Sleep and COVID-19: In Conversation with Sleep Doctor, Dr David Cunnington

Sleep doctor, and good friend of The Goodnight Co., Dr David Cunnington, is well-versed in the importance of quality sleep and its rewards, including strengthened immunity; reduced risk of developing chronic health conditions; and improved physiological and psychological wellbeing. 

A self-confessed ‘sleep geek’ and co-director of the Melbourne Sleep Disorders Centre, Dr Cunnington works at the cutting-edge of sleep health education, advocacy and research. He regularly sees the fallout of sleep deprivation and knows first-hand what the national sleep health inquiry shone a light on. 

Put simply, there’s not an organ in the body or process in the brain that’s not optimally enhanced by sleep, and detrimentally impaired when we don’t get enough. Period.

Sleep matters. It’s the one activity, since time began, that literally everyone spends a third of their life doing… which begs the question: “Why are we so bad at it?” 

Just over a year since the sleep health inquiry released its findings – and with global sleep debt rising amid unprecedented uncertainty and anxiety anchored to the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic – we put the question to Dr Cunnington. 


Meet the sleep doctor! 

Harvard trained Dr David Cunnington is a specialist sleep physician who’s devoted his life to pulling back the covers on that mind-bogglingly big chunk of our lives we take for granted. You betcha! Sleep. For Dr Cunnington, it’s a passion he also shares with his wife and wellness coach, Kris Pierce, prompting the couple to establish SleepHub, an online community resource which echoes The Goodnight Co.’s ‘Sleep Well, Be Well’ philosophy. Like us, he’s a firm believer that quality sleep is the one thing in life we should all strive to be over-achievers in – more so than ever as the world starts to emerge from the COVID-19 pandemic.


Q: Why is it during uncertain times, when we need sleep the most, it is often most disrupted?

A: Sleep is a barometer for our physical and mental health. So it’s no surprise that during times when there is a lot of uncertainty and change, that sleep will be disrupted. It’s a normal response to uncertainty, stress or threats to sleep shorter and more lightly. 


Q: How has COVID-19 given you pause for thought on the topic of sleep health and self-care?

A: The current pandemic has certainly highlighted the interaction between sleep and our usual daytime activities. People wearing activity trackers on the east coast of the United States have been sleeping for over an hour longer each night, and more in those that live in suburbs with a long commute to work. This just shows how common it is for people to trade off sleep for work or other activities. 


Q: Have you noticed any positive societal changes triggered by the health crisis?

A: Hopefully a lesson we will take from the current pandemic is to value taking time out rather than just getting straight back in to filling our days to the point of exhaustion with activities and tasks. 


Q: Why is routine the guardian of good sleep

A: Routine has the potential to be good and bad for sleep. Whilst we sleep better with a regular routine, having inputs to our body clock that are regular and predictable, it’s important not to become slaves to that routine. So whilst routine, particularly a regular arising time each day, are helpful, having some flexibility is also important. Life is often not as predictable as we would like it to be, so we need to be able to roll with the normal variations that can occur in our weeks when things don’t go to plan. 


Q: Are you conducting new research into how the global pandemic has impacted sleep, including wider knock-on effects (good or bad) to sleep health routines?

A: Some colleagues of mine from Monash University have been looking at sleep and daytime routine and the impact on mood and health in the pandemic. They have been able to collect data from over 1000 people, and hope to release the results in the next few months. 


Q: Away from work you’re a keen cyclist and father of twins. How has COVID-19 (isolation and social distancing) impacted your sleep routine… and your family’s?

A: Like everyone else, we haven’t had as much time apart as we usually do, and at times all 4 of us, my wife and my 18 year old twins, have been working from home. So, making sure we each get some space and some time-out, usually with exercise, has been an important part of keeping us healthy and sleeping well. 


Q: Your Top 5 Tips for taking back control and re-setting a healthy sleep-wake cycle?

A: As we re-emerge from the lock-down there are some things that people can do to help with sleep: 

  1. Set a consistent arising time and stick to it at least 5 days a week
  2. Ensure you are getting some exercise. The combination of movement and outdoor light exposure, particularly soon after getting up in the morning is helpful for sleep
  3. Make sure there is some time in your day for restoring your energy and self-care. If the only time you stop is when you go to bed, you will find it hard to wind down to sleep and it puts all the pressure for feeling restored on sleep. As humans we need rest as well as sleep.
  4. Recognise that to sleep well takes maintaining good physical and mental health, so don’t just focus on sleep, make sure you are looking after other aspects of health
  5. Know that sleep doesn’t have to be perfect, just good enough. With all the changes and ongoing uncertainty it’s likely that sleep will be different to what it used to be. 


Q: Your thoughts on the ‘viral’ emergence of #CovidDreams?

A: Having intensely vivid dreams is extremely common at the moment. Our stress levels are likely to spike during this time of major upheaval, and this has a direct effect on how we dream. In a milieu where all of us have more uncertainty, we would expect there’s going to be a heightened adrenaline drive and heightened sympathetic nervous system activity.

That excess adrenaline puts us in “fight or flight” mode, which can then cause our dreams to be distressing. But it can also make them more ruminative, as we examine the same idea repeatedly. And adrenaline surges can boost recall, which is why we’re more likely to remember them.

For nearly everyone, such dreams are intense but harmless. But for a tiny minority of people, they can lead to sleep-related anxiety. Affected dreamers can become so afraid of nightmares that they develop a fear of falling asleep altogether. That fear can get a life of its own and grow into a bigger and bigger thing. If you’re veering into this territory, contact a healthcare professional before the anxiety starts to snowball.

I recently contributed to an article in the Sydney Morning Herald on this topic so head over to read more. 


Q: And finally, we’d love to know the funniest sleep-related question you’ve ever been asked (perhaps at a dinner party)?

A: I often get asked to tell funny stories about things people do during sleep. Across my 20 years working in sleep, I think I’ve heard it all, only to hear something new almost every day. Although these can make for amusing anecdotes, for the people who are experiencing these things during sleep it can have a significant impact on their day to day lives, so it’s important not to treat these things too lightly as they can be serious for the individuals involved. 


Did you know?

The Goodnight Co. was established in 2015, four years ahead of the national sleep health inquiry. Co-Founders Shea Morrison and Danielle Knight launched the company on their firm belief – backed by extensive research and deep-dive surveys involving hundreds of Australians – that the human mind, body and spirit are inextricably linked when it comes to overall health and wellness. It’s why at The Goodnight Co., we spend our waking hours curating innovative, evidence-based sleep health products and programs to help you harness the power of a sleep health routine, and create better days, through better sleep. 

Psst: You’re not alone if you’re struggling to get enough quality sleep, particularly in uncertain times. The Goodnight Co. has developed an easy-to-use guide that answers all your questions:
10 Steps / 10 Days: Your guide to Sleep Well, Be Well
“Sleep well, be well. This is our badge of honour because no-one can get by – let alone live their best life possible – on insufficient, poor quality sleep. Period.”

Shea Morrison & Danielle Knight

Tags: Science