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The ultimate guide to sleeping better

Forget working 18 hours a day, you need to focus on sleeping for at least nine hours everyday. Lounge speaks to doctors and sleep specialists to tell you how

Sleep like your life depends on it.
Sleep like your life depends on it. (Unsplash/Kate Stone Matheson)

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Sleep is critical for our emotional, mental and physical wellbeing, say doctors and sleep medicine experts. Don’t listen to people who advise you to work 18 hours a day. Doing so flies in the face of needs of the human body. A majority of doctors, health and fitness professionals, mental health and psychology experts and, even, business leaders would recommend you ignore the 18-hour slogging routine and focus on your health and wellbeing instead. Sufficient sleep is crucial to doing so. Once compromised, regaining and rebuilding good health is a lot more difficult than building your career.      

“Sleep cannot be ignored, no matter how hectic our work schedule is,” says Dr. Trideep Kumar Choudhury, consultant psychiatrist at Fortis Healthcare, Delhi. “Sleep is necessary for our healthy functioning and survival and is critical to health like our diet and physical activity.” We need 6 to 8 hours of sleep to function properly, adds Dr. Ashish Kumar Prakash, a respiratory and sleep medicine consultant at Medanta Hospital in Gurugram.

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Moreover, sleep is critical for our ability to think clearly, to be vigilant and alert and sustain attention, says Kumar. “Memories are consolidated during sleep and sleep serves a key role in emotion regulation. Proper sleep at night regulates our blood pressure, decreases stress, which in turn lessens the risk of cardiovascular disease,” he adds, highlighting the risks of not sleeping enough. 

A new study that was published in August also showed that lack of sleep makes us less helpful and altruistic. Researchers found that “reductions in sleep across several nights predict corresponding next-day reductions in the choice to help others during day-to-day interactions.” They also found that even a one-hour loss of sleep reduces real-world altruistic helping through the act of donation giving. “Therefore, inadequate sleep represents a significant influential force determining whether humans choose to help one another, observable across micro- and macroscopic levels of civilised interaction,” they concluded.

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On the physiological side, sleep helps repair the wear and tear in our musculoskeletal system. When we sleep, our cardiac, respiratory, and nervous systems slow down, says Prakash. “The overall internal rhythm of the body slows down… so that the body can relax. Our gastro-intestinal systems, kidneys, bladder relax, and their functioning slows down, conserving energy, repairing the body. This allows us to expend energy when we need it,” he adds. 

Some studies suggest that deep sleep is needed to strengthen our immunity, points out Kumar. A healthy sleep cycle helps the body produce melatonin and prolactin, which have been found to improve the good bacteria in the intestines and help digestion. Proper and adequate sleep can also help keep blood sugar levels under control. Studies suggest that people who sleep less are more likely to have a higher body mass index and develop obesity than those who sleep more, he warns. 

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Of the 6-8 hours of sleep that is needed, more than 20% of it should be deep sleep for a person to wake up feeling refreshed, says Prakash. “Deep sleep is primarily Stage 2 and 3 of our sleep cycle followed by stage 4 which is also known as the REM stage,” he explains. Lack of sleep has plenty of downsides and risks, say experts. Not enough shut eye the previous night manifests itself as excessive fatigue during the day, frequent yawning and irritability. 

People who sleep less display decreased ability to take in new bits of information and to focus attentively on a task, which impairs the ability to judge situations accurately and respond accordingly, says Kumar. “Inadequate sleep can take a toll on our psychological wellbeing too, affecting our emotional and psychosocial interpretation of events and increasing our stress levels. Inadequate sleep increases our tendency to select and remember negative memories, thereby affecting the processing of our emotional memory and thus impact our mood and feelings,” he adds.

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Prakash says exercise is a good way to ensure you sleep well. It tires the body and that helps you doze off faster. He also suggests sticking to a sleep structure, limiting daytime naps and paying attention to what you drink and eat just before hitting the bed. “Most of all, create a restful and comfortable environment for yourself in which you can sleep peacefully… keep it cool, dark and quiet,” he suggests.

How you can sleep better 

Most of sleep issues can be effectively managed if we follow the following tips, says Dr. Trideep Kumar Choudhury, consultant psychiatrist at Fortis Healthcare, Delhi. 

-Train your body to go to bed and wake up at the same time everyday.

-Maintain an appropriate sleeping environment… dark, relaxing, neither too hot nor cold.

-Avoid caffeine and nicotine for at least 4 hours before going to bed.

-Avoid using smartphones or watching TV just before bedtime. The bright light of the screens prevents the secretion of melatonin which is necessary to fall asleep.

-Avoid alcohol for at least 4 hours before going to bed. Many believe it is relaxing but it impacts the quality of sleep.

-A hot bath an hour or two before bedtime can be helpful.

-Don’t use the bed for watching TV, eating, reading or working. Use it only for sleeping.

-Relaxing stretches or breathing exercises for a few minutes before going to bed helps.

-Eating right is important. Feeling hungry can keep you from sleeping. Similarly, a heavy meal before bedtime is detrimental to sleep.

-Regular exercise is helpful but strenuous exercise before bedtime can keep you awake for a while.

Shrenik Avlani is a writer and editor and the co-author of The Shivfit Way, a book on functional fitness.

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