We all have read or listened to many fairy tales in our childhood. All these fairy tales carried some message. They had some symbolism. Remember Snow White, Sleeping Beauty and The Princess and the Pea? Sleep plays an important role in all these stories. It has restorative properties. In both Snow White and Sleeping Beauty, the princesses don’t age. Their long, deep slumbers retained their beauty and youth. The idea of being well rested conjures up the notion of beauty sleep. I think, beauty and sleep will forever be connected. In the Ramayana, Kumbhakaran is shown as a powerful prince and he was believed to be sleeping for six months at a time. It’s a metaphor for the fact that good sleep helps build immunity and helps one live a disease-free life.
This issue of the newsletter covers on one of the most important angle of Deep health – Sleep.
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Have you ever laid awake at night and wondered…What is Sleep?
Sleep is something that everybody intuitively grasps. We know that we need to shut down and ‘power off’ every night in order to function well during the following day. Yet, it is hard to define what sleep is.
Sleep is a reversible behavioral state of perceptual disengagement from and unresponsiveness to the environment. In other words, it is a time when our brains and bodies partially disconnect from what’s around us. It is like what we do with our phone when we put it on airplane mode. Your phone still works, but it’s not getting any signals, so you can’t make any calls, check your email or scroll Twitter. During some part of the sleep, we become effectively paralysed, which prevents us from acting out our dreams. Obviously, God does not want you to walk out of your highrise window to enact flying from your dream.
Why do we sleep? Sleep is essential for us to function. It’s a complex and dynamic process that scientists are yet to fully understand. What we do know is that getting enough good quality sleep makes it easier for our bodies to: recover; clean out and get rid of waste; improve brain function, and regulate our metabolic health. So, what exactly happens during this magical time? It’s easy to understand and think of being awake and being asleep as a switch. When we’re awake, we’re “on”, and when we’re sleeping, our bodies are “off”. But this isn’t at all what happens! In fact, there are some times during sleep when our brains (and bodies) are very active. “Sleep” can be divided into two different categories:
- Non-REM, or non-rapid eye movement that has four different stages and REM. When we’re dozing off, teetering on the edge of waking and sleeping we enter the first stage of sleep.
- In stage two, the body relaxes. Heart rate and breathing slow down.
Sleep also differs from person to person, and across our lifespan. Our need for sleep, and our ability to sleep, are influenced by several diverse factors, like our age, biological sex, hormones, and genetics. For example, we tend to take longer to fall asleep as we age. The time it takes to fall asleep is known as sleep latency. Additionally, we also tend to wake up more often after we fall asleep. This is known as waking after sleep onset or WASO. Our environment can also influence our sleep in a variety of ways, whether it’s the noisy highway outside keeping you awake, or the temperature of your bedroom. While factors like age or genetics and their impact on sleep schedule are beyond our control, to some degree our environments are manageable. The next article provides the tool kit to manage your environment.
Sleep must be the most puzzling of all human behaviors. We spend almost one third of our life sleeping. While slumbering, we don’t work, gather food, mate or socialize. So, in effect, we just spend a crucial one third of our lives doing nothing. Every species, studied to date, sleeps. This simple fact establishes that it has evolved with life, and its preservation throughout evolution means there must be tremendous benefits to it. A balanced diet and exercise are of vital importance. Sleep is the preeminent force in this trinity.
What sleep does for you
Supports weight loss. Sleep deprivation causes binge eating. Studies have shown people who sleep for only four hours a night, eat over 300 calories more than those who get eight hours. And most of this food is saturated fat. A good night’s slumber regulates our appetite. It reforms the body’s metabolic state by fine-tuning the balance of insulin and circulating glucose.
Improves memory. Sleep deprivation compromises one’s ability to focus. Enough of it enriches our ability to learn, memorize, and make logical decisions and choices. During sleep, your brain files away your day’s learning, to use on some other day. A research conducted at the University of Notre Dame suggests that people who slept immediately after learning something recalled it better.
Helps improve your immune system. Sleep restocks the armory of our immune system. It helps prevent infections and safeguard you from all manners of sickness. A study done by Carnegie Mellon University shows those, who slept less than seven hours, were three times more likely to develop cold than those, who slept eight hours.
