Millennium Post

All about a good night's sleep

In the fast-paced, technology-laden lifestyles we lead, proper sleep is often a casualty as we blindly prioritise quantity of sleep over the all-important quality

Let us have sunny breaks and a good night's sleep! Have you felt that you need to sleep better? Do you feel not completely rested with your quota of sleep? Do you feel you need tea to move on during the day? Read on.

The role of the hormone melatonin in our sleep needs close understanding. Ideally, melatonin is released by the pineal gland in the human body around 3-4 hours after the full spectrum light goes away. By full-spectrum light, in a completely natural environment, we mean sunlight. That is, 3-4 hours after sunset, melatonin is released by the body. If the sunset happens by 6 pm, melatonin secretion happens by around 9 pm to 10 pm. This is when we feel sleepy — at least when we ideally should feel sleepy.

What is the role of melatonin? It helps our body to sleep well. It rejuvenates the body, repairs it and detoxifies it. For all of this, it requires almost six hours. That is, if melatonin is secreted at around 10 pm, it would have its effect till 4 am in the morning starting from 10 pm of the previous night. The darkest hours of the day are from 10 pm to 2 am. This is where we should not compromise on our sleep. This is where sleep works best!

But in modern life, this rhythm of the body gets affected. The body which is programmed by nature to release melatonin after 3-4 hours of full-spectrum light gets exposed to full-spectrum light when we watch the screens of LED TVs and mobiles. So, when we tap on the screen using Facebook or Twitter at 9 pm or when we look on at the primetime TV debate, we are inadvertently forcing our bodies to believe that it is daytime. This delays the secretion of melatonin. Say, if it gets delayed till 2 am in the morning, melatonin will be able to complete its routine of refreshing the body by 8 am only — as it requires about six hours for its job.

In the meanwhile, we alarm our bodies into wakefulness at 6 am. Our calculation is that we have slept for eight hours from 10 pm to 6 am. However, the sleep aided by melatonin is only four hours. Again after 6 am, since sunlight is present, the impact of melatonin is hampered. This means that we are prevented from our deep refreshing sleep by our exposure to screens — mobile or TV — after 6 pm in the evening.

What is the suggestion? It would be very difficult to leave phone calls after 6 pm as there could be some urgent message that someone is trying to communicate. But we could certainly try to cut down on asynchronous communication after this set time period. By asynchronous communication, I mean something that does not need an immediate response from you — like an SMS. Yes, this would mean we do not flip through WhatsApp and YouTube in the evenings. It means we switch over to radio and reading and conversations after sunset. This way, our sleep would be deeper when it happens at 10 pm. Also, we would naturally wake up early in the morning and feel refreshed without being alarmed into being awake.

The tyranny of the alarm is toxifying many young lives today. Irrespective of what the sleeping hours are, irrespective of how much we hampered melatonin release, we force our bodies to come up according to a timepiece. Every day, we have a different requirement of sleep depending on what happened to us during the course of the day. Certainly, this information is not relayed to the timepiece. It just dumbly wakes us up at the appointed time and leaves us dumb in the process. Do we not feel groggy in the morning and feel that we have had an incomplete sleep? The idea is to let the body follow its normal cycle. Before categorising us as larks and owls, let us first take the body away from the tyranny of extraneous full spectrum light brought in by the modern life.

If one converses with people who have once been in villages, they would immediately relate to the habit of sleeping early and getting up early in the villages. The Indian tradition refers to the 'Brahm Muhurt' at 3:45 am and considers it to be appropriate time by which one should be up and active. But all of this is possible if one is smart with the use of smartphones. It depends on if we value prime time TV over prime time sleep.

This way, it is clear that it is not really the number of hours that matters in sleep. The length of sleep is only one parameter. The depth of your sleep is determined by proper natural hormonal releases.

Alongside this, having food to digest in the digestive system puts your body into avoidable stress during nights. The metabolic rate in animals goes down in the night. For crocodiles, it is so evident that it is unable to eat in the night. In humans, we find it difficult to digest food after dark. If we are able to rest our digestive system when we sleep, this contributes to another dimension to the quality of our sleep. Yes, this would mean moving away from late-night dinners. Being aware of the consequences, we can always make our choices better.

The exact opposite of this day-night confusion happens during our working hours. Not many of us are lucky to have an office which has adequate direct sunlight. We work with the help of artificial lighting during the day. However, this not being full-spectrum light, our bodies prepare to sleep and we feel tired. This is when we reach out to tea or coffee to feel 'refreshed' by injecting chemicals into our body along with excessive sugar which has its own negative consequences. We can avoid this by realising that the body's reaction is only because of lack of sunlight. Take a two-minute sunny break instead of a tea break. It will help you get some vital vitamins too.

The consequence of depriving our bodies of rejuvenating, detoxifying sleep every day can be catastrophic and impair our functioning in many ways. But it is in our hands to take control of our lives by leaving our bodies to its natural rhythm. Wish you a good night sleep!

The writer is the Director, Ministry of Steel. Views expressed are personal

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