Internet Russell Foster says most of us spend 36 per cent of our lives sleeping and points out this is not a waste of time. SUDHAMAHI REGUNATHAN

Afew months ago we had heard of some researchers saying sleep helps us repair our body like service does to machinery. Taking the discussion on sleep further is this interesting talk by Russell Foster, a circadian neuroscientist. The most important thing he says is to tell you to get your sleep. Nothing can do the job sleep does to our body and brain.

With the age of industrialisation our ideas about sleep went awry. He quotes Shakespeare as having said, “Enjoy the honey-heavy dew of sleep”, and “O sleep, O gentle sleep, nature’s soft nurse…” and then he contrasts them to the words of Edison who says, “Sleep is a criminal waste of time and a heritage from our cave days…” and even more recent, Gordon Gekko saying, “Money never sleeps.” So our thinking too was to avoid “wasting” time sleeping. “If you’re an average sort of person, 36 per cent of your life will be spent asleep, which means that if you live to 90, then 32 years have been spent entirely asleep,” says Foster.

That shocking statistic makes you feel you should not sleep, but Foster says, “…some areas of the brain are actually more active during sleep state than during wake state. The other thing that’s really important about sleep is that it doesn’t arise from a single structure within the brain, but is to some extent a network property….beneath the hypothalamus is the biological clock. This tells when it is good to be up and when it is good to be asleep and…interacts with a whole raft of other areas within the hypothalamus. All those combine and send projections to the brain stem which bathes the cortex and that gets the neurotransmitters awakened…”

Foster admits there is no one theory about why we sleep. It could be restorative, for energy conservation, or for brain processing and memory consolidation. Foster is more inclined towards the third. “We know that if you’ve tried to learn a task and you sleep deprive individuals, the ability to learn the task is smashed…sleeping at night enhances our creativity…those neural connections that are important are linked and strengthened while those that are less important tend to fade away and be less important….sleep is not an indulgence, “ he says while adding that today we are a sleep-deprived society, not to mention those who are working on shift duty and those others who are jetlagged. The brain makes up lack of sleep with “micro sleep” which is when you nod off involuntarily.

Foster asserts, “If you are a tired brain, the brain is craving things to wake up. So drugs, stimulants…caffeine…alcohol which may be a short-term measure, but it does not help you sleep, it only sedates. So it actually harms some of the neural processing…another connection between loss of sleep is weight gain… sleep loss gives rise to the release of the hormone ghrelin, the hunger hormone. Ghrelin makes the brain say it needs more carbohydrates…tired people are massively stressed…” and Foster says stress causes loss of memory to even cancer, blood pressure problems and diabetes…

By now you are willing to curl up where you are. Foster says there are no fixed hours of sleep…listen to your body…reduce amount of light exposure at least half an hour before going to bed…turn off all things that excite the brain…try not to drink caffeine late in the day…some myths about sleep are: teenagers are lazy…no they need their sleep and their biological clock makes their sleep pattern. We need eight hours of sleep…some need less, some more. Old people need less sleep…not true. Their sleep is just fragmented. “And fourthly early to bed and early to rise does not make a man healthy, wealthy and wise…!”

Foster goes on to say that sleep patterns can reveal the tendency of people towards any brain/ mood disorders…so we can perhaps help prevent those. So take sleep seriously. He reaffirms what Jim Butcher, a fantasy writer had once said, “Sleep is God. Go worship.”