Eimear - Pharmacist Bio, Dec 2020
It’s fair to say that 2020 has been a year like no other. According to the Irish Heart Foundation, “COVID-19 has caused our normal routines to go haywire, and we can add further sleep-disrupting factors to this list: financial worries, job insecurity, health anxiety and social isolation. This provides fertile ground for insomnia.”
With Covid-19 bringing the world into unchartered waters so suddenly, and with life as we know it being turned upside-down, it’s to be expected that many of us are having trouble sleeping lately. Working from home, home - schooling, and adapting to new norms, coupled with the lack of our usual social outlets, can play havoc with our sleep cycle.
This blog post is dedicated to the area of “sleep hygiene”. Though it sounds like it, sleep hygiene has nothing to do with washing before bed (though, read on to find out how a warm shower or bath can actually be very beneficial…).
Sleep hygiene simply refers to the healthy behaviours and habits that can help
us to get a good night’s sleep.
Rather than focusing on the negative aspects of a lack of sleep, let’s focus on the positives of getting enough sleep. Good sleep leads to better memory formation and a better ability to learn. Our task effectiveness is better. Our reaction time is quicker. Our stress levels are lower. Our natural “hunger” hormones are more regulated. Sleep fights against infection and sickness by deploying your immune system. And, as any parent of toddlers or small babies will know, a good night’s sleep equals a better mood!
So, what are some top tips we can incorporate into our lives to help us get the
most of our time in bed each night?
1. Routine – Humans are creatures of habit, and working from home can wreak havoc on our once-rigid timetables. Though it can make our days more flexible, this can actually have a negative effect on our quality of sleep.
Sleeping in (for example at weekends) can throw us our off rhythm and cause us to feel more tired in the long run. Sticking to roughly the same bedtime and wake-up time every day, including on our days off, can help maintain a good sleep routine.
2. Phones and devices – Nowadays, we have all of the world’s information available to us at the click of a button. The devices in our hands are more powerful than the computers that sent man to the moon. We’re all guilty of falling into the habit of “scrolling” social media or news sites.
With the recent US elections, the drama always seemed to kick off around 2am Irish time - way past our bedtime.
Not only can this constant stream of data set off our anxieties, the “blue light” these devices emit can inhibit our body’s production of our sleep hormone, melatonin. But what about those “blue-light blocking glasses” that you see ads for, as you scroll on Instagram? The College of Optometrists says: ‘The best scientific evidence currently available does not support their use to improve sleep quality.”
The best advice? Put the phone to sleep, an hour or two before you do.
3. Alcohol - Though a nightcap can make you drowsy enough to nod off(especially coupled with a cosy fire), the quality of sleep you get after alcohol is actually quite poor. Heavy alcohol use robs you of deep sleep and REM sleep, and may contribute to impaired breathing at night, all of which keep you in the lighter stages of sleep. Coupled with the effects of a hangover (dehydration, headaches, nausea etc.), this often makes for an unpleasant following day. If you find you are not fully rested after your hours in bed, try skipping the night-time drink and see if it makes a difference to how you feel the morning after.4. Stimulants - Though people often use smoking to relax, nicotine is actually a stimulant for our brains. Cutting down (and ideally quitting) smoking can have a positive benefit on all aspects of health, but one we often forget about is the effect it can have on sleep quality.
decaf options, so you don’t have to forego your night-time cuppa in front of the fire!
5. Darkness - As we need darkness to stimulate our melatonin, your room should have no flickering lights or distracting blue glows (I’m looking at you, phone). If there is a lot of light pollution coming in your window, blackout blinds can help. Another option is an eye mask – with the bonus of feeling a little bit glam as you go to bed.
6. Temperature - I told you I’d get back to baths and showers before bed!
Studies have shown that a warm bath, for as little as 10 minutes, can significantly improve overall sleep efficiency. It leads to more time spent in actual sleep rather than tossing or turning. It can also quicken the speed of falling asleep by about 36%.
Why does the warm bath or shower help? There is science behind it. Your body temperature needs to drop to initiate good sleep. When we take a warm bath or shower, blood flows from our core to the surface of our bodies, especially our hands and feet. Heat is lost from the surface of our skin out into the environment, causing a drop in our body temperature. So, if you take a warm bath/shower at the right biological time - one or two hours before bedtime - it will aid your natural circadian rhythm and improve your sleep.
