During times of stress, sleep can be elusive. A balanced diet, physical activity and a balanced work-life schedule all play an important role in promoting good sleep. But what do you do when circumstances arise, such as those we now find ourselves in with the COVID-19 pandemic, that make it more challenging to get your daily fill of physical activity or balance your work and home demands? These tips will help get both your brain and your body back on track to restorative rest and sleep:
1. Try to maintain as healthy a diet as you can. By this I don’t mean dieting or denying yourself snacks or treats from time to time. Instead, I urge you to try and keep your diet as close to “normal” – for you – as possible and the reason is two-fold:
a) Our brains and bodies thrive on routine and regular, “normal” (for us) activities and actions, including our diets. During times of stress, our gastrointestinal (GI) flora can get out of whack, making it harder to digest certain foods. Adding GI distress to an already taxed nervous system is not ideal, especially considering that the bulk of our immune system resides in our GI tract. For this reason, now may not be the best time to experiment with new diets or make extreme dietary changes. Simple dietary things you can do to support your GI health and immune system include cooking with fresh raw garlic and onion, both well-establish immune boosters, as well as to ensure you are getting sufficient vitamin C in your diet from fresh fruits and vegetables. Fruits and veggies high in the B-vitamins are also helpful in modulating the harmful effects of stress. A 2014 study out of Australia found that vitamin B6 was depleted in those experiencing chronic stress. The vitamin B6, found in bananas, chickpeas, wheat germ and lentils, is essential in neurotransmitter production, including serotonin, but also plays a key role in adrenal and immune system function. The study also found that those whose diets provide higher levels of B vitamins experienced 20% less work-related stress.
b) The brain-gut connection. As explained by Dr. Emeran Mayer, M.D., in his 2016 book The Mind-Gut Connection, the brain, gut and microbiome – the community of micro-organisms living in the digestive tract – communicate. When we are under stress or not consuming nutritious foods as the bulk of our diet, this communication breaks down and both physical and mental health issues can arise as a result. Insufficient quality nutrients also means our bodies and brains do not have enough micronutrients to make the amino acids essential to our well-being. For example, in order to produce serotonin, a neurochemical found to be important for alleviating anxiety and low mood, we must ensure we eat enough foods containing protein as dietary protein contains the essential amino acid tryptophan, which is the building block of serotonin. Serotonin is also found throughout the body and is responsible for smooth muscle contraction of the type found in the gut, again highlighting the connection between our diet, the microbiome, our brain and our bodies.
2. Limit caffeine intake. While we may have more time on our hands now (or perhaps less, for some of us) and thus be tempted to have another cup, try to limit your intake of caffeinated beverages to your normal amounts and times of consumption. This is because as mentioned above regarding normal and routine diets, your system is used to a certain amount of caffeine and increased amounts (i.e. higher “doses”) can affect not only your ability to fall asleep, but also the quality of your sleep at night. Increased time required to fall asleep results in inadequate duration of sleep and increased fatigue the next day, which then temps you to drink more caffeine to stay awake, and the cycle continues. In a similar vein, try to keep alcohol consumption to normal (for you) levels. This is because alcohol is a nervous system depressant, meaning that it may make it easier for you to drift off to sleep, but research shows that it affects the quality of your sleep, and poor quality sleep results in greater daytime fatigue. Additionally, we know that consumption of alcohol can affect absorption of, and in some cases even result in depletion of, important minerals and vitamins necessary for healthy brain and body function. Eating a healthy diet won’t help you if alcohol is stripping certain nutrients from your body, resulting in deficiencies.
3. If you can, get outside for some fresh air, physical activity and vitamin D (come on out, Mr. Sun!) Research shows that vitamin D, which our bodies cannot produce from the foods we eat and which we must get from exposure to sunlight, is important for proper immune function; deficiency in vitamin D is associated with increased risk of infection. Exposure to sunlight is also important for keeping circadian rhythms in rhythm by ensuring our sleep/wake cycles are in tune with daylight/darkness. This helps ensure our brains release melatonin, important for helping us drift off to sleep, at the right time of day and keeps us alert during waking hours.
Keeping active also gets our blood pumping which carries oxygen throughout our brain and body, helping us remain physically and mentally alert throughout the day. It also leads to endorphins, the “feel good” chemicals produced by the nervous system, being released into the body. Endorphins produce feelings of happiness and euphoria while easing pain and lowering stress levels. In fact, the word “endorphin” comes from the word “endogenous,” meaning “from the body,” and “morphine,” which is a pain reliever of the opioid class. Thus, higher levels of endorphins in the body results in greater feelings of ease and happiness, and reduced levels of stress and anxiety. Even just going for a walk can help lower stress by burning off some of the adrenaline that gets released from the “fight or flight” response that gets activated during times of high anxiety.
4. If you are stuck at home, try to set some clear boundaries between “work” and “personal” time. In this context, “work” could mean work for an employer (yourself or another), but it could also mean work around the house (i.e., household chores) or childcare. It is also important to set clear boundaries in the location of your work and personal time. Easier said than done these days, I know, but it is possible and it is important. Setting clear boundaries means that places of rest and relaxation, such as the bedroom, will not become associated with work activities (i.e., sources of and cues for stress and anxiety). Do not use your bedroom as your “new office” unless absolutely necessary or else when you go to crawl into bed at night, your room will act as a cue to your brain and body to become alert, to start thinking about work to be done, and to start stressing.
Similarly, setting boundaries of when work time versus personal time occurs helps ensure that you get a chance to recharge your battery during these trying times. Even a 5-minute “you” break to do something for or by yourself to regroup and reset for the next leg of the day can do wonders. If you set your bedroom aside as personal space for personal time, you have a built-in garden of Zen. Some of you may be thinking, “Yeah right! I have my kids at home – I can’t get a moment’s peace to use the washroom, let alone take time for myself!” My answer to that is simple: if you set the right boundaries and expectations, and set up the environment to support your goals, this should be achievable. If the kids are too young to be left alone in a room by themselves for 5 minutes, set up a safe play pen space or use their crib as their safe zone; older little kids can be asked to play in their rooms for a few minutes. Sure, there may be some protests at first, but if you explain the reason why it’s important to have a few minutes to regroup (i.e., it will help Mommy be a better mommy to you if I can just have a few minutes to regroup; Mommy can feel her patience running out and I don’t want that, so I need a few minutes to calm down, etc.), and if you practice doing this once or twice a day, they will catch on soon. And don’t forget to praise the heck out of them after, even if there was some degree of grumbling, crying or any other shade of protest at some point initially. It will take practice (especially if you tend to give in as it “seems easier than fighting”) – the more you practice this, the faster they will catch on and the faster you will be able to enjoy stress-free “me” time! If the kids are a bit older, perhaps a bit of screen time can do the trick. Regardless of the age, praise and reward their attempts. If they don’t do it, however, and cannot allow you those few minutes to regroup, then perhaps it is time for them to regroup in their own safe, private and personal space. Whatever tricks and schemes you have to pull, do it because even small doses of “me” time will help lower stress and increase your feelings of self-efficacy and ability to cope. Lower stress during the daytime means your body won’t have to work as hard to relax and unwind at the end of the day, which will make sleep come more easily and result in more restorative sleep.
Lastly, I offer the simple reminder that our brains and bodies need rest to feel their best and to work their best. Just like we can’t focus, pay attention or remember as well if we are tired, our immune system gets overtaxed with inadequate sleep and cannot work at it’s best. A good night’s rest really does do the brain, body and mind wonders.
For more tips on sleep, please see my post entitled, “How Clean Is Your Sleep Hygiene?”