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Healthy Habits: COVID consequences – Sleep, Health and Weight Gain

Healthy Habits: COVID consequences – Sleep, Health and Weight Gain

COVID-19 has been linked with worsening mental health worldwide through increasing rates of anxiety, depression and insomnia. Sadly sleep is often underestimated in its role for supporting health. In this article, I will share my thoughts on why sleep is a number 1 priority for anyone seeking to be healthy and lose weight.

Sunday 2 August 2020, 11:00AM

Getting a good night’s sleep has been harder for nearly everyone since COVID-19 broke out. Photo: Alexandra Gorn / Unsplash

Getting a good night’s sleep has been harder for nearly everyone since COVID-19 broke out. Photo: Alexandra Gorn / Unsplash

A recent survey by SleepStandards, titled, “Sleep Habits Post Quarantine in the US (2020),” examined sleep habits both before and after lockdown measures caused by the pandemic. Though results are from the US they reflect trends worldwide, even on our beautiful island paradise of Phuket – no place has been untouched by this epidemic and its consequences on many levels. Here is how the lockdown has affected sleep patterns:

Survey findings included:

  • 53% indicated they spend less time sleeping than before the pandemic
  • 67% believe their sleep was healthier before the beginning of lockdown
  • 98% have developed new sleep problems post-lockdown
  • 68% feel stress or find it hard to sleep, even after lockdown measures were lifted

Why is sleep so important?

Sleep is an integral part of what is called the circadian rhythm – a sleep-wake cycle. For millions of years, we evolved and developed according to this circadian rhythm. The sun came up and we went to work and the sun came down and we slept to recover from the work and prepare for the next day. Sleep is the process that allows us to repair, grow, heal and process information. 

Therefore quality sleep is linked with:

  • Slowing the aging process
  • Preventing cancers
  • Enhancing brain function like memory and cognition
  • Supporting the immune system
  • Repairing the damage to cells and tissue
  • Maintaining healthy body fat and retaining muscle mass

The Sleep – Body Fat Connection

“If your goal is to lose fat, skipping sleep is like poking sticks in your bicycle wheels,” said study director Plamen Penev, MD, PhD whose sleep study was published in Annals of Internal Medicine.

There are many reasons why sleep affects fat loss – most to do with creating hormonal imbalances. For example, the sleep deprivation leads to cortisol (stress hormone) issues  and there is a clear link between stress and fat storage. The thyroid, our master gland of metabolism is also affected and doesn’t help burn that fuel as well as we need it to be done. Then sleep affects all the sex hormones like testosterone that could lead to muscle wastage, and less muscle equals lower metabolism. We now realise that we burn more muscle than fat for fuel when we are sleep deprived and stressed.

How much sleep is ideal?

In a study involving 9,000 people between 1982 and 1984 (NHANES I), researchers found that people who averaged six hours of sleep per night were 27% more likely to be overweight than their seven-to-nine hour counterparts; and those averaging five hours of sleep per night were 73% more likely to be overweight.

Benihana Phuket

When should I get to bed?

My advice for those wanting to get healthier and leaner is to make getting to bed earlier (before 10:30-11:00 pm, if possible) and sleeping longer (7-8 hours) just as much a priority as your diet and exercise.

Does counting sheep work to get to sleep?

Researchers from Oxford University asked 50 insomniacs to try different distraction techniques on certain nights, to see which helped them fall asleep more quickly. 

  • Group one used a tranquil and relaxing scene such as a waterfall or being on holiday.
  • Group two counted sheep. 
  • Group three did what they wanted.

And the winner… those picturing a relaxing scene fell asleep over 20 minutes earlier than on nights they didn’t try the technique. 

The loser… poor old sheep counting which took us longer than normal to fall asleep. “Counting sheep is just too mundane to effectively keep worries away,” says researcher Allison Harvey.

Then what works?

Here are some suggestions for a good night sleep:

  • Start slowly – try getting to bed 10-20 minutes earlier each night.
  • Sleep in a completely dark room and dim the lights – make your bedroom like a cave as the sleep hormone Melatonin is affected by light
  • Food can play a big role in falling asleep and the quality of sleep. Late big meals are one classic issue.
  • Exercise is great just as long as it is not too late or exhausting.
  • Turn off the computer as TV, and as many electrical devices as early as possible as it affects pineal gland to secrete less melatonin.
  • Write in a journal before bed, or as I call it "download the day".
  • Use essential oils like lavender and chamomile, and, if necessary, try  supplements, like Valerian root

Sometimes the simplest things in life are often the best solutions. For me getting good sleep is a no-brainer and it is all about consistency, not perfection. This doesn’t mean joining a temple, there is still room to enjoy late nights – but like junk food, the problem lies when it becomes the norm, not the exception.

Craig Burton (BSc, NASM, CISSN) is a practicing Clinical and Sports Nutritionist with over 20 years’ experience as a health practitioner. He holds an array of qualifications in nutrition, as well as in health, fitness, mental and lifestyle coaching. To find out more about Craig or contact him go to

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