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Why sleep deprivation is a modern malaise

health-and-fitness Updated: Jul 03, 2010 19:28 IST
Seema Goswami
Seema Goswami
Hindustan Times
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SleepAre you getting enough sleep? More to the point, are you getting enough deep sleep, the kind that really leaves you feeling like all’s well with the world? Or even REM (rapid eye movement) sleep, which marks the time when you dream? When you wake up, is it from a light sleep – which ensures that you are all bright-eyed and bushy-tailed – or from deep sleep, which makes you feel all groggy and grumpy?

You can now get these answers in the privacy of your own bedroom. All you need to do is buy the Zeo Personal Sleep Coach, a headband-type device that you slip over your head before you nod off which evaluates your sleep patterns and sends wireless signals through the night to a small monitor on your bedside table. The next morning, this neat little contraption will tell you how long you slept, what part of this was light sleep, how much deep sleep you managed, how many minutes of REM sleep you clocked up, and whether you woke up out of a light or deep sleep.

The idea presumably is that you can use this information to improve the quality of your sleep – and by extension, the quality of your life. Because, as it turns out, sleep is really, really important to our lives. Our bodies repair themselves as we sleep, our cells rejuvenate, our systems reboot and recharge and our minds get refreshed. Miss out on your sleep and you could be setting yourself up for a mighty fall, both in physical and emotional terms.

The sleep-deprived are more likely to over-eat because it takes more calories for them to feel satiated. They crave carbohydrates more than those who have had a good night’s rest. They are at greater risk of obesity because lack of sleep also contributes to hormonal changes that can cause weight gain. They are, therefore, more likely to develop diabetes and are at greater risk of suffering a heart attack.

And that’s just the long-term effects. On a day-to-day basis, those who don’t get enough sleep cannot perform routine tasks at optimum levels because their concentration is shot to hell. This can have especially dangerous consequences if they are doing things like operating heavy machinery, driving along a busy highway or – the nightmare to beat all others – piloting an airplane. At an emotional level, lack of sleep can make people irritable, anti-social, short-tempered, disgruntled, and at extreme levels, can even lead to depression. And then there’s the embarrassment inherent in nodding off at that all-important client meeting.

So, all things considered, lack of sleep is a dangerous thing. And yet, sleep deprivation is a fact of life, a very modern malaise that affects all of us. And yes, I do mean all of us.

There are the obvious candidates, of course. Mothers of young babies, who need to be fed, burped and changed every couple of hours, can go for months, sometimes even years, without a good night’s sleep. People who work night shifts on a rotating basis often have trouble adjusting to new sleep cycles every fortnight or so. Party animals who carouse late into the night, drinking and dancing (though, on the whole, they make it up by sleeping late into the afternoon). Students cramming for exams who tend to take a little pharmaceutical help when they need to study until the early hours of the morning. And let’s not even get into bonafide insomniac territory, where people just cannot fall asleep no matter how many sheep they count. But sleep deprivation is not just restricted to these people. It has become endemic in our times.

Most of us try to cram so much into our days that it is just impossible to schedule around eight hours of sleep as well. And medical researchers are now agreed that this is how much sleep we need – except for those genetic marvels who have some sort of gene mutation that means that they can get by with a scant four to five hours. But what with full-time jobs, caring for children and elderly parents, having an active social life, keeping up with all the soaps on TV and hitting the gym first thing in the morning, sometimes the first thing that gets sacrificed is sleep.

I guess it all began with the invention of electric lights, which allowed people to stay up later and later into the night. If you no longer had to struggle to see beyond your nose by the dim light of a few candles or a couple of oil lamps, then there was much more incentive to stay up late, to say, read in bed or even work on your office accounts.

The advent of TV, not to mention the entry of the television set in the bedroom, has made us even more nocturnal creatures than before. Rare is the modern family which does not settle down in bed after dinner for an hour or three of TV viewing. And the Internet has made matters even worse, given the addictive quality to Net surfing. Bung in a couple of Blackberries into the mix, with their ready access to Facebook and Twitter, and you can bid goodbye to a good night’s rest. All of which has led us to becoming a generation that is chronically sleep-deprived. And I think it’s about time we started to lose some sleep over this.

Follow Seema on Twitter at twitter.com/seemagoswami