We sleep to restore, we sleep to rest, we sleep to live.
Studies and long-drawn research have simplified some aspects of sleep's function and nature, but many other aspects still remain elusive. The body rests during sleep and ‘restores’ its energy and functions.
The energy consumption in various organs are minimal and the brain conserves its nerve cells and connections to be active again when awake.
Adequate quantity and quality of sleep determines our daily schedule, activity levels, attention, memory, learning, and even our lifespan. The body clock (pineal gland) regulates our circadian rhythm which is necessary for all physiological processes in the body, and the circadian rhythm in turn depends on a good night of sleep.
In fact, every single function of the human body depends on a ‘healthy’ sleep and ‘sleep deprivation’ or ‘restriction’ can have a myriad of short-term and long-term harmful effects on the body and mind.
In the recent days of globalization, competition and stress-laden lifestyle, technology has carved into our lives like a double-edged sword. A negative consequence of this is our natural sleep duration being deliberately compromised by external demands of work and leisure.
It is very important to stress the fact that healthy sleep does not depend on any particular duration or environment. It is not just the absence of insomnia or other sleep-related disorders. It basically means the natural pattern of sleep that our body holds for us at night, without being interfered with in the long term.
Long-term sleeplessness (insomnia) can lead to psychological problems, heart issues, increased risk for stroke, memory problems, increased accidents, rash driving, and absenteeism at work.
The ongoing COVID-19 pandemic has further led to a surge in sleep problems all across the world. In fact, one of the major offshoots of long COVID is insomnia and daytime drowsiness.
Research has shown that vulnerable populations such as the frontline workers, migrant workers, people living with mental illness, individuals from the lower socioeconomic class, and those affected with moderate-severe COVID infections suffer the major brunt of sleeplessness.
Numerous myths and misconceptions complicate this existing sleep problem, leading to poor understanding of this vital health issue. These also lead to increased consumption of over-the-counter sleeping pills.
Today we debunk some of these myths.
Myth 1: A certain amount of sleep is necessary daily. You should try to achieve it at all costs.
Reality: This is the most common of all beliefs that we come across. People spend extra time in bed simply to get the desired duration of sleep that they ‘feel’ is necessary. THERE IS NO SUCH DURATION.
There are both short-sleepers (4-5 hours/day) and long-sleepers (8-10 hours/day).
On average, a healthy human needs 6-8 hours of sleep every day, preferably at night.
However, these figures vary and it is best to follow the natural individualized pattern, rather than striving to develop any ‘set’ patterns of sleep. That increases the bed-time, creates anxiety and further disturbs sleeping time.
Myth 2: It is good to read books, listen to music or have a drink before sleep.
Reality: All these activities stimulate the brain and impair the quality of sleep. Any drink (alcoholic or non-alcoholic) can disturb sleep. It is rather advised to have a gap of an hour between dinner and bed-time and a light walk can be advised post dinner, that helps sleep
Myth 3: Try and try till you succeed (to sleep)!
Reality: This is a very disturbing mistake all of us make.
SLEEP IS NOT A FIGHT!
Struggle would not help, rather increase the apprehension and further keep you awake. Sleep is a natural process and it needs the body and mind to be at peace.
If you are on bed for a while and still cannot sleep, just get up and out of bed, distract yourself for a while, get fresh, empty your bladder and retire to bed again.
Similarly, if you have got up really early, DO NOT forcibly try to sleep till late. Just get up and start the day. The next night body will compensate your sleep naturally. The above facts are part of SLEEP HYGIENE (Box 1) and especially applicable to those who have chronic sleep disturbances.
Myth 4: Using phones/tabs/laptops on bed when I cannot sleep.
Reality: This is a challenge we face both with the millennials or the Gen-Z. Immediate resorting to technology seems to be the easiest solution to treat insomnia. IT IS NOT! The vicious cycle sets up when every time you are awake, you FEEL THE NEED to check your device for communication, which sets your brain into a continuous ‘alert’ resulting in chronic anxiety, restlessness and sleep disturbance. Once this turns to a pattern, it is very difficult to break.
Myth 5: If you are not able to sleep, try sedatives or alcohol.
Reality: Sedatives (like alprazolam, diazepam, zolpidem, etc.) are some of the most sold over-the-counter drugs. Reasons being many, the most relevant are our own habit, harmful suggestions and decision making, inadequate implementation of legal licensing and often, the lacklustre attitude of the pharmacists.
No one person is to blame here. Any kind of sedative medication, without prescription, might get you sleep for few days but eventually can be habit-forming and addictive, with more and more doses needed to get the desired result.
It can lead to a lot of side effects, long-term damage to the kidney and liver and often sleep tends to be totally dependent on them. The same holds true for any alcoholic beverage, if used solely for sleep.
Myth 6: Older persons should sleep more and better.
Reality: It might sound odd, but this is what I hear most while consulting. Quite contrary to the children, the elderly have more fragmented sleep and poorer sleep quality. They tend to sleep early in the evening and get up early. Also, recurrent naps are more common. This is the normal ageing pattern and does not need any treatment.
Sleep inducing medications should be maximally restricted for them, unless the doctor examines and prescribes them for a reason. Constipation, pain, prostrate problems and uncontrolled diabetes may also contribute to sleep problems in older people.
Myth 7: I can treat every sleep problem myself.
Reality: While sleep hygiene steps, daily exercise and structuring your day can promote sleep – Please consider seeking professional help if your sleep is persistently disturbed (more than 2 weeks) or if your sleeplessness has started to affect your personal/professional life. Neglecting insomnia, over-sleeping, sleep apnoea, excessive snoring, etc. can have serious consequences, which can be avoided through timely treatment.
Ways To Sleep Better
Avoid daytime naps
Bed-time and wake-time should be constant
Use the bed only for sleep
Leave the bed if you don’t get sleep and try later
Avoid caffeine, soft drinks, alcohol or any other brain-stimulating activity before bed-time
Structure your day
Light and early dinner, regular exercise (Yoga/meditation/walking)
Weight and blood pressure control.
Take professional help for persistent sleep-related problems