Superstar Amitabh Bachchan has often stated that he needs only four hours of sleep a day. Is he a go-getter with tremendous energy or just sleep deprived like the average Indian urbanite? According to a 2005 study by AC Nielsen, global marketing research firm, Indians are among the most sleep deprived people. A whopping 46 percent said they slept less than six hours a night, and that long work hours were responsible for changing their sleep schedules.

Importance of good sleep

Sleep typically follows a pattern of four stages:

  1. Light sleep where the smallest sound can wake the person.
  2. Deeper sleep where a loud sound is still likely to break sleep.
  3. Deep sleep – with relaxed muscles, slower heart rate, lowered blood pressure and steady, even breathing – from which it is not easy to wake.
  4. (REM) sleep or the “dream stage” – where blood pressure, heart rate, and brain activity speeds up – from which waking up is very difficult.

Research shows that deep REM sleep helps the body and mind to wake up fresh and alert. Inadequate sleep starts to build up a “good sleep debt” and makes your body yearn for more.

Sleep deprivation

Scientists today agree that eight hours is not the rule as individual requirements differ. Even so, adequate sleep is crucial.

Growth hormones secreted during the REM stage are especially important for children and people recovering from wounds or surgery.  REM sleep is also linked to memory and learning.

Deprivation leads to chronic sleep disorders such as insomnia (disturbed or broken sleep), sleep apnea (snoring), narcolepsy (falling asleep spontaneously) and restless leg syndrome (sensations in legs or arms like burning, itching, or tickling during sleep). Apart from depression and anxiety, studies show that sleep deprivation is linked to conditions such as cancer, heart disease, diabetes and obesity.

Sleep deprivation can also affect judgment, impulses, reaction time, hand-eye coordination and attention span, all with potentially grave consequences.

Even if you are sleeping enough hours, the quality of your sleep may not be good enough. This could be because your internal circadian clock is adjusted to ensure sleep between midnight and six am. Re-setting the body clocks can drastically affect sleep quality.  For example, if you sleep at 3 am you will most likely go directly into REM sleep.  Then, even if you sleep for seven hours straight, you are unlikely to wake up refreshed.

Not surprisingly, studies show that almost 30 percent of night shift workers fall asleep on the job. They also find it difficult to sleep during the day, even though they are tired.

Sleeping well

If you wake up feeling refreshed, you are probably getting adequate sleep. On the other hand, these symptoms signal a sleep problem:

  1. Forgetting things, including important events.
  2. Feeling groggy or irritable.
  3. Having trouble concentrating and staying focused.
  4. Falling into deep sleep few minutes after hitting the bed.
  5. “Nodding off” during the day.

Sleep hygiene tips

These are some things you can do to improve the quality of your sleep:

  1. Adjust your body clock. Make a habit of sleeping at a particular time every day. Strictly avoid late nights, whether for work or to party.
  2. Get regular. One of the best way to train your body to sleep well is to go to bed and get up at more or less the same time every day, even on weekends and days of!
  3. Get up & try again. If you haven’t been able to get to sleep after about 20 minutes or more, get up and do something calming or boring until you feel sleepy, then return to bed and try again. Sit quietly on the couch with the lights off (bring light will tell your brain that it is time to wake up), or read something boring like the phone book. Avoid doing anything that is too stimulating or interesting, as this will wake you up even more.
  4. Avoid caffeine & nicotine. It is best to avoid consuming any caffeine (in coffee, tea, cola drinks, chocolate, and some medications) or nicotine (cigarettes) for at least 4-6 hours before going to bed. These substances act as stimulants and interfere with the ability to fall asleep
  5. Exercise early. Avoid exercising close to your sleeping time as it can arouse you and prevent good sleep. Yoga asanas or pranayam specially designed to combat insomnia are fine however.
  6. Eat right. A light dinner will make it easier to fall asleep. Avoid alcohol or caffeinated drinks before bedtime as this could lead to insomnia. Sugar in any form (desserts, colas) may cause havoc with brain chemistry and interfere with sleep. Milk is a good relaxant as it contains the chemical tryptophan, which acts as a natural sleep inducer.
  7. Sleep rituals. You can develop your own rituals of things to remind your body that it is time to sleep- changing clothes, having a shower, making your bed, dimming the room lights- are all signals your brain will learn to associate with “now it’s sleep time”
  8. Bed is for sleeping. Try not to use your bed for anything other than sleeping and sex, so that your body comes to associate bed with sleep. If you use bad as a place to watch TV, eat, read, work on your laptop, pay bills, and other things, your body will not learn this connection.
  9. No naps. It is best to avoid taking naps during the day, to make sure that you are tired at bedtime. If you can’t make it through the day without a nap, make sure it is for only 10 minutes.
  10. Deal with stress. Stress affects the neurotransmitter serotonin, which controls the body clock and thus affects sleep. If you cannot fall asleep within 10 to 15 minutes, instead of worrying or checking the time, get out of bed and tackle the cause of your worry – for instance, by jotting down ideas about an upcoming project. You’ll find it easier to go back to sleep!
  11. Keep daytime routine the same. Even if you have a bed night sleep and are tired it is important that you try to keep your daytime activities the same as you had planned. That is, don’t avoid activities because you feel tired. This can reinforce the insomnia.

This post originally appeared in the Practo.