The signs coming from our bedrooms are far from positive: between fifteen and twenty per cent of adults suffer from chronic sleeping problems. And Covid has only made things worse. The impact it has had on our bodies and minds cannot be underestimated. But the good news is: you can train your sleep.
Sadly, you’ll have to bid farewell to the traditional nightcap as a part of your training. “It’s a lie. You do fall asleep more quickly if you’ve drunk some alcohol, but your night’s rest will be disrupted. In any case, it doesn’t make you sleep better,” says Professor An Mariman. She specialises in chronic sleep problems and treats patients at UZ Gent.
Lying wake at night
There’s a great deal of inaccurate information out there about sleep. “People think there’s not much you can do about it if you sleep badly. To a certain extent, it’s true that there’s a genetic component to it, but a large part of it is under your control. Simply accepting it is a bad idea, and can lead to chronic sleep problems.”
And this is what more and more people are facing. Between fifteen and twenty per cent of adults in Belgium have a chronic sleep problem. “That means that they have been sleeping badly for months, sometimes years at a time. You can’t underestimate what that does to someone’s body and mind,” says An.
More sleep problems due to Covid
Covid certainly hasn’t helped. “At the start of lockdown, we generally had more rest and time, with a better sleep rhythm. No longer having to sit in traffic jams to get to work helped, for example,” explains An. “But after that, continuously living with your family in the same rooms, fear of catching the virus, and an uptick in loneliness led to a whole raft of additional sleeping problems.”
In Belgium there are no figures available, but abroad there has been a huge increase. “In France, 19 per cent of the population suffered sleep problems before Covid struck. Now the figure is 49 per cent. In the United States it rose from 22 to 55 per cent, and in Italy from 7 to 50 per cent. The figures speak for themselves.”
Fortunately there is good news: you can train your sleep. It all starts with your alarm clock. Getting up as soon as it goes off and opening your window or wandering outside for a moment is highly recommended. An: “This is a way of saying to your body: wake up and suppress the melatonin, the substance that makes you sleepy. If you don’t do that and snooze instead, then you fall asleep again and there’s a high chance that you’ll dream. That demands a lot of energy from your body, so you get up feeling groggy,” she explains.
Sleepy ≠ tired
Staying in bed for too long results in thinly-spread, fragmented sleep. An has a solution for this: “Increase the sleep pressure. Suppose you lie in bed for eight hours per night, but only actually sleep for five of those hours. Then your sleep pressure is too low and the quality of your sleep is poor. To train yourself to sleep better, you have to restrict your sleep. For a few weeks, keep track of how long you are lying in bed and how much time you are actually sleeping. If you’re sleeping for five hours, then over the next few weeks you can only lie in bed for five hours. If you then manage to actually sleep 85 per cent of the time, start adding a quarter of an hour each day. This will mean that you’re making optimal use of your time in bed and the quality of your sleep will increase.”
That’s also true of when you should go to bed. “You might think that the right time to do this is when you feel tired, but that’s wrong. Being tired and exhausted is not the same as feeling sleepy. Only when your head starts to nod and you can no longer keep your eyes open is it time to go to bed. If not, you’ll be lying in bed for far too long and you’ll find it hard to fall asleep.”
“That’s why it’s important to get enough exercise during the day,” An adds. “Don’t spend all day sitting at a desk or on the sofa. Then, the chance of you sleeping well is minimal. Do some exercise, even if it’s just a short walk.”
‘Lying wake at night
Whilst you are actually sleeping, the key thing to do is to stay lying down. Everyone wakes up at some point during the night, consciously or unconsciously. Everything depends on how you deal with it. “Sometimes you have the urge to pick up your phone if you wake up, to see what time it is. Or to think about things you’ve forgotten to do that day,” An explains. “If you do that, you’re signalling to your brain that it’s OK to wake up.”
A healthy sleep rhythm is not a superfluous luxury, because the consequences of sleep problems can be dire. “With chronic insomnia we often see cognitive, emotional, and physical symptoms. These symptoms include a loss of concentration and memory, but also an uptick in emotional sensitivity and anxiety,” An continues. “There are also a number of physical consequences. One is that your body makes more ghrelin, a hormone that makes you hungry. As a result, you’re at risk of diabetes and excessive weight gain. There are even studies that show that people who don’t have a regular sleep rhythm are at higher risk of hormone-sensitive cancer or heart problems.”
The smart watch fallacy
Something that An sees regularly is people with a smart watch monitoring their sleep. “Whilst wearables can provide information about the quantity of your sleep, they can’t do that about quality. So they don’t tell you whether you’ve slept deeply or lightly.”
Using a wearable of this kind at night does no harm, but An generally discourages this for people with sleeping problems. “Sometimes they focus too forensically on that data, which only leads to more sleep problems. If you want the gist of it: build up a healthy sleeping and waking cycle with a fixed rhythm.”