Wellington Scoop

Sleep: a natural tonic

by Rosie Gibson
Sleep provides a foundation for our physical and mental wellbeing. It also boosts the effectiveness of special cells involved with the body’s immune response. The Covid-19 pandemic has dealt a time of acute stressors and rapid sociological changes. Losing sleep over this situation is to be expected.

But, as we acclimatise to this period of lockdown, it is important to consider sleep as a natural tonic. Sleep will help us to psychologically adapt to our changing circumstances while also defending us against disease and supporting healing.

Achieving sufficient hours of sleep is important but so is the timing and regularity of sleep. Maintaining consistent routines may become more challenging whilst in lockdown. Our internal body clock and sleep/wake cycle is synchronised via exposures to external time cues. Light, physical activity and social engagement are key so try to maintain regular exposures during lockdown. Consider scheduling morning tea breaks in natural light, working from the garden or by a window, and avoid using brightly lit devices too much at night. Taking routine solitary exercise outside is recommended, timing this when we would typically commute or socialise will help.

Being physically separated does not mean sacrificing all social stimulation. Try to schedule family meal or game times (in person or online), virtual meeting dates with colleagues and phone conversations with family and friends. Creating and maintaining consistent exposures to these time cues will not only stimulate good sleep but will support overall wellbeing and help keep us connected.

Blending work with family environments can impact sleep, mental health, and productivity. This will be exacerbated in this time of uncertainty. If possible, keep the bed and bedroom predominantly for sleep. Exposing ourselves to the news or using brightly lit devices the hour or two before bed can prevent relaxation and destabilise the sleep rhythms. Make the time to wind-down and talk through or write down concerns before attempting sleep. If you struggle to get to sleep or wake up in the night and cannot get back to sleep, do something calming in another space and return to bed when tired again.

Try to maintain routine rise and work/activity times. Get dressed for the day and avoid the temptation to work from bed. If consuming alcohol or caffeine consider how and when you do as this can reduce the efficiency of sleep as well as contribute to anxiety. Sleep loss during this time will be common, be aware of how you feel in the day and schedule a nap if needed.

During this lockdown period we must appreciate the sleep schedules of others. For example, older people are often synchronised to sleeping earlier and are more easily woken at night. Support one another, especially the older and vulnerable, to maintain healthy sleeping practices. This will strengthen our immune systems and support wellbeing during this extraordinary time.

All that said, I am writing this in the early hours of the morning, still in PJs while the children watch TV instead of their school routine. There are gaps between health advice and reality and people shouldn’t become overly stressed with guidance, particularly in this rapidly changing time.

Dr Rosie Gibson is Research Officer at Massey University’s Sleep/Wake Research Centre in Wellington. Her opinions were first published by the Science Media Centre.


  1. Kelly M, 29. March 2020, 11:15

    The research shows forced social distancing/self isolation makes many people become anxious and unable to control their impulses. The problems are worse in people predisposed to mental illness. So instead of getting used to the intolerable, let’s question its purpose.
    What I agree with is to eliminate watching the news as it’s harmful and stress inducing. Everyone has not been tested for the virus so there isn’t the data for morbidity statistics.

  2. CC, 29. March 2020, 22:40

    Please cite the source of the research you refer to Kelly M. So far it appears it is irrelevant to the current situation in NZ on the basis of news reports and the experiences of the two metre exercisers.

  3. Kelly M, 30. March 2020, 9:58

    CC – there’s piles of research done on social isolation, all showing the same negative health outcomes. Here’s a simple layman’s article for you:
    “Research has linked social isolation and loneliness to higher risks for a variety of physical and mental conditions: high blood pressure, heart disease, obesity, a weakened immune system, anxiety, depression, cognitive decline, Alzheimer’s disease, and even death.”

  4. Ian Utiger, 30. March 2020, 12:37

    Exactly right Kelly, this is why in prison people who play up are put in solitary confinement for 28 days. It is considered a torture technique also.

  5. CC, 30. March 2020, 16:54

    Kelly – there are no issues with the information you have referenced. All very straightforward. But there is no doubt that short term physical isolation is an effective protective public measure, with or without extensive testing for Covid-19.