The Last Letter
Simply Said

The Last Letter

Dr. Rajesh Prabhakaran

With a history dating back to almost four thousand years, Samarkand in modern day Uzbekistan is one of the oldest cities in Central Asia. The city reached its glory as the capital city of the Timurid Empire built by Tamerlane. Eventually Tamerlane was put to sleep forever in Samarkand and as per the old saying “who so ever disturbs his tomb will bring destruction upon his house”. On 22nd of June, 1941 it is alleged that a group of Russian archaeologists opened Tamerlane’s tomb and as the timeline of world war history proves, a few hours later Hitler invaded the erstwhile Soviet Union.

It’s been almost eight decades since, and in a modern world united by the ‘beautiful game’, Germans were back in Russia to play FIFA World Cup. In the words of former England striker Gary Lineker, "Football is a simple game; 22 men chase a ball for 90 minutes and at the end, the Germans win”. But in 2018, it seems destiny had other plans. But, for the Indian fan, ever since the emergence of the television era that coincided with the Maradona magic of 1986, there is one thing that is common to most soccer world cups. Thanks to those odd time zones and late night matches, every four years we have a sleep deprived month.

Sleep evolution

To explore sleep, let's go back in time. Life evolved under conditions of light followed by darkness. Plants and animals developed their own internal clocks so that they would be ready for these changes in light; in humans we call it the ‘body clock’. We evolved as a species near the equator, and hence are very well-equipped to deal with 12 hours of daylight and 12 hours of darkness. Further adaptation followed as we started making our way to those parts of the planet where there is perpetual daylight in summer or eternal darkness in winter.

Sleep is our single most important behavioral experience. So much that someone living for 85 years would have ideally spent about 30 years for sleep. Intuitively, we all realize that sleep clears our mind. When we don't get deep sleep, it inhibits our ability to learn and for our cells and bodies to recover. Deep sleep is how we convert all those day time interactions into our long-term memory. Neuroscientists would classify sleep as a time of intense neurological activity; rich time of renewal, memory consolidation, neurochemical cleansing and cognitive maintenance.

Sleep meter

Despite being one of the most important aspects of life, sleep is also one of the least understood. Normally, the pineal gland buried in our brain releases a hormone called melatonin at night that makes us feel sleepy. Recommended average sleep time for an adult is about eight hours. Because so much learning is happening at a fast pace in the adolescent brains, teenagers need more sleep (about nine hours) than the other older and younger members of the household. The recent decades have also witnessed an increase in the number of women at workplace. But the fact remains that those long hours have not much diluted their responsibilities at housework which have resulted in women making more withdrawal from the sleep bank.

Data shows that people from Asian countries tend to get much lesser sleep compared to Europe and America. Indians are one of the poorest sleepers in the world, clocking in an average 6.55 hours. A recent study revealed startling figures that nearly 93% of Indians are sleep-deprived. The more worrisome part is that most people are not even aware of their condition and only about 2% discuss their sleep issues with physicians.

Costly affair

There’s a modern day illness that affects almost two third of adults. It may present as diseases of heart, lung or kidney, loss of appetite, weight gain, mood fluctuations, low reaction time, less tolerance to pain, depression, diabetes or even some form of cancer. This illness in simple terms may be called ‘lack of sleep’. Results from investigations that followed disasters like Chernobyl nuclear plant and Challenger space shuttle were also attributed to poor human judgment resulting from lack of sleep. Some estimates have put the total annual cost of sleep deprivation to the US economy at more than $63 billion. Another effect of sleep deprivation is ‘micro-sleep’ which is a temporary episode of sleep that may last from a fraction of a second for up to 30 seconds. Almost 31% of drivers fall asleep at the wheel at least once in their lives making micro-sleep not just embarrassing, but deadly too.

Light troubles

Sleep quality has declined dramatically in the past half century and more so in the last two decades. While there may be a multitude of reasons for this, leading the list is our increasing usage of smartphones, e-readers and other light emitting devices. In her book ‘Sleep revolution’, Arianna Huffington mentions that 95% of adults use a light emitting electronic device in the hour before bed, and 60% of adults keep their phones next to them while sleeping. When blue light hits the eyes, the pineal gland stops producing melatonin and as a result our body is fooled into thinking its day time, thereby keeping sleep at bay. While experts recommend various dietary and lifestyle modifications to help induce better sleep, we could do no harm by turning off all those things that are likely to excite the brain. Shall we begin with switching off the smart screens at least an hour before hitting the bed?

‘ZZZ’… ironically, it’s the last letter of English alphabet that indicates sleep. Hopefully, sleep will be higher up the ladder of our priorities.

Post-script: When advised to skip one of those late night matches due to an exam the very next day, without batting an eyelid, my son retorted, “Exams come every month, but for next world cup we have to wait for four years”. In these times of soccer mania, I would rather sleep over his comment before attempting to reply.

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The author is Co-founder & Director @ BioQuest Solutions Pvt. Ltd, a Bangalore based MNC that has been partnering with clients across the life-sciences knowledge value chain since 2005.

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