleep strengthens the immune system and boosts mental health. This is essential in the midst of a health crisis,” highlights Kenia Morales Bermeo, a specialist in sleep disorders.
Don’t go towards the light
In theory, we have been designed by nature to be able to sleep as soon as the sun goes down, but this cycle has become affected since the invention of electric light. We have prolonged our exposure to light.
The European Sleep Research Society says that young people in isolation are those who have had their sleep cycle affected the most, as a result of prolonging their use of all kinds of electronic devices by another two hours.
But what does light have to do with sleep? We are able to sleep thanks to the combination of many hormones and processes, but one of the most important is melatonin, which is completely dependent on darkness. Melatonin is active between 9 in the evening and 7 in the morning.
“Melatonin is released in the absence of light. As soon as the brain detects that there is darkness, this hormone turns on others so that they can start their processes and we can sleep,” explained the sleep disorder expert.
But if we are exposed to light, our brains are never told to turn on the melatonin and this in turn does not activate everything we need to prepare our bodies for sleep. And because of this, we have trouble falling asleep.
Sleeping too much
During this pandemic, our daily routines have undergone an abrupt change. We have stopped keeping the hours that we used to. We do not have the same exposure to light, or the same interpersonal relationships, and this directly affects our sleep.
Have you been sleeping more than normal during lockdown? If your answer is yes, perhaps you go to bed earlier now, wake up later, and have started napping during the day. It may seem like you’re making up for all the hours you didn’t sleep well in your life, but it’s not just about the amount of sleep: it’s the quality of which counts.
If you have the irresistible urge to sleep, even when you have had sufficient high-quality sleep, or difficulty waking up after having been asleep, these may be symptoms of hypersomnia. “We’re talking about someone who sleeps 11 hours on average, and has depression or symptoms of depression,” says Kenia Morales.
The good news is that it is very difficult for someone to have the sleep disorder of hypersomnia. The extra sleep can be caused by other factors. “Most cases of hypersomnia are generally related to insomnia. The effects of hypersomnia go by another name, and are accompanied by a psychiatric disorder, depression, or menstrual anomalies,” she explains.
Have you been sleeping well?
According to sleep experts, it is healthy to sleep more than six and less than nine hours. Those are our limits, and when we have exceeded them, we have persistent difficulty falling asleep at night or we wake up several times, despite having the right circumstances for sleep: comfort and temperature. Do you identify with this?
It is estimated that 37% of the population has suffered from symptoms of insomnia during the pandemic. Of these, 15% are health care workers, according to studies by the Department of Psychology and Sleep in Nanjing, China, and the European Sleep Research Society.
“Those who don’t sleep suffer an increase in cortisol (a stress hormone), the sympathetic nervous system (similar to blood pressure) accelerates, the endothelium (the layer that covers the arteries) is damaged, and it can even interfere with an erection,” explains the sleep specialist.
Not sleeping well produces immediate symptoms: irritability, poor concentration, and reduced memory skills. Some studies compare a night without sleep to being drunk, or worse.
When you don’t sleep well, you don’t lose weight and you even tend to gain weight. “This is because there has been an imbalance for hours, which affects the hormones that regulate both appetite and fullness. So, there is an imbalance in the metabolic process: when there is an imbalance, we begin to eat more,” says Morales.
Not sleeping well is directly related to cardiovascular problems, diabetes, obesity, hypertension, strokes, and heart attacks.
It is also related to mood disorders, the worsening or appearance of stress, anxiety, or depression. And in the long run, it has been observed that people who do not sleep properly tend to develop Alzheimer’s or dementia in later life.
How to sleep properly
“It’s difficult to measure the quality of sleep in Mexico, but it’s easier to list the qualities of sleep lacking in quality: headaches, dry mouth, exhaustion, tiredness, fatigue, lack of concentration, irritability, the urge to sleep, and daydreaming during the day,” says Kenia Morales Bermeo, an expert in sleep disorders.
Most symptoms of hypersomnia and insomnia are due to poor sleep hygiene. The specialist therefore suggests 10 rules to for high quality sleep:
1.Keep regular hours
Sleep and wake up at the same time. If necessary, set alarms. Do the same with meal and exercise times. The brain learns: it synchronizes our biological rhythms with the schedules that we establish.
2. Avoid naps
Unless you are sick, you should avoid them. But if you can’t, they must be before 6 in the afternoon and they should only last between 15 and 30 minutes.
3. Regular exercise
Exercise in the morning or afternoon, but not after 6 p.m. Exercise facilitates the release of many hormones and neurotransmitters that do not help sleep, so it is not recommended to do it at night.
4. A healthy diet
Avoid eating stimulants at night. Say goodbye to coffee, chocolate, alcohol, and tobacco. If you can’t avoid them, have them before 6 in the evening.
5. A comfortable room
Your room should be dark and quiet, without lamps and LED lights. For those who share a room, the use of ear plugs and eye shades is recommended.
6. A relaxing routine before bed
Develop a personal hygiene routine, such as putting on your pajamas, sitting down to read, praying, bathing, washing your feet, meditating, or listening to music. This is how you tell your brain that it is time to sleep.
7. Use the bed for sleeping only
You cannot use your computer, your cell phone, work, eat, or think in bed. This is because your brain associates the bed with sleep, so if you do something there other than sleep, at night your brain will not know why you are there.
8. Avoid thinking over problems or concerns
While you are in bed, avoid thinking about your worries or problems because you will generate a negative association. This means your brain associates bed with something negative, something that causes you stress and it therefore becomes more difficult to sleep.
9. Light during the day; darkness at night
During the day, have exposure to natural light and total darkness at night.
10. Get help
If, after following the 9 points above, you still have trouble sleeping, go see a specialist.“People believe that when they don’t sleep well, they should take pills or drink tea. But no, the first thing that a specialist in sleep disorders will prescribe is to follow these nine steps, to the letter, for a month,” adds Kenia.
The most vulnerable people
The sleep cycle changes over the years: it is not the same at 20 as it is at 60. This means that the elderly tend to have problems with their sleep. “It has to do with the maturity of the brain. The elderly no longer use their sleep for creating new neurons; they can’t do it anymore. And the ability to restore all systems is limited, so the amount of sleep is reduced,” she explains.
But there are certain people who are more likely to have symptoms of insomnia or hypersomnia: those who are not very resilient, and people who are stressed or anxious. Those who like to be in control, those who have no company, and women between 21 and 35 years old.
According to Chinese and European studies, women who are exposed to news for more than three hours a day are 20% more likely to develop sleep disorders: “It’s a genetic and hormonal issue. Due to personality traits, women are more anxious, and all these factors make them more vulnerable,” the expert explains.
After the pandemic
After the pandemic, experts from the Department of Psychology and Sleep in China and the European Sleep Research Society have calculated that 30% of the population who displayed symptoms of insomnia during lockdown will recover, and only 6.8% will develop a formal sleep disorder.
“We must pay special attention to health care workers and to those who suffered the loss of a family member or close friend,” highlights the specialist.
What the majority of the population will have is insomnia and circadian rhythm disorders: “This does not mean that they sleep badly, but rather that our society and culture interfere with it. We will have to go to sleep earlier and get up earlier; we will have to modify the sleep cycle again,” said Morales.
Our brains are completely different when we sleep. Sleep affects all areas of our lives. Putting in place sleep hygiene routines in old age is not as effective as doing it when you are young. Right now, we have time: apply the 10 rules and let us know how it goes.