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Sleep plays a key role in physical and mental health, and it can be improved, and spoiled, by many things - including your pets. Photo: Shutterstock

How to sleep well: have a dog in your room, share your bed with a partner (but not the dog). And amid the pandemic, expect weird dreams

  • Sleep plays a key role in physical and mental health; recent research suggests the best ways to get the most of your night’s rest
  • Should your dog sleep in your bed? Researchers are split, but having a dog is linked to better sleep than having a cat

As more becomes known about the effects of sleep on our overall physical and mental health, research into this area is increasing.

The idea that we simply “recharge our batteries” while sleeping is long since dead, as it’s been shown that our brain is very active while we sleep, and carries out important tasks.

We look at some recent research papers on sleep – and how to get more of it.

Are your pets damaging your sleep?

Lieve van Egmond from the Department of Neuroscience at Uppsala University in Sweden. Photo: Benedict Sleep Science Lab

Pets are known for their ability to help alleviate depression, but some of them may be negatively affecting your sleep. New research led by Lieve van Egmond in the Department of Neuroscience at Uppsala University in Sweden, published in online journal Scientific Reports, measured pets’ impact on achieving the recommended seven hours sleep each night, on sleep quality, and on falling and staying asleep.

Dogs were not found to affect their owner’s sleep, but cats are a different story. Researchers say this may be because cats tend to be active at dawn and dusk, disturbing their resting owners.

How a dog can help you live a longer, happier, healthier life

The additional exercise gained by walking a dog did not have a noticeable effect on sleep. The research showed that owners who let their dog sleep on the bed, rather than just in the room, reported a less restful night.

The relationship between owning a pet and sleep is complex, and the researchers stressed that it cannot be generalised. Some pets may affect sleep more than others, and tests need to be carried out with “dogs, cats, rabbits, birds and other pets” to understand their different effects.

An earlier study, the Whitehall II Study of British civil servants, noted that pet owners fall asleep more easily, but feel less rested when they wake up. A further study from China concluded that pets can ease depression, which can lead to better quality sleep.
Couples sleeping together get better sleep. Photo: Shutterstock

Togetherness brings nightly benefits for couples

Those who share a bed with a partner or spouse reported they achieved more sleep, suffered less severe insomnia, and less fatigue, said a new study led by Brandon Fuentes at the University of Arizona in the US. Sleeping with a partner or spouse was associated with better overall sleep quality, the researchers noted.

Sleeping with a partner may result in reduced depression, anxiety and stress, and may lead to more satisfaction with relationships and an overall higher quality of life, the researchers said.

The secret to a good night’s sleep: listen to your body clock

But parents who shared a bed with their child reported more severe insomnia, less control over their sleep, and a higher risk of sleep apnoea, a condition in which breathing stops and starts.

An earlier study in 2020, led by Dr Henning Drews at the Centre for Integrative Psychiatry in Kiel, Germany, said that when couples sleep together, their REM (rapid eye movement) sleep was less disrupted, and this may bring benefits.

REM sleep is a stage of sleep where the eyes move rapidly but do not focus. The brain carries out a number of important functions during REM sleep, such as memory consolidation, although its purpose is not fully known.

The German researchers noted that although couples moved more when sleeping together than when on their own, this did not disturb their REM sleep. Reasons for better sleep could be a psychological feeling of safety, or a result of better temperature regulation because of the presence of a partner.

Hailey Meaklim from the School of Psychological Sciences at Monash University, in Australia. Photo: Monash University

Yes, your dreams have got weirder in the pandemic

If you think you are having more scary dreams during the coronavirus pandemic, you are probably right. New research led by Hailey Meaklim, from the School of Psychological Sciences at Monash University in Australia, found that around half of the respondents in a 2,214-person survey reported changes in their dreams in April 2020, near the start of the pandemic.

Dreams were more vivid and bizarre, more movie-like, played out in “high definition”, and had a strong negative charge, researchers said in the Journal of Sleep Research.

Respondents reported having more nightmares, and more dreams overall, and their dreams were more death-related. The dreams contained more complex storylines, and “felt real” although they made “no sense”, one respondent said.

“Dream content is continuous with changes in our waking life,” the researchers commented, “so stressful and threatening events during wakefulness can lead to more frequent and severe threat-based dreams during sleep.”

The real meaning of dreams: more like works of art

Dreams also reflected people’s desires to survive the pandemic, and often included “fight, flight or freeze” survival responses. More people dreamed of running and being chased, and experienced feelings of panic, falling and suffocating. The content brought about a desire to connect with loved ones and absent friends, although this was often coupled with feelings that we could not help those close to us.

Many people also dreamed about social distancing restrictions. “Even in my dreams, I am on lockdown,” one respondent wrote.

Our dreams may have evolved this way during a crisis, researchers noted, but the phenomenon might not be much use to us in the modern age.

“Dream changes and insomnia symptoms may be evolutionary mechanisms to keep us awake and safe in times of danger, but may not offer an evolutionary advantage for modern-day crises like a global pandemic,” researchers wrote.

Colin Espie, from the Sleep and Circadian Neuroscience Institute at the University of Oxford, listed five mindsets to improve your sleep. Photo: Circadian Neuroscience Institute

Fresh ideas on how to get to sleep

Sleep hygiene – practical rules for good sleep – has been discussed since the 1930s. But Colin Espie, from the Sleep and Circadian Neuroscience Institute at the University of Oxford in the UK, said that a conceptual shift would also be of help.

Writing in the Journal of Sleep Research, Espie listed five ways of thinking that would benefit sleep.

Value your sleep: Sleep is one of the most important physiological ingredients that gives us the capability to live our lives, so treat it seriously, Espie says.

Prioritise your sleep: Put sleep higher up the list when making decisions. It’s OK to feel tired and sleepy, Espie writes, and it’s fine to leave a social event early if you feel tired.

Personalise your sleep: Everyone has different sleep requirements, so find out what is best for you by trial and error. For instance, in terms of your circadian clock, are you an “owl” – who goes to bed late and wants to wake up late, or a “lark” – who goes to bed earlier and gets up earlier?

Trust your sleep: Sleep occurs best when it happens at the same time each night.

“Let your sleep needs and patterns drive you, rather than the other way around,” Espie writes.

Protect your sleep: “A racing mind is the fiercest enemy of sleep, and this is where you need effective armour,” Espie says. We should mentally put the events of the day behind us before bedtime.

Espie also notes that it’s pointless trying to force yourself to go to sleep, as “that’s just not going to happen”. The best sleepers know how to relax themselves to allow sleep to occur naturally.

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