Health: Beware! Lack of sleep can kill, expert decodes sleep deprivation

After Pop icon Prince died two weeks back, US and Canadian tabloids said that the artiste had worked for six days without sleep before he was found dead. Can lack of sleep kill?

Mumbai's 38-year-old George Verghese ran a coffee-manufacturing business, and spent between 12 and 15 hours at the office daily. Recently, when he met with an accident where his car rammed into a tempo, it was cause for concern among family and friends. Though there were no severe injuries from the accident, the doctor suggested that the accident was a result of fatigue and sleep deprivation.

Also read - Health: 5 reasons why you should always get a good night's sleep

Prince blows a raspberry at the crowd at a concert at the Bercy venue in Paris on June 15, 1987. Pic/AFP
Prince blows a raspberry at the crowd at a concert at the Bercy venue in Paris on June 15, 1987. Pic/AFP

Verghese admitted to have dozed off at the wheel for a fraction of a second. On April 21, American Pop legend Prince was reported to have gone six days without any sleep before he passed away. Indian celebrities like actor Shahrukh Khan and composer AR Rahman have also had their doctors worry about their irregular sleep patterns. “To have a case where someone has not slept for six to seven days at a stretch is unusual as the body gets exhausted. That is bound to occur when a person is hyper aroused and could occur under the influence of some kind of medication and external stimulus,” says psychiatrist Vahia. “I have read that Prime Minister Narendra Modi requires lesser sleep than prescribed but he is fully functional so sometimes, these norms can vary from person to person,” he adds.Dr Vahia breaks it down for us.

Are you sleep deprived?
An average person spends 55 to 60 hours a week sleeping. This means an average person should spend 30 per cent of their life sleeping. Those above the age of 65 tend to sleep a little less as compared to young adults and adolescents. About six hours of sleep should be in complete darkness. This regulates various body clocks. Any sustained inability to maintain 55-60 hours of sleep is considered abnormal. If the condition continues for more than seven days, it requires serious interpretation. Often, a thoughtful/pensive person finds it tough to sleep. This kind of thoughtfulness usually revolves around dealing with anxiety or depression. Most people take 15-20 minutes to sleep once in bed. If someone has slept as soon as they hit the bed, they are sleep deprived. Even if you wake up at night for a washroom break, you should be able to sleep in 15 minutes after.

Shahrukh Khan
Shahrukh Khan

The cause
>> Real-life stresses, depression, anxiety and brain disorders, consumption of street drugs and lifestyle disorders.
>> Today, the artificial lighting that people working odd shifts or doing long hours in closed places face without exposure to the outdoors result in sensory deprivation also leading to irregular sleep patterns.
>> Mobile phones and tablets  have lead to an avalanche of lifestyle disorders. We must learn to choose important calls and correspondence and not stay wired at all times.

A R Rahman
A R Rahman

The effect
Apart from physical ill health, sleep deprivation affects an individual’s power to think clearly, and make decisions, says Vahia. They become irritable, quarrelsome and impulsive; their attention span reduces; some of them over eat while others don’t eat at all.

Dr Vihang Vahia

Can it be cured?
There are sleep studies that can be used to diagnose non-refreshing sleep patterns wherein a person is physically reported to be asleep but emotionally the person feels like he has not slept at all. Many times, jet lag and even conditions because there is an event occupying your mind at that instant is not a problem.

How to cope?
There is a whole new science called sleep medicine. Psychiatrists used to handle it earlier, but now, there are sleep specialists. It is a sub-specialty within medical specialties, including neurology, pulmonology, internal medicine, and psychiatry. They study conditions like excessive snoring, sleep apnea insomnia, narcolepsy (chronic, uncontrollable daytime sleepiness), and circadian rhythm disorders. Machines called CPAP (Continuous Positive Airway Pressure) are easily available in India now, which can be helpful.

>> Have a fixed wake up time. The time you go to sleep can vary.
>> A significant part of sleep hygiene is not using the bed to rest. You use it for sleep or sex. You should intend to do either of the two. Avoid lying down as this leads to fragmented sleep, says Vahia
>> Avoid food that’s hard to digest just before going to sleep. Follow the Western pattern where you have supper after sundown and consume milk with cream and sugar just before going to bed. It keeps the blood sugar normal.
>> Switch off your brain from too many thoughts and avoid being stimulated by negative and painful thoughts before going to sleep. These are however, short time remedies.
>> A spa treatment and a few yoga techniques can teach you how to calm yourself down.
>> Alcohol and certain sleeping pills cause sleep that is physiologically abnormal and don’t rectify the natural sleep
>> Genetically, humans are built to sleep in the dark and not work till 4 am and sleep in the day. Try to stick to the natural cycle as much as possible.

How Yoga can help
Yoga Nidra which means yogic sleep, is one of the most efficient methods of inducing deep relaxation and thereby, deep sleep. During Yoga Nidra, you need to remain aware but a majority of the times (as a beginner), you tend to doze off. Even though the dozing off is for a short period, it is so deep that we wake up rejuvenated as if we have nourished our sleep deprived / tired body in just a matter of few minutes. People build an aura about being so busy that they can’t see.

Yoga coach Shammi Gupta performs the Yog Nidra
Yoga coach Shammi Gupta performs the Yog Nidra

>> Wear comfortable clothes.
>> Choose a quiet place, preferably dark.
>> Lie down in your most comfortable position (shavasana is the best).
>> Cover your eyes with a towel
>> Move your attention to the crown, exhale and mentally relax your crown as if you are allowing it to collapse onto the floor. Similarly, move your attention to each and every part of your body from the crown to the toes, exhale and relax each part of the body completely. You can witness a remarkable change in your relaxation and sleep patterns with just a few days of this practice. Inputs – Shammi Gupta, senior yoga instructor

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