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Improve your sleep quotient

Learn how to wind down so that you do not have to toss and turn in bed, says Jitendra Nagpal.

education Updated: Jun 20, 2012 13:29 IST
Jitendra Nagpal

Few things are more frustrating than not being able to sleep well. You feel restless, your mind races, going over everything that happened in the day! You want to drift off to sleep but cannot. It is a miserable situation, but you can change it.

Sleep is an important resource that keeps us healthy, mentally sharp, and helps us to deal with day-to-day events. Disturbed sleep is sometimes the first sign of chronic stress, and often it is the hardest thing to put right again. Sleep occurs because of the coincidence of two natural forces — the accumulation of a sleep debt or a need to sleep due to a period of prior wakefulness; and a daily physiological urge to sleep that comes as a part of the body’s 24-hour rhythm.

The body organises itself to accomplish specific tasks at set intervals within the 24-hour day. Darkness is the preferred time for sleep and rest. Our body prepares for sleep by orchestrating a complex set of physiological changes that favour activity in daytime and sleep at night. Sleep is certainly a necessity. It is a reparative process for protein synthesis, body structure, bone growth and regeneration and hormone secretion. For many, in these hi-tech, career-oriented fast times, the seemingly simple act of putting head to pillow can be complicated. Slowing down enough to doze off can be difficult for some and nearly impossible for others.

Sleep problems know no age barriers. An affected person will display the symptoms of irritability, forgetfulness, depression and accident-prone behaviour. Everything from accidents, high blood pressure and heart disease can be traced to lack of sleep. For most people, proper sleep time is between seven and eight hours a night. Some need six, others need nine hours of restorative sleep.

Poor quality of sleep first affects memory and what I call executive function: Planning and carrying out actions. Judgment, performance, speed and accuracy of planned activities are all affected. Feeling angry and frustrated while lying awake at night leads to chronic conditional arousal and the sleep problem gets worse.

Some common factors that contribute to lack of sleep are:

People often take their college work home with them, either physically or metaphorically. With today’s demanding study loads, it is difficult to come home from a day in college or university and automatically stop thinking about all the trouble.

Caffeine, alcohol and nicotine:
Lifestyle habits are important factors affecting sleep quality, and the use of caffeine and nicotine are two major culprits that disrupt sleep. They act as stimulants, increasing the production of hormones to raise blood pressure, speed up the heart rate and stimulate brain activity.
Cortisol: This stress hormone is a key player responsible for that jolt of energy you get when you feel stressed or threatened.

A hectic, busy life can rob you of sleep by allowing a sheer lack of time for it. If you find yourself pushing your bedtime back further and further to get things done, or getting up earlier and earlier in the name of productivity (or both), you may feel tired most of the time, but not realise the toll lack of sleep takes.

Anxiety keeps your mind busy as you imagine threatening scenarios and worry about what may happen next.
Prepare for a life with normal sleep patterns. The experience of natural sleep requires observing at least four fundamental habits of good sleep hygiene, and these are:

Sleep seven to eight hours at night and stay awake during the day.
Sleep in a dark, quiet and comfortable location.
Abstain from stimulating or sedating herbs and medicines.
Set a regular sleep schedule. Go to bed and get up each day at the same time. Avoid long naps, especially late in the day.
Establish a bedtime ritual. Take a hot bath, read, listen to peaceful music, relax and unwind.
Separate your study/living space from your sleep place. Avoid working in bed, watching intense TV, or dealing with stressful matters before bedtime.
Create a good sleep environment. Your pillow and mattress should give you comfortable and adequate support.
Avoid heavy meals at bedtime or going to bed hungry.
Exercise, but not within three hours of bedtime.
Practise yoga and/or meditation.