As a part-time member of the insomnia club, I’m on a constant quest to to get a better night’s sleep, something I’ve written about on several occasions. The immediate impact of a poor night on my mood and my appearance is all too apparent the following morning: I lack energy, feel flat and look pale and drawn. However these things are overcome with a morning workout/brisk walk, a pep-talk and make-up, respectively. I’m much more concerned about the longer-term effects of sleep deprivation, in particular the effect on my memory.
How sleep deprivation affects MY memory
It’s very easy to blame everything on one’s age, or to cite being busy as the reason I ask my children four times what they had for lunch or who they were out with the night before. They accuse me of not listening. At work, I spend forty-five minutes with each of my patients and yet I often have to remind myself of their name. Like so many of us, I go into a room and forget the reason why. Or I open up a new tab to do an online search for something important which then promptly evaporates from my mind. I cannot remember the Greek word for good morning, despite saying it every day for ten days while we were on our honeymoon in Crete less than three months ago. I write lists. A lot of lists. Because I forget things if I don’t. And in response to my children’s accusations, I do listen; I listen to every word, I just forget that I asked. I just forget the reply. I’m just tired.
The four stages of sleep
There are four distinct stages in the sleep cycle: three stages of non-REM (NREM) sleep and one stage of REM (rapid eye movement) sleep.
N1/Stage 1 is the “dozing off” stage which lasts between one and five minutes. The body isn’t fully relaxed and there are light changes in brain activity.
N2/Stage 2 lasts between 10 and 25 minutes. The body is more subdued with a reduction in temperature, breathing rate, heart rate and brain activity.
N3/Stage 3 lasts for 20-40 minutes. This body relaxes further and brain activity shows an identifiable pattern of what are known as delta waves. For this reason, stage 3 is also known as delta sleep or slow-wave sleep (SWS).
REM/Stage 4 lasts for 10-60 minutes. We don’t enter this stage until we’ve been asleep for 90 minutes. With the exception of the eye muscles and those used in breathing, the body becomes atonic, (temporarily paralysed). The eyes move quickly, hence the name of this stage. Brain activity increases almost to the same level as when we’re awake. Most dreaming occurs in REM sleep.
Sleep and memory
And now the science bit…
There are different types of memories:
Fact-based, for example, remembering capital cities.
Episodic-based: remembering life-events such as your wedding day.
Procedural/instructional: for example, remembering how to drive a car or play an instrument.
There are three essential stages in memory making.
Acquisition: learning or experiencing something new.
Consolidation: fixing the memory.
Recall: accessing the information (whether consciously or unconsciously) in the future.
Acquisition and recall occur during wakefulness, but it seems that the consolidation stage takes place during stages three and four, (deep NREM and REM sleep), of the sleep cycle. The exact mechanism is unknown, but the consensus suggests that several areas of the brain are involved. The hippocampus is primarily associated with memory. It replays the events of the day to the neocortex which reviews and processes the information. (The neocortex makes up approximately half the volume of the human brain and is thought to be responsible for episodic memory). This replay only occurs during sleep; therefore a lack of sleep means that memories cannot become consolidated.
Lockdown, sleep and me
I was furloughed from March to June 2020, the first three months of the COVID-19 pandemic UK lockdown. Poppy was home from uni, Harry was home-schooling and Ian was working from our home. At first it was great fun. We decorated our living room, I planted seeds and made hummus. We stayed up late playing poker, making pizza and drinking gin. But after a while the novelty wore off. The wifi couldn’t handle the online lessons, Zoom calls and Netflix that came with Poppy and Harry being home. We were under each other’s feet and there was no routine.
I didn’t sleep properly and when I did, I had vivid dreams- I wrote about it at the time, here, in one of my daily lockdown diary posts. It’s easy to understand why. I got up later, drank more alcohol and ate more. My daily walk was lovely, but it didn’t burn the same amount of energy that a day at work does. Therefore I gained weight and berated myself for doing so. I felt sluggish and slow and I missed seeing my family and my friends. My mind would whizz and whirl for hours during the night.
Lockdown, sleep and science
I was not alone. Countless scientific papers have looked at the impact of COVID-19 on sleep. Dr Laura Pérez Carbonell, a consultant in neurology and sleep medicine published a paper about this subject in September 2020. Pérez Carbonell et al. surveyed 843 people about the impact of the coronavirus pandemic on sleep. The results showed that the majority of the participants described an altered sleep pattern. Less than half felt refreshed or felt that they were sleeping enough during the pandemic. The most common specific sleep problems included disrupted sleep, difficulty falling and staying asleep, later bedtimes and falling asleep unintentionally during the day.
