Sleep is one of the most primitive and basic requirements of life. Numerous studies and long-drawn research have simplified some aspects of its function and nature, though a lot of it yet remains elusive. The body rests during sleep and ‘restores’ its energy and functions. The energy consumption in various organs are minimal and the brain conserves its nerve cells and connections to be active again when awake. Adequate quantity and quality of sleep determine our daily schedule, activity levels, attention, memory, learning and even our life-span.
Our body-clock regulates the ‘circadian rhythm’ which is necessary for all the physiological processes in the body, which in turn depends on a good-night sleep. In fact, every single function of the human body depends on a ‘healthy’ sleep and ‘sleep deprivation’ or ‘restriction’ can have a myriad of short-term and long-term harmful effects on the body and mind.
Today, globalisation, competition, stress-laden lifestyle and technology have carved into our lives like a double-edged sword. A negative consequence of which is our natural sleep duration being deliberately compromised by external demands of work and leisure. It is very important to understand the fact that ‘healthy’ sleep does not depend on any particular duration or environment. It is not just the absence of insomnia or other sleep-related disorders. It basically means the natural pattern of sleep that our body holds for us at night, without being interfered in the long-term.
Why do we need sleep?
Sleep helps us in many ways. We need it for:
- Growth: In children and young adults, deep sleep (sleep that’s harder to wake from) supports growth. The body releases growth hormone during this type of sleep. The body also increases production of proteins, which we need for cell growth and to repair damage.
- Nervous system function: A lack of sleep affects our memory, performance and ability to think clearly. If a person is severely sleep deprived, they may even experience neurological problems such as mood swings and hallucinations. Sleep also helps our nerve cells. They can repair themselves, so they function at their best. And certain nerve connections get a chance to turn on, strengthening our brain and thinking ability.
- Survival: Researchers don’t fully understand why sleep is so essential. But studies in animals have shown that getting deprived of REM sleep can shorten lifespans. Lack of sleep may harm the immune system, which protects us from infections.
- Well-being: People who don’t get enough sleep are at higher risk for developing various health conditions including obesity, diabetes and heart problems.
How Much Sleep is Enough?
- Most adults need between seven and nine hours of sleep per day.
- Getting less than six or seven hours of sleep for just one night can affect you the next day.
- Chronically missing out on sleep increases your risk of disease.
Some people have conditions that prevent them from getting enough quality sleep, no matter how hard they try. These problems are called sleep disorders.
The most common sleep disorder is insomnia. “Insomnia is when you have repeated difficulty getting to sleep and/or staying asleep,” says Brown. This happens despite having the time to sleep and a proper sleep environment. It can make you feel tired or unrested during the day.
Insomnia can be short-term, where people struggle to sleep for a few weeks or months. “Quite a few more people have been experiencing this during the pandemic,” Brown says. Long-term insomnia lasts for three months or longer.
Sleep apnea is another common sleep disorder. In sleep apnea, the upper airway becomes blocked during sleep. This reduces or stops airflow, which wakes people up during the night. The condition can be dangerous. If untreated, it may lead to other health problems.
If you regularly have problems sleeping, talk with your health care provider. They may have you keep a sleep diary to track your sleep for several weeks. They can also run tests, including sleep studies. These look for sleep disorders.
Healthy tips for a sound sleep
· Develop your bedtime routine at least an hour before bed. Try to stop work before preparing to go to bed, reduce screen time, meditate well, or go for good breathing practice. These techniques allow us to relax and help our circadian rhythm take control by releasing hormones that will promote sleep and reduce alertness.
· Proper exercise: Both aerobic and resistance exercises have been shown to have positive effects on the sleeping pattern. It is best to avoid vigorous exercise at night or one hour before bedtime as this may reduce our sleep duration, quality and make it more difficult to fall asleep in the first place.
· Avoid caffeinated beverage post 7 pm. However, we all respond differently to caffeine consumption because caffeine is a known stimulant to make us active and keep awake. So when trying to fix your sleep pattern, it may be best to limit caffeine intake after 7 pm.
· Practice Pranayama: It stimulates your melatonin hormone and relaxes your muscles from stress.
· Good choice on carbs type: Eat complex, low-GI carbohydrates only around dinner time, not afterwards, to boost serotonin levels needed for sound sleep. These include quinoa, oatmeal, millets, buckwheat, sweet potato or legumes. Avoid processed carbs, such as breads, biscuits, muffins and cookies, which prompt a short-term spike in blood sugar.
· Chocolates/ pumpkin seeds with milk / berries: Pumpkin seed powder with warm glass of milk, gives a potent punch of the amino acid tryptophan that is good for a sound sleep. Sour berries are supplied with natural melatonin, the hormone produced in the brain that helps fight insomnia and promote sleep. Even chocolate contains tryptophan and is one of the richest dietary sources of magnesium, which can help improve sleep.
· To avoid waking up in the middle of the night, limit your liquid intake two or three hours before bedtime. So that you can avoid multiple trips to the washroom and by empty full bladder, which hampers sleep.
Optimizing Your Sleep Schedule
Taking control of your daily sleep schedule is a powerful step toward getting better sleep. To start harnessing your schedule for your benefit, try implementing these four strategies:
- Set a Fixed Wake-Up Time: It’s close to impossible for your body to get accustomed to a healthy sleep routine if you’re constantly waking up at different times. Pick a wake-up time and stick with it, even on weekends or other days when you would otherwise be tempted to sleep in.
- Budget Time for Sleep: If you want to make sure that you’re getting the recommended amount of sleep each night, then you need to build that time into your schedule. Considering your fixed wake-up time, work backwards and identify a target bedtime. Whenever possible, give yourself extra time before bed to get ready for sleep.
- Be Careful With Naps: To sleep better at night, it’s important to use caution with naps. If you nap for too long or too late in the day, it can throw off your sleep schedule and make it harder to get to sleep when you want to. The best time to nap is shortly after lunch in the early afternoon, and the best nap length is around 20 minutes.
- Adjust Your Schedule Gradually: When you need to change your sleep schedule, it’s best to make adjustments little-by-little and over time with a maximum difference of 1-2 hours per night. This allows your body to get used to the changes so that following your new schedule is more sustainable.
Sleep Myths and Truths
How much sleep you need changes with age. Experts recommend school-age children get at least nine hours a night and teens get between eight and 10. Most adults need at least seven hours or more of sleep each night.
There are many misunderstandings about sleep. One is that adults need less sleep as they get older. This isn’t true. Older adults still need the same amount. But sleep quality can get worse as you age. Older adults are also more likely to take medications that interfere with sleep.
Another sleep myth is that you can “catch up” on your days off. Researchers are finding that this largely isn’t the case.
“If you have one bad night’s sleep and take a nap, or sleep longer the next night, that can benefit you,” says Wright. “But if you have a week’s worth of getting too little sleep, the weekend isn’t sufficient for you to catch up. That’s not a healthy behavior.”
In a recent study, Wright and his team looked at people with consistently deficient sleep. They compared them to sleep-deprived people who got to sleep in on the weekend.
Both groups of people gained weight with lack of sleep. Their bodies’ ability to control blood sugar levels also got worse. The weekend catch-up sleep didn’t help.
On the flip side, more sleep isn’t always better, says Brown. For adults, “if you’re sleeping more than nine hours a night and you still don’t feel refreshed, there may be some underlying medical issue,” she explains.
Sleep is a vital, often neglected, component of every person’s overall health and well-being. Sleep is important because it enables the body to repair and be fit and ready for another day.
Getting adequate rest may also help prevent excess weight gain, heart disease, and increased illness duration.