In this interview, Patrick Porter, Ph.D., creator of BrainTap, explains why sleep is so important during the COVID-19 pandemic and offers tips to improve your sleep. This is especially critivcal because pandemic or not, sleep has a major impact on your physical and mental health.

Here’s what Porter shared about your sleep during the pandemic:

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 can 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 resources, 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.

Why is sleep so important during this time of global chaos?

Sleep is so important during this time of global chaos because of the health hazards caused by insufficient sleep. Sleep contributes to 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 and depression. Some research, such as that done by the National Sleep Foundation, goes as far as saying insufficient sleep can have the same effect on your body as drinking too much alcohol.

How does isolation and quarantine affect our sleep?

Isolation and quarantine 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, can create a startle response that sends the body into flight-or-fight. This raises the stress hormone cortisol. Once a 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.

If you take three to four days to go to sleep at an appropriate time and then let your natural clock wake you up, you will soon know how much sleep you need and your brain will naturally set that pattern. The moment you realize it’s morning, get out of bed. You will notice you have an abundance of energy because you will wake during an up-cycle rather than a down-cycle.

Consider the mother who wakes to the sound of her crying baby. Once the baby is back to sleep, the mother is often up the rest of the night. Conversely, we’ve all had the experience of sleeping for 9 or 10 hours, but then waking up tired and feeling exhausted all day. Why does this occur?

It’s mainly because of our circadian rhythms. Everyone is different, but the science agrees that we move through a cycle of brainwave activity from the wide awake state known as beta through alpha and theta (the dream state or REM sleep) down to delta (deep, dreamless sleep). If we don’t move through these cycles or they get interrupted, physical and mental problems can manifest such as brain fog, headaches, anxiety and unconscious fears, to name a few.

Also, thanks to new brain-imaging technology, we now know that unless we reach that deep level four sleep, we don’t get the restorative effects of sleep. We also now know that time in bed is not necessarily time asleep. You need a minimum of one hour of deep sleep broken into five to 10 microbursts and 2.5 hours of REM (rapid-eye-movement) to really maximize your sleep.

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 3-4 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. The same is true for alcohol, although depending on how much you drink and how fast, you should be fine with a glass of wine or a beer after dinner.

That said, anything consumed within 2-3 hours of sleep could affect the most important sleep cycle. Evidence suggests that if we don’t reach deep delta sleep by 12 a.m., we don’t trigger the full production of melatonin, which is needed for truly restorative sleep and for cleansing the brain.

Reading before bed for many people is 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 is best to turn all devices off or place them in airplane mode in the bedroom.

More sleep doesn’t always mean better sleep. Getting the right amount of sleep for you should be your goal. Right now, as I write this, we are in the midst of a sleep deprivation epidemic with approximately one in three people getting less than 7 hours of sleep a night. And the national average shows that about two of three 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 number and make a habit of getting that many hours of sleep each night, you will be able to maximize your energy. Without it, it will feel like someone put kryptonite in your pocket, causing your thinking to suffer. Additionally, without good quality sleep, your metabolism will suffer, which can translate to weight gain for many people. We all have different sleep needs based on age, health and lifestyle.

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:

  1. 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 can trigger the stress hormone cortisol and activate the body’s natural fight-or-flight response, a state in which deep, restorative sleep is nearly impossible to achieve.
  2. 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.
  3. Drinking even one alcoholic drink before bed. Yes, you read that right. Even one beer or a glass of wine will affect your brain and digestion for 4-6 hours, causing you to have inefficient sleep. Just like food, it’s best to give yourself time to metabolize the alcohol before going to sleep. Most people just don’t realize that being in bed with your eyes closed is not the same as getting restorative sleep.
  4. Balancing your checkbook, doing your taxes or other analytical activities before bed. Analytical activities require more brain power. These activities also tend to spike a stress response, causing you to use more of your brain’s resources. This usually winds people up at a time you want to wind down. These tasks are better performed in the morning or when you have more natural energy.
  5. Too much light. Blue light has received a bad wrap 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 2 hours before sleep.

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. BrainTap’s digital tools and mind development apps use creative visualization and relaxation, biohacking techniques that have made tremendous advances in helping mental, physical and emotional health issues. BrainTap has been praised for helping people relieve symptoms associated with stress, insomnia, pain and much more.