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While you were not sleeping...

Vani B. Pahwa  

It is a common experience that a problem — difficult at night — is resolved in the morning after the committee of sleep has worked on it.

— John Steinbeck

How good are we at understanding an activity as natural as sleep? Do we fully understand its functioning and the far-reaching impact it has on our lives?

The common notion is to think of sleep as a period of total inactivity. It is often the first casualty of our chock-a-block lives and a recurring sacrifice at the altar of work or merriment. This has resulted in alarmingly increasing numbers of people — young and old — accumulating a ‘sleep deficit’ and compromising their health in more ways than they can imagine.

Sleep is the thread that ties our mental and physical health together. It is a powerful, natural process designed to help the body rejuvenate and repair itself.

Some functions of the brain and body work more actively when we are sleeping than when we are awake, to enable this renewal, and assist in growth and development. New pathways are formed while sleeping that help us learn and remember information. How well we sleep greatly determines how well we perform in our waking hours.

Inadequate sleep, especially if accumulated over time, can have disastrous results ranging from accidents (such as a car crash) to chronic health issues. On-going sleep deficiency has been linked to increased risk of heart disease, high blood pressure, diabetes, stroke, kidney ailments, obesity, lowered immunity and more. It not only harms us physically but also mentally and emotionally — impairing thinking, learning, decision-making, altering our emotional responses to life situations and affecting coping in general. Its ability to affect the quality of life cannot and should not be underestimated.

To understand the importance of sleep, it is first important to understand the process of sleep. To explain it simply, sleep is divided into stages — Rapid Eye Movement (REM) and non-REM. Non-REM refers to deep sleep or slow wave sleep. REM sleep refers to ‘active sleep’ characterised by high frequency waves accompanied by eye movements — dreaming typically occurs in this phase. Non-REM and REM sleep generally occur in regular patterns of three to five cycles through the night, and each has an important role to play in the regrowth and repair of tissues, building bones and muscles, strengthening of immunity and consolidation of memory.

Thus, we need not just adequate hours of total sleep, but also both types of sleep in adequate measures to function properly. Our bodies are designed to respond to an internal clock that typically follows a 24-hour repeating pattern (circadian rhythm), which tells us when we are ready to sleep and get up. If this internal clock is altered — due to inadequate sleep, poor quality sleep or not sleeping at the right time — it compromises the body’s optimal functioning. Symptoms may manifest differently in children and adults. Children, when faced with sleep deficiency or disruption, tend to go towards hyper activity, misbehaviour and/ or compromised learning. Adults experience a general slowing down and many other issues.

People are often not aware of the extent of their sleep deficiency. Sleep needs may vary from person to person but the general sleep requirements recommended by experts are as follows:

Newborns: 16-18 hours a day. Preschool-aged children: 11-12 hours. School-going children: 10 hours. Teens: 9-10 hours. Adults (including elderly): 7-8 hours.

While we may get by with less sleep on a prolonged basis, it is important to remember that ‘catching up’ on a sleep deficit accumulated over the week over the weekend does not provide the same restorative and beneficial effects as regular sleep does. It’s not a question of just balancing numbers but of respecting the process.

In today’s world of 24/7 connectivity, it is a big challenge for humans to disconnect and accept that the world will continue to function for those few hours when we sign off — simply because productivity is increasingly associated with being awake longer. This may play out quite to the contrary if the complexity of the sleep cycle and its needs are not fully understood.

So, as a solution, we need to prepare for sleep as we prepare for work. Some possible strategies to inculcate better sleeping habits could include the following:

Going to bed and waking up at the same time each day; trying not to vary weekday and weekend sleep/ wake routines too much; preparing for sleeping by quietening down about an hour before sleeping; avoiding strenuous exercise close to bedtime and bright lights from TV or laptop/ mobile phone screens — these stimulate the brain to remain active; avoiding watching TV in the bedroom; avoiding caffeinated drinks in the evenings or close to bedtime, if they prevent you from falling asleep — some green teas contain more caffeine than others. Check the labels. Nicotine (cigarettes) is a stimulant too; avoid heavy/ large meals close to bed time — alcoholic drinks close to bedtime can also compromise the quality of sleep. Seek remedies for sleep disorders like apnea and insomnia. Try relaxation techniques like warm baths, meditation, music, good reads or whatever soothes your mind and gets the body ready for sleep.

Some special categories of people, such as care-givers, emergency responders, shift workers and even older children faced with big workloads and early morning starts, may need additional strategies to cope.

The essential idea is not to get stressed about sleep specifics, but to remember that it is imperative to respect that sleep is as important as other activities in our lives and there is a genuine need to safeguard it.

Vani B. Pahwa is an exercise and rehab specialist, corporate wellness coach, and foot and gait analyst.


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Printable version | Dec 6, 2021 3:15:40 PM | https://www.thehindu.com/features/magazine/While-you-were-not-sleeping.../article14630718.ece

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