How to sleep

Insufficient sleep affects every aspect of our life. Read on to discover how you can enjoy a good night's sleep

woman sleepingRecently I travelled to a beautiful, untarnished part of our country. I loved every moment of it, but dreaded going to sleep at night. Reason? The hotel beds were infested with bedbugs. Until now, I always attributed my lack of sleep to early morning mugging sessions as a student, to late night movies, to the wrong spicy eats and to my kid, but after my experience, I think I need to include the otherwise oblivious in my list too.

Sleep busters

Here are some of the most common sleep killers:

Stress: Stress, anxiety, depression are a package and is a common experience for people today. Some people are better-equipped to handle it, while others buckle with the smallest—then be it unexpected guests, maid’s day off or simply getting few minutes behind schedule. When one does feel snowed under, they may find it difficult to sleep due to the decrease in the level of melatonin, the sleep hormone. While one cannot change temperaments, we must learn better ways to deal with such situations.

Alcohol is often used as a sleep aid; however excess intake is known to lead to a compromised sleep at night. Nicotine, found in most tobacco products, is another potent stimulant that leads to a disturbed sleep.

Medication: Medicines used to control many illnesses are known to cause insomnia. However, the effect depends on the individual’s capacity to tolerate the drug and the duration of medication. Anti-epileptics, anti-depressants, bronchodilators, those used to control Parkinson’s disease, depression and hypertension are some medications which could interfere in a person’s sleep pattern.

coffee cupCaffeine, alcohol and nicotine: You may down cups of coffee because of a deadline or may enjoy excess colas just because they taste good with your pizza or sizzler, but these contain caffeine, the world’s most widely used stimulant. It acts by increasing the levels of serotonin thereby increasing the levels of alertness. However, the duration of effect depends on the amount of caffeine ingested, tolerance levels and time gap between the intake and sleep.

Bodily discomfort: Pain in any form, such as chronic backache, arthritic pain or even simple headache tends to reduce the depth of sleep. Similarly, acid reflux, especially after a later-than-usual, heavy meal, pre-menstrual syndrome as well as menopausal hormonal fluctuations are known to mess up the body clock.

Jet lag: This is a common problem faced by flyers across time zones causing a sudden change in the body’s own internal clock or the circadian rhythm, which is known to be governed by the hormone melatonin. It is the internal clock that tells us the time to sleep or remain wakeful depending on the routine we follow. But in another time zones, these influences occur at other times than expected by the body, leading to what is termed as ‘being jet-lagged’. Flyers usually experience difficulty in falling asleep, poor sleep, midnight wakefulness and feeling of tiredness throughout the day.

Shift work: Nurses, doctors, policemen, corporate people and industrial workers fall in this category. These people work virtually against their circadian rhythm—they are forced to sleep at daytime when melatonin levels are low. Most of these suffer from chronic sleep issues, fatigue, poor concentration, depression, stomach ulcers and are even prone to accidents.

Exercise: Too much of it leads to aches and pains or over-stimulation that disturb sleep quality.

Environmental matters: These are the external factors that affect the quality and restfulness of sleep.

  • Light. Our ancestors followed the simple law of nature; they were awake while the day lasted and went to sleep at the first signs of night. But with the invention of the electric bulb, we tend to delay the internal sleep clock. Such long exposures cause disruptions in sleep due to the light-sensitive melatonin.
  • Noise. You may listen to soothing music just before falling asleep, but too much surrounding noise disrupts sleep.
  • Temperature. The need changes from person-to-person and thus it is important to maintain a comfortable temperature while sleeping. Deep sleep is most sensitive to temperature-related disruptions. For example, we may find it difficult to sleep when it is too hot or cold.
  • Bugs and mosquitoes. They harm you not just by sucking blood but also by disturbing your sleep.Your bed mate. Sounds funny, but bed habits of partners do affect sleep, especially, if they are the snoring kind, occupy too much space or have varied bedtimes.
  • Mattress and pillows. Either too lumpy or too hard a pillow may lead to not just back and neck pain, but also a sleepless night. Choose them right—the kinds which contour with your body, giving it a snug feel as you sleep.

Sleep soothers

Restful sleep may seem a dream, if you are the kind who wakes up at 3am and counts sheep. Good sleep, as good health, is in your hands and following simple tips could help you fall into a restful slumber every night. According to Jayant Sohoni, a noted consultant in Internal Medicine, “There is a rise in psychosomatic disorders in the last few years, most of them related to lack of sleep. Whichever the factor, it is essential to overcome it since sound sleep is important for the physical as well as mental wellbeing.”

  • Avoid foods that contain stimulants such as colas, chocolates, coffee at least 3 – 4 hours before going to bed.
  • De-clutter your mind with breathing exercises/pranayama or yoga; doing an exercise routine during the day that will help you sleep better at night.
  • Eat at least 2 to 3 hours before going to bed, unless you want to stay awake with a heavy stomach. Preferably avoid bedtime snacks since they raise blood sugar levels that may inhibit sleep. However, if you do feel hungry stick to some fruit or a glass of warm milk.
  • Talk to the doctor if you feel your medication is keeping you awake.
  • Make your bedroom a soothing place. Have good, firm, body-comforting mattresses, clean bed covers and comforters, and maintain an ideal room temperature. Block outside light with heavy curtains. If your spouse insists on keeping the lights on, use eye-covers.
  • Nap early during the day.
  • Have mattresses and pillows cleaned regularly for bugs; if there are too many mosquitoes use a good repellent.
  • Brush teeth at night. They not only keep dental problems at bay, but a fresh mouth acts as a soother in bed.
  • Develop a bedtime routine. A shower that makes you feel clean, a book to read or some soft music.
  • Avoid too much of emotions; so no fights or arguments, no scary movies, no tension-filled television soaps if you want a good night’s sleep.
  • Put your mind away from work.
  • Curl your toes, stretch your body and feel happy to have lived another beautiful day.

The sleep cycle

The sleep-cycle, as we may call it, is based on the serotonin-melatonin levels in our body. Serotonin, a neurotransmitter [one that relays nerve messages], is powerful during the day, or in the hours of wakefulness. But as it gets dark or at night, serotonin naturally activates the pineal gland in our brain to produce a sleep-inducing night hormone called melatonin, taking a backseat itself. Thus at night, it is only the melatonin levels that are on surge. Any disruption in the above cycle leads to sleeplessness.

In old age, one tends to sleep in slumbers with intermittent wakefulness, while an infant sleeps almost throughout the day. In both cases, the bodily need for sleep is answered. It is only in the middle years that sleep-disturbing factors take toll. And lack of sleep is not a pleasant experience; apart from leaving one groggy, scattered and irritable, it makes a person more prone to illness, accident and poor performance.

Padma Sanzgiri
Dr Padma Sanzgiri, PhD in Clinical Biochemistry, is an accomplished health writer with articles featured in a number of publications including Reader's Digest, Femina and the Times of India.


Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here