Also, ideally, your bedroom should be cool and well-ventilated. A room that is too warm won’t lead to restful sleep, as your body temperature naturally rises again overnight.
7. Stress - With the lines between work and home-life blurring for a lot of people since the start of the pandemic, it’s important to create boundaries in order for you to fully turn off and recharge. Don’t check your work emails or schedule a stressful phone call too close to bedtime. If your thoughts race as you lay in bed at night, it can be helpful to do a “brain dump”. Similar to journaling, this is where you get your thoughts down on paper in order to clear your mind. Whether it’s a to-do list for the following day, or just worries you have floating around your brain, seeing them written out can put you at ease. Lying awake at night-time is when we are least able to think rationally about our concerns, and our thoughts can become intensified. Jotting them down (briefly) can make them feel less daunting, and it takes away the stress that you may feel about forgetting them in the morning.
You don’t have to buy a special fancy notebook. Grab any piece of paper or old copybook and that free biro you stole the last time you were in a hotel, and just scribble your thoughts out. They don’t have to be coherent – the only person reading them will be you. Your mind can then rest safe in the knowledge that you will deal with whatever it is tomorrow as best you can.
One tip I’ve learned is that if I’m lying in bed stressing about needing to bring something important somewhere in the morning - whether it’s something needed for work, or a letter that must be posted first thing – put that item into your shoe, or on top of your car keys – that way, you can’t leave the house without it.
8. Medications - Some common over-the-counter cold & flu remedies (such as Sudafed, or Sinutab) contain an ingredient called pseudoephedrine. Though it’s great for unblocking a congested nose, it can interfere with your sleep if taken too close to bedtime. Try to take your last dose of these tablets a number of hours before bedtime. Some prescription-only medications can also cause this stimulating effect (such as Deltacortril or Prednesol). Another example relates to diuretics or “fluid tablets”… don’t take these late in the day unless you want to get out of bed to visit the bathroom! Talk to your pharmacist who can advise you on which drugs are best taken earlier in the day.
9. Sunshine - Unfortunately, this isn’t something that can be bottled and sold on the shelves of the pharmacy, but its importance cannot be overstated. Our skin makes Vitamin D in response to sunlight, which is crucial for our immune system and healthy bones, among other things. Getting out in nature early in the day (even on a cloudy or rainy day!) has been shown to have amazing benefits for both our physical and mental health. It also aids our body to make melatonin later in the day, and so helps us with our healthy sleep routines. Though we live in Ireland, and don’t see enough of the sun, getting out for a walk to blow away the cobwebs can really boost us during these weird times. A socially distanced walk with a friend on a sunny day in scenic West Cork… is there anything better?
Remember, good sleep isn’t just about what happens at night… it is a 24-hour process and its foundations are laid down long before bedtime. It important that we all try to adopt a “pro-sleep” healthy lifestyle.
As always, if sleep (or lack of it) is causing you serious issues, especially after incorporating some of these tips into your bedtime routine, make sure to consult your GP or pharmacist for a chat and further advice. Let us know if you want us to do a further blog on supplements and remedies you can pick up in the pharmacy to aid sleep… and make sure to comment below with any more sleep hygiene tips that you’ve picked up along the way.
Thanks for reading!
Eimear - Pharmacist Bio, Dec 2020.
Little did I know when I got an after-school part-time job in Rosscarbery Pharmacy in Transition Year back in 2009 what an impact it would have on my life!
I had always loved science and wanted to use it to help people in my future career somehow. Inspired by Noelle and the relationships she fostered with the people who dropped in for prescriptions or advice, I soon discovered community pharmacy was the profession for me.
After completing a four year Bachelor of Pharmacy degree in University College Cork, I did my 12-month pre-registration internship in a busy pharmacy in Ballincollig. Once I graduated with my Master of Pharmacy degree from the Royal College of Surgeons in Dublin in 2017, I was finally a fully fledged pharmacist.
I spent my first couple of years as a qualified pharmacist working with the McCabes pharmacy chain in Malahide in Co. Dublin, where I took part in the provision of the flu vaccine service, and a pilot scheme to screen for undiagnosed Atrial Fibrillation in the community.
After 2 years in the big smoke, the plan for 2020 was to travel the world... didn’t I pick a great year for that?!
So for the moment I’m happy to be kept busy back home, working in the place where it all started. The mix of science and healthcare drew me to the career initially, but it’s the day-to-day chatting to people and building ongoing relationships that I love.