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Sleep: Quality or Quantity?

Maggie Mckeown

14 Oct 2020

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During lockdown, my sleep suffered. Like everyone else my anxiety levels rocketed, and I tossed and turned for hours. I dug out my Fitbit which I hadn’t worn since the start of lockdown and began tracking my sleep again. I realised that my sleep score which had previously been 87-92 (good-excellent), was now languishing around 61-64 (bottom end of fair), occasionally dipping into the 50s (poor). No wonder I felt tired and tearful. Something needed to change.

To optimise sleep health, we need to balance how long we sleep with how well we sleep. For years, researchers recommended eight hours of sleep each night as optimal. Now, professionals consider sleep quality to be of equal importance in reaping all the benefits of sleep. In fact, sleep quality is probably a better indicator of overall mental health, mood, and energy levels than sleep quantity. Prior to lockdown, I’d been a 10:30pm-6am sleeper, occasionally 11pm-6:30am. Although that was 30 minutes shy of the perfect 8 hours, I always woke just before my alarm, feeling rested. During lockdown, bedtimes had become later and later, and although I was ‘sleeping’ for longer, and not setting the alarm, my sleep was clearly not of the quality I was used to.
Fitness trackers like the Fitbit monitor the quality of our sleep by looking at how much time we spend in the various stages. We cycle through the various stages each night and we each have a unique cycle. During light sleep, our body unwinds and relaxes. This is always the first stage of sleep and we spend most of our time asleep in it. It’s important to our mental and physical health that we get enough light sleep. Deep sleep typically occurs within the first few hours of sleep. Our breathing is slower, our muscles relax fully and we’re harder to wake during this stage. Typically, we spend about 13% of our night in deep sleep, and this is when our body repairs itself. Deep sleep aids learning, memory, and it supports our immune system. Finally, REM (rapid eye movement) sleep is when we dream. Our heart rate increases and our breathing becomes more irregular. We also experience a form of paralysis (so we don’t start acting out our dreams!). REM sleep is important for mood regulation, learning and memory. It’s when our brains process and consolidate our experiences from the day.
A regular bedtime is an important factor in sleep quality. Avoiding stimulants such as blue light from electronic devices or the caffeine in coffee are also a factor, as is making sure we get enough gentle exercise during the day. I decided to take an hour-long walk every day and moved my bedtime back to 10:30pm. I avoided checking my phone for 30 minutes before bed and didn’t drink coffee after 7pm. I noticed improvements almost immediately, and within a week my sleep had more-or-less reset to normal. Within a fortnight, my sleep score was back up in the 80s and hasn’t dropped since.
If you’re feeling stressed and tired or are struggling with low mood, it’s worth looking at both the quality and quantity of your sleep.

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