The term self-care has been thrown around in recent years, but even more now that we’ve been home-bound in one way or another through COVID-19 restrictions. Pre-pandemic self-care to many of us was a spa day, drinks with friends, watching a sports game, traveling out of town, eating out at a fancy or the latest restaurant – and sharing the images on social media. I mean, if we didn’t snap and share, did it really happen? In the instance of being at home, curling up to read a book while sipping drinking chocolate in the evening or soaking your feet in warm water would be considered a good form of self-care.
However, post-pandemic self-care might look a little different, facemask and all, and it won’t be easy to indulge in it the same way we did before. There will be a lot more caution given in deciding on different ways to get that much needed rest, which already takes some fun out of it all. Therefore, it would be imperative to decide right now how your new altered normal will be, how you can curve better value downtime than in the pre-pandemic, so as to nurture all the gains made in the last few months.
Self-care is ensuring you get enough downtime from your regular schedule of the day, week or month. With the easing of movement restrictions, and curfews, we are starting to slowly get back to the regular routine of early-morning-late-night commutes to and from work. There are two factors that will help you manage your self-care better boosting what you decide will be your downtime activities in the era of new normal. They are not brand new concepts, but rather good old ones that have stood the test of time.
The Melatonin Factor
Melatonin is a hormone that is naturally made by the pineal gland. It helps you fall asleep by calming the body before bed. It is often called the “sleep hormone,” as high levels can help you fall asleep. However, melatonin itself won’t knock you out. It simply lets your body know that it is night-time so you can relax and fall asleep easier. (Source: Healthline)
Melatonin’s production is influenced by the detection of light and dark by the retina of the eye. As we age, melatonin production reduces, which might explain why our elderly Aunties are always awake, deep in the night, sending that Whatsapp forward on the importance of getting married or how the world is ending. I digress. Low melatonin levels have been linked to degenerative diseases such as such as types of dementia, some mood disorders, severe pain, cancer, and type-2 diabetes.
You can boost your melatonin levels naturally by taking small steps that in and of themselves are huge self-care acts. Before the lock-downs and curfews being experienced across many countries due to COVID-19, most of us woke up before the sun was up, commuted to work, and stayed cooped up in offices surrounded by concrete jungles. Our intake of regular doses of sunlight was severely limited. Going forward, some of us might continue to work from home, while others will return to the office, and some will hybrid. Either way, ensure that you schedule a moment when you can get enough sunlight each day. Plan a walk around the neighborhood or office block; sit on the house/office balcony all in a bid to get more doses of sunlight that you might be missing out on.
Melatonin levels are actively produced from sunset, peaking at around 9:00pm, and remaining high for 12-hours. It is advised that we turn in for bed around 10:00pm, which ensures you get at least 8 hours of sleep. Now that we are at home most of the day, or getting home earlier due to curfew, we might find ourselves glued to the News channels or Netflix late into the night or early morning. Because bright indoor and gadget light can prevent melatonin production, it is advised that once the evening sets in, we start to dim the lights in the room, get off gadgets 2-3hours before the ideal bedtime to help produce enough levels of melatonin. Doing this, plus reducing how much screen time we are getting in the evening, aides in feeling sleepy and triggers the need to go to bed. There are some online challenges encouraging people to turn off their gadgets from 8pm to 8am. What would one do with all that night you might ask? People are being challenged to dim the lights, read a book, play a board game and/or talk with family to bring about mental relaxation, reduce anxiety, connect with people around you before you nod off for the night.
Another way to boost melatonin naturally, is to avoid caffeinated drinks, which when taken in excess and late in the day, mimics symptoms related to anxiety such as irritability, nervousness and the inability to fall asleep. Personally, I make a point to cut off my coffee intake from as early at 11:00am to avoid losing sleep in the night. If you must drink something before bedtime, try other types of beverages such as rooibos tea (which is caffeine free), green tea, and drinking chocolate. While you are at it, eat more foods that help increase melatonin production such as almonds, oats, turkey, chicken, and cottage cheese. Other foods that trigger melatonin production are spinach, pumpkin seeds, yogurt, black beans, avocados, and dark chocolate.
We’re told time and time again that exercising helps keep us sane. There are many debates about the ideal time to exercise but this might change from person to person, and also from exercise to exercise. An example would be yoga, there is power yoga that can get you up and active through the day, and there are relaxing forms of yoga that can help induce better sleep. Exercising causes one to sweat, which in turns helps melatonin levels to increase. Taking a hot shower or bath or sitting in the sauna (if you are #blessed) right after also helps boost the melatonin levels. The reason being that heat naturally reduces muscle tension, boosting brain activity that triggers increased production of melatonin.
Finally, after you’ve worked on triggering sufficient melatonin, ensure that your environment is just right to maintain those levels. Buy darkened or blackout curtains for your bedroom, and add a heavy blanket to further boost those levels. Avoid having a night-light, and also avoid sleeping with your phone next to your head. It’s been said it affects the brain patterns but this is a discussion of fake news or not for another day.
Hydrate, Hydrate, Hydrate
It is said that our bodies are made up of 60-75% of water, and we can only survive a few days without it, before our bodies crash and burn. Water is important in the regulation of our body temperature, digestion & absorption of nutrients, excretion of waste (both fluid and solid), and aides greatly in brain function.
The kidneys and skin work tirelessly in ensuring a balance in the body’s gain and loss of water. When our body loses more water that it gains, it is said we are dehydrated. Mild dehydration can alter your mood, energy levels, and ability to think clearly. Other symptoms of dehydration include getting headaches, having a dry mouth, and fatigue. Another way to know levels of hydration is to look at your urine. Light yellow to clear urine means good levels of hydration while dark yellow urine indicates dehydration. Being mindful and noticing these signals helps remind you to improve your intake of water so as to be better hydrated.
There are those of us who find the taste of water too bland to enjoy and therefore don’t take it enough. The way to get around this is to infuse flavors in the water such as cucumber, apple, lemon or anything else that will get your taste buds dancing to the tune of water, enough to keep you hydrated. Instead of just drinking plain water throughout the day, switch it up by eating water-rich foods like watermelons, and grapes. Try out novel drinks such as Kombucha that bring in the probiotic factor into the mix. Avoid highly sugared drinks such as sodas, and reduce on your intake of alcohol.
These actions might seem innocuous and a matter of fact, but we have become too accustomed to not taking care of ourselves on the most basic of levels. The COVID-19 pandemic has forced us to stay home more, move around less, and reconsider our lifestyle choices. We should use this moment, right before the new altered normal, to start correcting how we do things from a core place.
Sleeping early, sleeping enough, and staying hydrated can improve how our bodies functions, and respond to the high levels of anxiety that we are dealing with now. Since we can’t worry enough about the effects that the pandemic has on our livelihoods, lifestyles, and mental health; it is imperative that we do our best in limiting the adverse effects by ensuring our bodies are ready for anything.