Sleep Health During Lockdown - by Richard Horner

May 1, 2020

Sleep Health During Lockdown

Richard L. Horner, PhD, FCAHS
Professor, Department of Medicine, and Department of Physiology University of Toronto
Canada Research Chair
Author of The Universal Pastime: Sleep and Rest Explained

Both the news and personal experiences are constantly informing us that everything we are now going through is different, very different. Among these news items are reports that sleep is suffering in many people. Given that poor sleep has adverse effects on physical and mental health, and that worse physical and mental health can further worsen sleep, then we have a recipe for a problem.

I have been asked several times by different people and outlets for tips to support sleep health at this time when many of us are spending lots of time indoors at home. There are three major points for everybody, whether young and old, living with others or alone:

(i) Keep a rein on our body clocks:  Establishing robust routines for times to get up and go to bed, and periods for meals and physical activities all help to regularize our body clocks and promote health. Having a robust routine in the morning and evening also importantly prevents our body clocks from drifting to extreme times. For example, drifting to become an extreme night owl (as often occurs in adolescents and students, and a proportion of adults) is like living on another time zone without going anywhere (‘social jet lag’). Avoiding disruption of the healthy routines that synchronize our body clocks and regularize our sleep-wake cycles keeps us physically and mentally healthy and resilient, and productive in the time zone we actually live in.

(ii) See the sun:  A powerfully important (but often vastly underappreciated) strategy for better sleep is regular exposure to outdoor daylight. Exposure to natural sunlight in the morning especially helps to synchronize our body clocks, and it strongly determines the time of release of the hormone melatonin at night. This effect powerfully and positively influences our sleep and wake patterns, mood, and importantly helps consolidate a full night of sleep.

(iii) Set our boundaries:  If circumstances at home allow it is helpful, as much as possible, to set robust boundaries between work-place, social/family-space and sleep-space. These boundaries also include the time set-aside for each: e.g., having core hours for work, family, social interactions (in-person or virtual), exercise, and other activities. Other boundaries include indulging vices no more than usual and thinking of personally relaxing strategies to bridge the perhaps inevitable and occasional periods of insomnia. Given that the harder we try to sleep the harder it is to get there, sometimes it is best to take a break, park the stress, and indulge ourselves in things we find personally relaxing: e.g., listening to a relaxing podcast or music, reminiscing over fond memories, or some other pleasure.

It may seem ‘a bit much’ to set so much importance on routines and seeing the sun outdoors from the perspective of the body clock, sleep, and mental and physical health. In that case I refer you to two perspectives that maybe helpful.

In his book The End of Illness the American oncologist Dr. David Angus, who helped treat Steve Jobs, US senator Ted Kennedy and the cyclist Lance Armstrong, offers his advice to help improve health: “try as best as you can to stick to a regular schedule – going to bed, getting up and having meals at the same time every day and so forth.” Our body clocks determine the organized activities of all of our cells, organs and tissues that contribute to overall body function. Helping them tick along in a coordinated and regular fashion promotes optimal physical health.

As regards the importance of the sun and our body clocks, in his book The Mind Machine, Dr. Colin Blakemore, Professor of Physiology at Oxford University helps us realize our connectedness to the world around us that we can often forget: “… people, despite all their intellectual sophistication, are, at root, children of the animal world. Despite the veneer of mental liberation, on which we pride ourselves, our brains still listen to the sun, the moon and the seasons. The rhythms of life reveal our kinship to the animals with which we share this restless world”.

Like it or not we are stuck with the biology underpinning our daily body clocks and our requirements for sleep. By appreciating the disruptors of them we can harness what works to improve physical and mental health.

For further information on sleeping tips when staying indoors during lockdown I recommend the following article. With solid scientific basis, it highlights important things to be aware of, and tips to follow, if sleep is becoming a concern during isolation and lockdown.