Don’t take sleep lightly

Sleep is nature's promise for healthy longevity

SleepingIf you are the kind of person who resorts to counting sheep with increasing frustration every night, or staring glassy-eyed into an abyss of semi-darkness, you are not alone!

In an ideal situation, we should spend at least one-third of our lives in slumber, but for most people all over the world, this seems to be a Herculean task. According to Global Sleep Research Organization, US, approximately half of the world’s population is at risk of suffering from some kind of insomnia, or sleeplessness, and consequent drowsiness during daytime.

Daytime sleepiness

People with EDS [excessive daytime sleepiness] frequently feel an involuntary urge to doze at times when their full attention may be crucial to their safety. These people are potential calamities, just waiting to happen – especially, when they are required to operate heavy machinery, drive a car, or even simply cross the street. Studies have shown that people with EDS often harbour feelings of low self-esteem, frustration, and anger.

This is because their extreme exhaustion is often mistaken for lethargy. They also report having difficulty with relationships – in social situations, at the workplace, and within the family. Research indicates that the number of severely sleep-deprived people is growing every year. At any one moment, as many as 50 per cent of adults worldwide suffer from one or more sleep disorders; 13 per cent are severe and may even prove fatal.

Silent danger

Apart from accelerating the aging process, insomnia causes the onset of obesity, diabetes and even heart attacks. In a study by Eva Van Cauter, a sleep scientist at the University of Chicago Medical Center, US, it was established that those who limited themselves to only four hours of sleep every night had decreased levels of leptin – which is a hormone that signals your body that you are full at meal-times. With a deficiency in this hormone, people tend to overeat. Even in well-nourished insomniacs, it was found that leptin levels matched those who were malnourished or underfed by 1,000 calories a day! The brain signals [and wrongly so!] that the body is starving and an excess of 1,000 calories taken over a week can cause a full one kg of weight gain.

Van Couter also monitored 27 people at their homes, dividing them into two groups. One group was allowed to sleep only five hours a night and the other eight. Afterwards, each person was tested for insulin resistance, a measure of how well the body processes blood sugar. The greater the resistance, the greater one’s risk of contracting diabetes. The results were mind-boggling. Those who slept for a shorter duration at night had 50 per cent more insulin resistance than longer sleepers!

This is only the tip of the iceberg. Researchers from Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston, US, found that those who sleep five or fewer hours a night have an 82 per cent higher risk of heart attack than those who slept the essential eight hours. Earlier a six-hour sleep session was considered adequate, but today it is proven that even this causes mild sleep deprivation and boosts the risk of heart attack by 30 per cent.

On the other hand, researchers have also found that too much sleep is not good either. Those who slept nine or more hours a night increased their heart disease risk by 57 per cent. Some doctors insist that every person’s need is different and that one should get as much sleep to keep going without feeling drowsy, the following day.

Women and wakefulness

You may be surprised to learn that insomnia is a problem that is most likely to affect women more than men. According to a survey at Pennsylvania State University, US, 34.5 per cent of women interviewed said they had trouble sleeping through the night, as compared to six per cent of men. Some researchers say that the very design of the female body may be the cause. A woman’s body, at any given time in her life, is a veritable playground of hormones – all of which interfere with getting a good night’s rest. Indeed, new research suggests that insomnia is a by-product of premenstrual syndrome.

While you were sleeping

Like food and drink, sleep is a biological imperative – a crucial phase in which the body rejuvenates itself, releasing the stress and tensions of the day and relieving the mind of its myriad worries.

The sleep cycle, however, is not an uninterrupted 10-hour marathon session. A full night’s rest includes several 90-minute cycles of dreaming and non-dreaming sleep. A 10-minute nap can help you reach only the first two cycles of sleep. However, even this short respite will be beneficial because it recharges your looks by allowing your nerves and facial muscles to relax.

You enter the deep stages [stage three and four] after you’ve been asleep for at least 60 minutes. It is at this stage that the body rejuvenates itself physically. The last stage is the REM [Rapid Eye Movement] sleep when the mind is truly refreshed. It is awash with dreams, which allows the sub-conscious to work through various emotions and also help with memory storage and compartmentalisation. When you burn the midnight oil, you tend to miss the most refreshing REM part of your sleep. This can lead to diminished concentration, headache and even memory lapse.

Sleep Soundly

During sound sleep, one tends to breathe more deeply, taking in an increased amount of oxygen into the lungs. This leads to firming up and repair of the collagen tissues under your skin, improved natural radiance, reduced wrinkles or blemishes.

Chronic insomniacs are often identified by skin problems. Sleep prevents skin aberrations; it also helps in blood circulation; it repairs broken tissues, and promotes natural healing.

Getting plenty of exercise and watching your diet is instrumental in ensuring a good night’s sleep. Strive to eat nutritious and well-balanced small meals throughout the day. Avoid spicy or heavy food/s before bed-time.

Dr Virend K Somers, Professor of Internal Medicine at the Mayo Clinic, Rochester, US, advises insomniacs to follow certain simple steps as a prelude to bed-time to woo sleep. He calls this, “sleep hygiene.” He says: “Getting the TV out of the bedroom, making the room darker by reducing ambient light, and avoiding strenuous mental and physical activity just before sleep is crucial.”

Kamala Thiagarajan
Kamala Thiagarajan is a Madurai-based journalist. Her writing interests encompass a host of genres including travel, health, entertainment and lifestyle. She is a full-time freelance journalist who works from her home in Madurai, South India. With 20 years of experience in journalism, she has over four hundred articles in print in leading magazines across the globe.


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