In a study about Italian lockdown, Sara Marelli et al surveyed 400 university students and staff about sleep and anxiety and depression symptoms. They found an increase in bedtime hour, sleep latency, wake up time and a worsening of sleep quality and insomnia.
I wonder if the participants in these studies noticed problems with memory at the time and I wonder if their normal, pre-lockdown sleep patterns have been restored. The impact of the pandemic on mental health is huge as is the impact of sleep deprivation.
Always trying to sleep better
I will try anything to sleep better. Ian and I have made several changes to the physical bed/bedroom environment over the last few years. We got a larger bed and consequently, a new mattress and new cotton bedding. We bought new feather-filled pillows because we find them cooler and more comfortable than synthetic foam-filled pillows and we swapped cotton pillowcases for silk ones. These changes made a positive difference to my sleep; I sleep better than I did last year. But I still don’t sleep as well as I would like.
I was intrigued when TEMPUR,®(the mattress brand synonymous with memory foam), invited me to work on this campaign about lockdown, sleep and memory. As always when I work on such a campaign, I do due diligence. I wanted to know exactly what memory foam is and how it can help with sleep. It was developed by NASA scientists in the 1960s to absorb G-force pressure during space flight. The TEMPUR,® brand was born when its founders realized that this memory foam provided unrivalled pressure-relief, comfort and support. They took the original NASA invention and perfected it to create the world’s first memory foam mattress and pillow.
The formula itself is a secret, and understandably so. What we do know is that this wonder pillow and mattress material is viscoelastic, (both fluid and spring-like). This property is achieved by billions of ultra-sensitive open cells which are between a solid and a liquid state.
These cells respond to body shape, weight and warmth. They adapt and align to every part of the body so the mattresses give total comfort and support to get to that all important drifting off stage of the sleep cycle.
My thoughts on my TEMPUR®memory foam pillow
TEMPUR®pillows and mattresses have got excellent verified reviews, but I can’t recommend a product if I haven’t tried it, so they sent me a Comfort Pillow Original to try. My first impression was that it’s heavier and much more dense than a feather pillow. I usually sleep on my side on two softish pillows, although I occasionally roll into my front and sleep on just one. The Comfort Pillow Original is made from a patented TEMPUR® envelope which contains thousands of medium feel micro-cushions. This pillow is designed to feel luxurious and to provide pressure relief.
The pillow is immediately comfortable. It’s even more comfortable once I’ve fluffed and puffed it to my liking. My head and neck feel very supported, yet the pillow still feels soft. I feel cocooned. When I wake during the night, (as I inevitably do), I don’t need to plump or rearrange it as I often had to with my top feather pillow.
I tried lying on my front. It took a little longer to arrange the pillow because it’s deeper than what I’ve been used to. My head felt too high initially, but I flattened it enough to get comfortable. If I slept on my front all of the time, I’d choose a different pillow, one recommended for front sleepers. TEMPUR® pillows come in a variety of feels, shapes and sizes to support individual sleep needs. They offer a 30 night home trial too, with free delivery and returns. There’s nothing to lose.
Have my sleep and memory improved with my TEMPUR® pillow?
So, the million dollar question. Do I sleep better with my TEMPUR®pillow? Yes I do! I’ve been using it for a week and I definitely fidget less because I don’t need to reshape the pillow during the night. I feel less “snuffly” too- (on occasions my feather pillow would partly obstruct my nose if I moved). The TEMPUR,® one stays put. It gives the perfect combination of support and softness.
I think it’s too early to tell whether or not my memory has improved but I can’t see why it won’t if I’m getting better quality sleep. In the short term, I feel more alert and switched on. I’m very much looking forward to reaping the longer-term benefits.
This post is part of a paid partnership with TEMPUR®. All opinions and thoughts are my own.
Further reading and references
Impact of the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic on sleep: Pérez Carbonell et al.
Impact of COVID-19 lockdown on sleep quality in university students and administration staff: Marelli et al.
WebMD: Sleep Deprivation Effects on Memory.
Sleep Foundation: Memory and Sleep.
Division of Sleep Medicine, Harvard Medical School: Benefits of Sleep on Learning and Memory.