News Early research raises ‘interesting phenomenon’ about sleep during COVID-19
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Early research raises ‘interesting phenomenon’ about sleep during COVID-19

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Despite being in the midst of a global pandemic, some people are reporting better sleep and improvements in their mental health.

But for others, every night is a struggle – and there’s a recurring theme that’s presenting in sleepless nights across the country.

As part of the myriad research into how humans respond to the coronavirus, a global sleep study is investigating what impact it has had on our sleeping habits.

The “interesting phenomenon” comes in the initial findings from a worldwide sleep study, led by Australia’s Monash University.

Prerna Varma is part of the group of researchers who are analysing the results of a survey of 4000 people.

One of the biggest sleep impactors has been the shift to working from home.

This change has allowed people to sleep in sync with their personal circadian rhythm – so night owls don’t have to go to bed early to wake up early, Ms Varma said.

They are in a better mood and have better mental health because they’re sleeping and waking in tune with their body’s internal clock, she said, adding that “it’s quite an interesting phenomenon”.

However, globally, there are more people who are sleeping worse than there are people sleeping better, Ms Varma said.

The uncertainty caused by COVID-19, combined with factors such as job losses and social isolation, is creating distress for many people.

More Australians presenting with sleep issues

Sleep consultant Dr David Cunnington has seen an escalation in the number of people who are seeking professional help because they’re not sleeping well.

“They are understandably finding it harder to get to sleep, finding they’re waking more during the night because their brains are busier,” said Dr Cunnington, co-founder of Melbourne clinic SleepHub.

“There’s a lot ticking over that’s making it much harder for them to sleep.”

Dr Cunnington says the pandemic is leading to more people struggling with sleep. Photo: Instagram

Stress can lead to vivid dreams and night sweats, but what concerns Dr Cunnington most is that people aren’t addressing the deep-rooted issues causing their sleep problems.

“Seeing something as just a sleep problem – I’m just going to compartmentalise it and fix my sleep – we may actually be leaving ourselves open to a lot bigger health issues by not looking after ourselves and paying attention to those factors,” he said.

Ms Arezzolo has a long waitlist. Photo: Instagram

Sleep expert Olivia Arezzolo has noticed a significant increase in the number of people on her waitlist.

People who are usually good sleepers have struggled to get to sleep during COVID-19, she said.

The wider community is finding they’re waking up more frequently, particularly around 3am, Ms Arezzolo said.

They also are unable to return to sleep for several hours, if at all, she added.

She pointed to research that indicates cortisol levels naturally rise about 3am to prepare you to be alert and awake the next morning.

Under normal circumstances, this would not wake you up.

But if you’re waking into full consciousness at 3am, this is a sign your cortisol levels are too high.

Anxiety and fear are fuelling Dean Fletcher’s inability to get to sleep until 3am some nights.

Some nights, Mr Fletcher’s mind will start racing to try to figure out ways to sleep.

When he does manage to fall asleep, the 34-year-old from Wollongong in NSW said he can’t stay asleep for long and will find himself waking up throughout the night.

“A lot of it is just sort of laying in bed tossing and turning until I wake up the next morning feeling exhausted,” Mr Fletcher said.

“There’ll be days where I’m just so wiped out, I’ll sit down on the couch for what I think is five to 10 minutes to have a coffee and next thing I know, it’s three hours later, and I’m still sitting on the couch not having done anything because my mind is just blank.”

Ms Arezzolo advises her clients who are unable to fall or stay asleep to follow her seven-step bedtime routine:

  1. Block out blue light. Studies show blue light limits melatonin, the hormone to make you sleepy. Without sufficient melatonin, you’re left wide awake – even if it’s 11pm
  2. Diffuse lavender: Clinical trials have found it can lessen anxiety by 45 per cent – akin to sleeping pills, which reduced anxiety by 46 per cent
  3. Have a ‘Goodnight Phone Alarm’: Trigger yourself to get off your device with an alarm labelled “sleep better” – this also acts as a psychological cue, reminding you of your sleep goals
  4. Have a shower: The drop in body temperature – by emerging from your shower to the bathroom – encourages the body to produce sleepiness hormone melatonin, research shows
  5. Have a sleep supplement and sleep tea. Look for a magnesium-based sleep supplement, as it’s been found in academic studies to reduce anxiety by 31 per cent
  6. Listen to white noise: A recent study found white noise can reduce the time it takes you to fall asleep by 38 per cent
  7. Practise deep breathing: It activates the parasympathetic nervous system to help you feel calm, according to academic evidence.