Home / Opinion / Do you know who steals your sleep?

Mahatma Gandhi said, “Each night, when I go to sleep, I die. And the next morning, when I wake up, I am reborn."

Taken literally, even if it wasn’t meant to be, it makes good sense. Getting a good night’s sleep is akin to eating healthy food or drinking clean water. Yet many of us consider sleep a dispensable human activity. We think we can get more out of our day, whether it is at work or at play, if we sleep less.

New Delhi-based Hrudananda Mallick, a professor in the department of physiology, All India Institute of Medical Sciences, says urban Indians are just not getting enough sleep. Only about 60% of adults get adequate sleep, that is, 7-8 hours every night, he says. Though there are people who are fine with less, most of us need at least 7 hours.

Cutting corners on sleep affects health and well-being, how well we think, work, learn and get along with others. It increases our risk of chronic health problems like heart disease and diabetes. And because it affects our judgement and alertness, lack of sleep can be deadly too, especially if you drive long distances regularly.

According to Ashim Desai, senior consultant at the Dr ABR Desai ENT Clinic, Mumbai, there are several ways of improving sleep habits. Go to bed and wake up at the same time every day; try to keep to the same sleep schedule on week nights and weekends; work out more than a couple of hours before bedtime; and do not watch TV, work on the computer or use any kind of light-emitting devices for reading at least an hour before bedtime. My favourite: Have a warm bath before bedtime. “A warm bath dilates the blood vessels and relaxes the muscles, making it easier for us to fall asleep," explains Dr Desai.

Studies back up Dr Desai’s advice against using electronic items, including phones and tablets, before bedtime. Phones, laptops, e-books and e-readers are portable, convenient and provide access to a wide range of reading material at the touch of a button. But sleep researchers have been concerned about how the light emitted by these devices could be affecting sleep.

Light is the most important environmental signal that influences our ability to sleep by affecting the secretion of the hormone melatonin, which helps regulate sleep and wake cycles. Even at low intensity, exposure to light in the evening and early part of the night suppresses melatonin secretion and shifts our circadian clock to a later time, keeping us awake longer. A US study published in the Proceedings Of The National Academy Of Sciences journal in January compared how reading a printed book or an e-reader affects sleep.

Charles Czeisler and colleagues from Harvard Medical School’s sleep medicine department looked at how this affected the secretion of melatonin and how the 12 study subjects rated their own sleep the following morning. The study, Evening Use Of Light-Emitting eReaders Negatively Affects Sleep, Circadian Timing, And Next-Morning Alertness, found that using the e-readers made it harder to fall asleep by suppressing melatonin secretion, and reduced the level of alertness the following morning.

There was a reduction in the quantity and quality of rapid eye movement (REM) sleep. It is during REM sleep that the brain consolidates information learnt during the day; therefore, it plays a key role in learning and memory. REM sleep is also when the brain replenishes its supply of neurotransmitters that boost your mood throughout the day.

Reiterating the point made by the Harvard study, Prof. Mallick advises: “Be aware of digital sleep stealers." If you are using light-emitting electronic devices in the evening, switch them off an hour before bedtime.

To see if it makes a difference, I decided to swap my night-time TV viewing with an old-fashioned printed novel.

I am sleeping better now.

Sujata Kelkar Shetty, PhD, is a wellness consultant and a clinical scientist trained at the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda, US.

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