It is one of the most important things we can do for our mental health. But during these unprecedented times many of us are struggling with getting enough, or restful, sleep.
This week I had the privilege of speaking with brain health expert, Dr. Patrick Porter, about his views on the importance of sleep during COVID-19, as well as his tips on ensuring that we all can improve our sleep during this stressful time. I hope that his tips help you to improve your sleep, and in turn, your mental health!
ABOUT DR. PATRICK PORTER
Patrick K. Porter, Ph.D., is an award-winning author and speaker who has devoted his career to neuroscience and brainwave entrainment. As the creator of BrainTap®, Dr. Porter has emerged as a leader in the digital health and wellness field.
Interview with Dr. Patrick Porter, Neuroscience Expert & Creator of BrainTap®
1) Why is sleep so important during these unprecedented times?
Sleep is so important during these unprecedented times because of the health hazards caused by insufficient sleep. These include most of the chronic health problems we’re seeing today, including heart disease, weight gain, diabetes, high blood pressure, and even cancer, but health hazards don’t stop there. Poor sleep can also leave you stressed out and susceptible to mental health issues such as anxiety, worry and depression.
2) What are your tips for getting more restful sleep amidst all of the stress we are experiencing?
In no specific order, I will list the main ones here:
-Avoid charging devices by the side of the bed. Your phone is constantly searching for wifi, bluetooth and cell signals. Each time it emits a burst of energy that is known to act as an alert that wakes up the brain. Devices should be charged in another room or at least four feet away from you.
-Avoid watching emotionally-charged programs on television such as the nightly news or a scary movie. Since the brain doesn’t discern between what’s real or imagined, viewing these images will create a beta brainwave response, triggering the stress-hormone cortisol and activating the body’s natural fight-or-flight response, a state in which deep, restorative sleep is nearly impossible to achieve.
-Avoid eating within 2-4 hours of sleep. Your body can’t enter into the deep levels of sleep if it’s busy digesting food. This means that, during digestion, the natural hormonal cycle related to sleep will not be triggered, such as the production of melatonin. Additionally, the natural cycling of brainwaves doesn’t occur in this state. Without this cycling, your brain doesn’t get deep sleep, which is the only time the brain detoxes.
-Avoid too much light. Blue light has received a bad rap lately, but artificial light of any kind can be a problem at bedtime. It’s best to start dimming the lights and switch to your bedtime ritual at least two hours before sleep.
3) How does sleep affect our brain and productivity in our daily lives?
Sleep is the body’s time to repair and rebuild. I liken restorative sleep to a superpower. If we get the right kind of sleep, we wake up feeling like a superhero. If we don’t get proper sleep, we feel sluggish and unmotivated. Without sleep, our brains don’t get a chance to replenish our neurotransmitter bank account, which can leave us feeling depressed or anxious with nothing to connect it to. This triggers a generalized anxiety that can cause a foggy brain and the inability to think clearly.
4) How does isolation and quarantine affect our sleep?
Isolation and quarantine may affect sleep in many ways. Our brains love consistency and patterns. If you have been off your schedule because of COVID-19, for example, it’s time to get back on the schedule you would normally have for work. Research shows that this sleep pattern should be adhered to even on weekends as even one day off schedule affects the next few nights. As far as waking up, I recommend getting rid of the alarm since what happens upon waking affects the entire day and the next night’s sleep. Alarms, even gentle ones, create a startle response that sends the body into flight-or-fight. This raises the stress-hormone cortisol, which is used to mobilize sugar for energy. Since you are still lying in bed, all that sugar gets stored as fat in the system. This is why I tell my clients that stress is more fattening than chocolate. Once the spiral of stress is set for the day, it will affect all behaviors moving forward. This is multiplied when you hit the snooze button and it all happens again. It’s best to wake up on your own.
5) How can we improve our sleep as we begin to return to a “new normal”?
–About 30% of people who exercise before bed will arouse the nervous system and prevent the brain from entering a proper sleep cycle. To improve your sleep, plan your day so you can exercise in the morning when your muscles are full of energy and ready to get the greatest advantage from the effort. But, if that can’t be done, exercise should be completed three to four hours before sleep. In addition, at the end of the day, when the energy stores of the body are depleted, there is a greater chance of injury and your gains will be less.
-What you eat and drink can improve your sleep. Your digestive system uses more than 10% of your energy when digesting food. Also, depending on what you consumed, it can take up to 6 hours for food to move out of the stomach and small intestine. This is one of the major issues with indigestion and people waking up with an upset or sour-feeling stomach. If food is not properly digested, it just sits in the stomach all night. Anything consumed within 2-3 hours of sleep could affect the most important sleep cycle.
-Reading before bed for many people it’s a way to relax, wind down, and let go of the concerns of the day. But the problem today is reading with electronics. For those who love to read in bed, it’s important not to set your phone or tablet still connected to a WiFi or cell service within 4 feet of your head before going to sleep. It is best to turn all devices off or place them in airplane mode in the bedroom.
In conclusion, more sleep doesn’t always mean better sleep. Getting the right amount of sleep for you should be your goal. Current research shows that 1 in 3 people are getting less than 6 hours of sleep a night. And the national average shows that 2 of 3 people don’t sleep well for weeks at a time. This has only gotten worse with COVID-19 as all our schedules have been disrupted and late-night television binge-watching has become a “new normal”. Once you discover your sleep needs and make sure you make a habit of getting that many hours each night, you will feel like a superhero. Without it, it might feel like someone put kryptonite in your pocket. Additionally, without good quality sleep, your metabolism can suffer, which can translate to weight gain for many people.
We all have different sleep needs based on age, health, and lifestyle. Studies have shown, however, that those who go to sleep before 12 am, and preferably around 10 pm, are healthier and have better hormonal responses. This is also true with all neurotransmitters and the body’s ability to heal. Waking up on your own, without the help of an alarm, can help a stressed out nervous system regain balance.
While we continue to live through a pandemic with all of the stress that it brings, I hope that this interview has given you some ideas on how to improve your sleep and protect your mental health. Stay strong, and we will all get through this together!