Sleep : A non-negotiable biological necessity

Dr Meesha Haorongbam
It has been rightly said that a good night’s sleep is the best bridge between despair and hope. In fact, sleep is the single most effective thing we can do to reset our brain and body health each day. Sleep is a basic biological function and it is something we spend a third of our lives doing. Simply put, sleep is an essential function that allows our body to recharge and leaves us refreshed and alert when we wake up. So why do we sleep ? The brain, like every other organ in our body, creates waste products in the course of performing numerous tasks during our wakeful state. These waste products have to be eliminated routinely in much the same way we dispose of waste products from our households daily. During sleep our brain goes into cleaning mode and it is during sleep that the wastes are cleared. This effectively recharges our brain and prepares our body for the day ahead.
Contrary to popular beliefs, our brain isn’t at rest while we’re sleeping. Numerous parts of the brain are continuously working in a complex and beautifully synchronized orchestra to keep the entire body running.  Even during sleep! In fact some parts of the brain are 30% more active when a person is sleeping.
Sleep is highly beneficial for our body and mind. Sleep has many important functions which include, but are not limited to:
1. Sleeps boosts our immune system and helps prevent and fight off infections.
2. It increases our emotional well being
3. It helps increase concentration
4. It helps modulate growth hormones and various other hormones
5. It helps in memory and learning. We need sleep before learning to prepare our brain to soak up information and we need sleep after learning to essentially hit on the save button so we don’t forget.
Artificial light has made 24 hours of work and productivity possible. But it has come at the terrible cost of our circadian rhythm and our body’s need for sleep. Circadian rhythm dictates our energy needs throughout the day and a disturbed circadian rhythm creates havoc in our body and mind. Lack of sleep, not just in terms of quantity but also quality is hazardous for us. Sleep deprivation has been linked to hypertension, diabetes, obesity, heart diseases, stroke, and Alzheimer’s. It biologically ages a person at a faster rate.  It also makes us prone to anger and anxiety and makes us take risky, rash decisions. Lack of sleep decreases our ability to identify social cues and our ability to show empathy. It also decreases concentration and memory as our brain become water-logged in the absence of sleep and is unable to absorb new memories.
So important is sleep in our normal functioning that sleep disturbance is often reported to be one of the earliest symptoms in many medical conditions and psychiatric disorders such as COPD, GERD, depression, bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, substance use disorders, etc. Sleep disorders such as insomnia, parasomnias, circadian rhythm sleep-wake disorders, sleep-related breathing disorders etc require specialised treatment by a specialist.
Self medicating without consulting a healthcare professional is never advisable as sleeping pills are blunt instruments that do not produce naturalistic sleep.
What we can do, meanwhile, is follow healthy sleep practices (also known as sleep hygiene):
1. Get up at the same time daily (Yes, that means on weekends too!)
2. Exercise regularly but avoid vigorous exercise 3-4 hours before bedtime
3. Make sure to have a comfortable sleep environment, free from light and noise
4. Limit caffeine, alcohol, and nicotine
5. Use bed only for sleep
6. Avoid naps. If you can’t make in through the day without a nap, make sure it is for less than an hour and before 3 pm.
7. No clock-watching. Frequently checking the clock during the night can wake you up and reinforce negative thoughts
8. Having a hot bath 30-60 mins before bedtime can be useful as it will raise your body temperature, causing you to feel sleepy as your body temperature drops again.
9. Go to bed when you actually feel tired and sleepy, rather than spending too much time awake in bed.
10. Spending at least 30 mins daily in natural daylight can do wonders for your circadian rhythm.
Adequate sleep is as important as eating right or exercises, if not more. After all it is a non-negotiable necessity.
The writer can be reached at [email protected]