Before the onset of the pandemic, insomnia was something I’d only experienced vicariously, through the red-eyed stares of characters on screen, or the defeated anecdotes of colleagues with young children.
I’ve always been a big sleeper, never really growing out of that teenage phase of lying in bed late at weekends and occasionally enjoying an afternoon nap. To this day I feel grouchy with less than eight or nine hours sleep, and I will comfortably stay in bed for 10 given the opportunity, which is admittedly rare.
So you’d have thought that the first lockdown, which effectively reduced my commuting time to around 12 seconds, would have been a boon. But I experienced the opposite effect: I couldn’t sleep. My customary late nights began to stretch out and I found myself pacing the house in the early hours, wide-eyed and anxious.
It turns out I was far from alone. Across the world people were reporting a spike in sleeplessness, to the extent it was being dubbed “coronasomnia”.
A study from the University of Southampton suggested the number of insomnia sufferers in the UK had risen to a quarter, from around a sixth, while similar studies in China and mainland Europe echoed these numbers.
The reasons are myriad – and not fully understood – but include disruption to our sleeping patterns, the merging of work and personal life, and general anxiety over the pandemic.
In my case I’d abandoned the office with its familiar rhythms and replaced it with a small corner of a dining table. Working solely online rather than for print meant that the working day never really begins or ends but simply recedes into the distance, and the best you can really do is check out for a few hours.
My partner works in training, so during her frequent Zoom calls I was relegated to the bedroom, where I’d work leaning against the wall supported by folded-over pillows. In the early days of lockdown people would joke about WFB – “working from bed” – and that’s exactly what I often did.
Days before the first lockdown I had hosted a talk with one of City AM’s commercial partners Hastens, a luxury bed manufacturer and sleep promotion company with 170 years of experience, about this very topic, so I got back in touch to canvas some advice.
They suggested a range of solutions, chiefly among them trying one of their beds for a few weeks. And when it comes to beds, Hastens is not messing around. They promise the best sleep that money can buy, and that can mean anything from £5,000 all the way beyond £340,000 for the Grand Vividus, in which rapper Drake now sleeps. Each one takes 340 man-hours to construct, and the waiting list is around six months.
Now, that’s a lot of money by anyone’s standards but Hastens insists a bed is the most important piece of furniture you will ever buy: you’ll spend far longer on it than you will a sofa, for instance, and get far more benefit. If you divide the amount you spend on your bed/mattress over the number of nights you’ll sleep in it, it begins to sound pretty reasonable. And what price a good night’s sleep?
Fitting even the smallest Hastens bed into my apartment was quite an undertaking but I noticed a difference from the first time I slumped into it. Throughout most of my life I have been convinced that a firm mattress is “best”, the only way to ensure a properly supported spine and a good night’s sleep. This belief, whose origins I cannot remember – probably a passing comment by someone on Radio 4 – has informed every mattress purchase I have ever made. But after trying out a few options during a Hastens pop-up event at M Restaurant, which turned the members’ area into a giant slumber party, I discovered that my ideal bed is actually on the softer end of the spectrum. The tension of the bed is also calculated based upon the weight and height of the person or people sleeping on it, which is something I had never even considered.
Despite never giving much thought to my mattress, I’ve always enjoyed the feeling of checking into a nice hotel and testing out the bed, but the Hastens one was on another level. Each one is hand made using an complex and time consuming method of layering natural fibers including cotton, wool and – most importantly – A-lyx horsetail hair.
This gives the mattress a natural spring that complements the pocket spring system, and there’s also another set of springs built into the bed frame itself. You could spend a not inconsiderable amount of time marvelling over the craftsmanship of these beds – indeed one of our reporters already has – but I was most interested in finding out if it could help get my sleep back on track.
Delivered alongside the bed itself was a box of bed linen and pillows; Hastens’ research has shown that sleep is a more complicated business than you might think, and that everything from neck position to airflow to background noise to ambient temperature play a role in sending you off. This is why you won’t find any memory foam in the Hastens range: the man-made fibers often mean poor ventilation, a build-up of humidity and a lack of sleep.
I noticed a difference in my sleep immediately. At first the new bed was a novelty: suddenly this incredibly comfortable rectangle became the most prized hotdesking space in my apartment. My partner and I would theatrically don pyjamas and go to bed early just to lie in it a little longer. And I slept markedly better, still taking a while to drift off but rarely stirring throughout the night.
After a week or so, Hastens delivered the next step in my sleep overhaul: mouth tape. Sleep expert, author and breathing practitioner Patrick McKeown, who has worked with Hastens, says open mouth breathing is the biggest unrecognised factor in sleep disorders, and can also have negative effects on your health throughout the day. On a Zoom call – this was mid-pandemic – he ran me through a series of exercises to help unblock my perpetually snuffly nose and promote nose-breathing. Many people don’t realise they breathe through their mouths during the night. I, on the other hand, have known for some time; scroll through my partner’s photo feed and every fourth or fifth picture is me asleep with my mouth hanging comically open.
This, McKeown theorised, is why I tend to wake up feeling dehydrated (you lose much more moisture breathing through your mouth) and is likely to disrupt my sleeping pattern by giving me sub-optimal levels of oxygen throughout the night. His solution was an oval ring of tape that sticks around your mouth, leaving a hole but pushing your lips closed. To begin with I thought I might struggle to breath at all, but my sinuses soon realised that now was not the time to constrict and I immediately began sleeping without looking like a snake trying to dislocate its jaw. And most importantly, I did sleep.
After a couple of weeks the bed was collected and I grudgingly went back to my old frame and mattress, although the new techniques I have learned have staved off any further prolonged bouts of insomnia.
With the gradual return to the office beginning in earnest, the nation’s routines are set to be disturbed all over again. Now is the time to make sure that doesn’t bring with it another dreaded period of sleepless nights.
- Hastens has showrooms in Nottinghill, Harrods, Wigmore St and Fulham Road. For more information visit the website here.