Improves cardiovascular health and keeps blood pressure low. A finding published in a heart health study conducted by the magazine, Sleep, on 6000 individuals between age of 40 to 100, showed a direct co-relation with hypertension. Sleep affects processes that keep your heart and blood vessels healthy, including those that affect your blood sugar, blood pressure and inflammation levels. It also plays a vital role in your body’s ability to heal and repair the blood vessels and heart.
Helps Cancer Prevention. Regular good sleep helps fight malignancy. At the University of Chicago, researchers separated mice into two groups. One group was allowed to sleep normally and the other group was woken up every two minutes. Both the groups were injected with tumorous cells. All mice developed tumors but the ones which were sleep deprived grew tumors double the size of well-rested group.
In fact, this list is an endless one. We are forced to wonder if there are any biological functions that do not benefit from a good night’s slumber.
And still we don’t give sleep the priority it needs. Our fast-paced life leaves us with little time for a restful night. Despite knowing that going to bed would be the best thing to do, we prefer to watch one more episode of our favorite show, scoll through social media posts, check our emails or have one more drink with friends. We fear missing out and we want to do more, see more, work more. And in the process, we sacrifice our rest, the most important element for our health.
According to the recent statistics presented at an international conference organized by the South East Asian Academy of Sleep Medicine (SEAASM) and Getwell Hospital in Nagpur, the average sleeping hours per day has decreased globally. What’s worse is that with an average of 6.55 hours, India stands second to last on the list.
Sleeping Pills or Alcohol do not assist in getting a good night’s slumber. They actually disturb the quality of sleep.
My December Sleep data
I had gone to a party recently. I had two glasses of wine. I didn’t get a single minute of deep sleep and my heart rate was at 75. Usually my sleeping heart rate average is around 65 . Alcohol slows down the central nervous system’s processes by reducing electrical conductivity in the brain. This means that neurons, which send & receive the electrical signals that cause the release of neurotransmitters, operate more slowly. That’s why, that night, Apple Watch results showed significantly increased levels of stress for my body while I slept.
The liver has to work harder when it should be resting. This leads to a stressed state from which you’ll wake up feeling exhausted. Throughout the night, as the liver uses a higher proportion of the body’s energy than usual, the brain is starved of its usual resources. It’s a myth that you rest better with alcohol. I drink rarely. Imagine those who drink often, how stressed they must be feeling while waking up the following morning. Sleeping pills work the same way. Doctors prescribing medication should be forthcoming and explain the side effects to patients more clearly.
What you can do to improve your sleep.
- Stick to a schedule. Go to bed and wake up at the same time each day. All seven days.
- Exercise is great but not too late in the day. Try to exercise thirty minutes everyday but not later than two or three hours before bedtime
- Avoid caffeine and nicotine. Caffeine can take up to eight hours to wear off fully. Smokers often wake up too early because of nicotine withdrawal.
- Avoid alcoholic drinks before bed. Your REM sleep is robbed with two pegs or more.
- Avoid large meals at night.
- Relax before bedtime. Some activity like reading or music may help. A hot water shower helps too.
- A dark, cool and gadget free bedroom should be your mantra for a good night’s slumber. Avoid having a TV in your bedroom or any gadget for binge watching.
- Turn the clock’s face out of view. Those who have insomnia, often stare at the clock.
- Don’t lie in bed awake. If you find yourself awake after twenty minutes, get up and relax. The anxiety of not being able to sleep can make it harder.
- Catch some morning sunlight by going outside within 30-60 minutes of waking. On bright days, view for 10 minutes. On cloudy days for 30 minutes. No, you don’t have to look directly at the sun. Never look at any light so bright that it is painful to your eyes.
Know that Sleep can do remarkable things for you. It allows your body to rest and perform essential maintenance on your hormones, immune system, memory, heart and other critical functions. It’s deprivation will lead to serious health issues.
So never compromise on sleep.
