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Combatting Sleep Debt
by Dr. Anjana Maitra

Sleep has been ascribed as “the castle of indolence” and the “thief of time”. As more and more people realize the precious value of time, they scrimp on their sleep in an effort to ‘save’ time. But is this wise? No, say experts. Habitual reduction in your sleeping hours may lead to serious ailments and even cost your life.
 
Sleep is natural to our body. A normal person spends approximately 33% of his life in sleep, though the duration, quality and requirement of sleep varies from individual to individual. While a baby requires 10-20 hours of sleep daily, an adult requires an average of 7-8 hours.
 
Why is sleep important? 

It is during sleep that the body refills the ether (‘akaash’) element from the atmosphere which is berthed in the tiny inter cellular spaces of our body. It is one of the five elements the body is made of (the others being air, fire, water and earth). This element removes fatigue.
 
What really makes for sound sleep? Sleep is not a uniform state of rest. Sleep cycles alternate between Rapid Eye Movement (REM), the phase when dreams come true, and non-REM, and both are essential to washing away the day’s worries in the sea of dreams. This, however, is only achieved if your sleep cycles remain undisturbed.
 
A natural rhythm in our body begins in the evening, when the pineal gland in the brain releases melatonin, a hormone signaling that its bedtime. As the head hits the pillow, breathing slows and the brain relaxes. The body has three stages of waking, dreaming and deep sleep. A healthy body falls asleep quickly. If it takes you long to fall asleep, then in all probability your body and mind are not perfectly OK. Their health will have to be re established. If your sleep is full of dreams, it indicates restlessness of the mind.
 
One of the main causes of ill health in modern times is the accumulation of sleep debt like gamblers raking up IOUs. Most people try to save on their sleeping time in order to gain an extra hour or hours for other pending work. Students often sleep less during exam time in order to get more time to study. The beginning of man’s sleep deficit crisis can be traced back to the invention of the electric bulb over a century ago. Prior to this, man had nothing to do in the evenings back in the villages after dark and would go off to sleep.
 
Most people know that lack of sleep makes them grouchy. But they are dangerously unaware of the risks to their health. Just one bad night’s sleep can make a person less efficient in mental tasks. Students are advised to sleep properly the night before their exams. The effects of sleep are cumulative. A person who chronically sleeps 90 minutes less per night than is necessary will start feeling more and more worse. By the fifth night he will have lost 7.5 hours or virtually a whole night’s sleep.
 
Sleep debt can lead to a number of problems. Recent research shows that sleep is the third essential component of a long and healthy life, apart from a good diet and regular exercise. Sleep is as essential for life as food is. Prolonged sleeplessness is marked by the reduction of mental concentration. If one is prevented from sleeping for a long time, his nerve cells will gradually shrink and he will soon die. One of the ancient forms of torture was not to let a prisoner sleep.
 
Though scientists have not been able to pinpoint the exact usefulness of sleep for individuals it is amply clear that everybody needs sleep after the day’s activity. Our body gets rest during sleep and our brain re arranges and re adjusts the various activities which have occurred in the body during the day. During sleep he is cut off from the environment, the thresholds for various sensory stimuli are raised; respiration, heart rate and metabolism slow down; blood pressure and body temperature fall and respiration becomes deeper.
 
Several terrible disasters have resulted from human errors caused by lack of sleep. Thousands of motor vehicle, rail and airline accidents can be traced to this, not to mention the increased risk of several serious illnesses. According to doctors, drowsiness is an urgent warning that should not be ignored, particularly in situations where dozing, inattention or impaired performance can lead to a catastrophe.
 
Sleep deprivation is usually associated with deterioration in learning, memory, capacity of judgment, restlessness and loss of concentration. If sleep deprivation is more prolonged then tremors, change in voice, excessive blinking of eyelids etc., can occur along with increase in heart rate and blood pressure.
 
Sleep debt can also have adverse effect on your looks. It can manifest itself in problems like eczema. Often stress triggers formation of pimples in someone, who never had them before, or aggravates a pre existing condition. Lack of proper sleep gives rise to ugly dark circles under the eyes, makes the eyes look puffy and may even lead to hair fall.
 
A good night’s sleep will leave you looking rested, with a glow to your skin and a shine in your hair. Sleep is a restorative process and creates drastic changes in the immune and endocrine systems. Sleep rejuvenates the skin – wrinkles and lines become less noticeable.
 
The blood with the surfeit of hormones flowing uninterrupted in it during sleep, replenishes your skin with nutrients needed for damage repair. Sleep allows muscles to rest and replenish their energy stores. This also influences the posture of the person and straightens it out.
 
Recent research has shown that a nap can boost your alertness. The hours between 1 and 3 PM, worldwide siesta time, are good for a shut eye. A short nap – upto 30 minutes works best. Researchers have found evidence that napping improves performance in the workplace and re vitalizes the person, no wonder its called a “power nap”.
 
Thus it is sleep that “knits up the sleeve of raveled care”, as Shakespeare put it. Sleeping is a very important part of our life and should not be ignored at any cost. Sleep re settles us emotionally, cognitively and immunologically. Nothing recharges flagging energy levels better than sleep. It is the best way to be one up on Father Time. 
 

3-Jul-2011
 
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