Imagine a product that increases alertness, boosts creativity, reduces stress, improves perception, stamina, motor skills, and accuracy, enhances your sex life, helps you make better decisions, keeps you looking younger, aids in weight loss, reduces the risk of heart attack, elevates your mood, and strengthens memory. Now imagine that this product is nontoxic, has no dangerous side effects, and, best of all, is absolutely free.
This miracle drug is, in fact, nothing more than the nap: the right nap at the right time.
There are two biological processes that contribute to daily drowsiness. The first system is the circadian: It prompts you to stay awake when it’s light out and asleep when it’s dark. In the middle of the day, it causes the hormone cortisol to start decreasing from its morning high and your core body temperature to slightly dip; losing heat helps you fall and stay asleep. The second is the homeostatic: it makes you sleepier the longer you’ve been awake. As the day progresses, it continually increases your “sleep pressure”, causing you to have a growing need for sleep. Together, at mid day, these create “kind of a perfect storm that makes people tired”.
The benefits of napping show up in study after study. Here’s a link to a study published in one of the most respected journals, Nature.
Naps enhance creative problem-solving. Naps can boost and restore brain power. Toddlers who nap, express more joy. Adult nappers can tolerate frustration longer and feel less impulsive. Naps may help protect older people from cognitive decline and dementia. Runners can use naps to improve endurance. People who nap once or twice a week have a lower risk of cardiovascular disease. Memory is better after a nap. And on it goes.
To nap effectively set up a 20 minute alarm. It’s long enough to take you to Stage 2 sleep. Make yourself comfortable. Lie down if possible. Use an eye mask and ear plugs, if needed. Try to set aside your worries, perhaps by first engaging in a few minutes of mindful meditation. Breathe slowly and deeply. Concentrate on relaxing your muscles.
“Napping is not what lazy people do,” says Sara Mednick, a professor of cognitive science at the University of California at Irvine and author of “Take a Nap! Change Your Life.”. “It’s what people, who are really effective and creative and self-regulating and conscientious, do. Those are the type of people who nap.”
I am a big fan of Dr Andrew Huberman, a neuroscientist at Stanford University whose work focuses on neuroplasticity and neural regeneration. He’s not afraid to mix the holistic with the medical, integrating alternative therapies with his work in the lab.
In one of his podcast I came across Yoga Nidra. Since then I do daily sessions of Yoga Nidra to keep myself relaxed , de-stressed and maintain brain plasticity. Research shows that Yoga Nidra improves sleep, alleviates stress and helps pain management. A study in Brazil found that the practice of Yoga Nidra reduced anxiety in college lecturers. It works on the brain by regulating levels of ‘happy hormones’, the neurotransmitters dopamine and serotonin.
What is Yoga Nidra?
Yoga Nidra is essentially the lying down bit of a yoga practice, where you consciously relax your mind. It uses guided visualisation, allowing the body to slumber whilst the mind stays awake. It’s the most relaxing thing I’ve ever done! The practice engages the left and right side of the brain which aids creativity, reduces stress and builds neuroplasticity. A 35-minute session has the same impact on the brain as two hours of deep sleep.
Here’s the Yoga Nidra I do.
I AM Yoga Nidra™ led by Liam Gillen
It’s honestly the most relaxing thing I have done this year. And no need to wear yoga pants or roll out a mat. You just need to be warm and comfortable and have space to lie down. It will do amazing things for your stress levels and neuroplasticity. Try it out.
Neuroscientist and sleep expert Matthew Walker provides a revolutionary exploration of sleep, examining how it affects every aspect of our physical and mental well-being. Charting the most cutting-edge scientific breakthroughs, and marshaling his decades of research and clinical practice, Walker explains how we can harness sleep to improve learning, mood and energy levels, regulate hormones, prevent cancer, Alzheimer’s and diabetes, slow the effects of aging, and increase longevity. He also provides actionable steps towards getting a better night’s sleep every night.
About the Author
Matthew Walker is a British scientist and professor of neuroscience and psychology at the University of California, Berkeley. His research focuses on the impact of sleep on human health and disease. Previously, he was a professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School.
His Twitter handle is @sleepdiplomat
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