We have all heard the phrase ‘sleep like a baby’.
In today’s pandemic times, and actually even before, the phrase has lost its relevance as we increasingly become trapped in our addictions to check screens, be it our smartphones or our laptops and TV. When, in human history, have we ached so much for sleep and unconsciousness? Why do most of us suffer from a sleepless epidemic, with around one in three of us sleeping badly and one in 10 having regular insomnia?
According to the Global Wellness Trends 2020 Report, the reason is that our urban modern lives defy the basic facts of circadian biology. Nearly all organisms, including humans, have internal daily clocks (circadian rhythms) that control almost every biological system in our bodies, from our sleep-wake cycles and mood and performance patterns to our metabolic, immune and reproductive systems. The bedrock of circadian science is that exposure to regular light-dark cycles provides the daily “time cues” needed to reset our circadian clocks every single day. We need the sun’s bright blue light in the day to be alert and active, and we need the soothing dark to kick-start our brain’s sleep mode and recovery.
The report further states that people today have never been exposed to so much disruption to their circadian rhythms, such as the glaring disconnect between natural solar time and our social “clocks.” Result: Disturbed sleep patterns.
The blue light effect
According to the Sleep Foundation, electronic devices emit an artificial blue light that can suppress the release of the body’s sleep-inducing hormone, melatonin. The more time we spend in front of an electronic device, especially in the evening, the greater the delay in the release of melatonin, making sleep a challenge.
Come dusk and we torture our eyes with bright blue light from addictive screens – Netflix, Whatsapp messages, Zoom calls, Google Duo etc tricking our brains into thinking it’s still daytime.
Covid-19 and the consequent need to Work From Home (WFH) has made matters worse.
According to the Wellness Report, while 20 per cent of people are nightshift workers, reversing their day-night behaviour, fifty per cent of the world’s workforce works remotely at least half the week, part of “always-on” work culture that compels a further disconnect from natural cycles. Ours is a 24/7 culture and we’re tied to desks. We are literally living a “lightmare.”
As Dr Steven Lockley, associate professor of medicine at Harvard and one of the world’s top experts on circadian rhythms and sleep, puts it, “The absolute key to healthy sleep and circadian rhythms is stable, regularly-timed daily light and dark exposure - our natural daily time cues. Sleep negates light input to the brain, and so keeping a regular sleep pattern will also help maintain regular light-dark exposure.”
That is why, after dusk, when natural light disappears, it is necessary to minimise the negative impact of man-made light, especially blue-enriched indoor light emitted by our TV and phone screens. Given that most of our body systems express circadian rhythms, ensuring proper alignment of our internal circadian clocks, starting with the management of lighting, will have major impacts on human health. Over time, sleep deprivation can even lead to symptoms of depression.
According to Tasneem Patel, a leading fitness expert in Mumbai, this is a growing malady. The first thing we do when we get up is check our phones. Social Media texting and sharing on Whatsapp, Instagram, Facebook have become such an integral part of our lives that even when we are sitting idle, our hands go to our phones to check if there is any message or post - the fear of missing out makes us do this. She says, “At the back of our minds we know it is not that important but our brains are directing us to check out. Because of Covid-19 restrictions, older people cannot go for their walks so they are glued to the TV screens. So the brain is always in a constant mode of alertness and is not getting the rest it deserves. For good sleep, the brain needs quietening.”
She suggests head massages using a mixture of shea butter, jata masi and amlaki oils, which are all brain quietening agents. “These relax the brain and induce sleep. Our clients have told us that this helps them a lot in sleeping well. Shirodhara is also very helpful in relaxing the brain and during the pandemic, demand for this Ayurvedic oil treatment has grown a lot,” she adds.
Lifestyle changes will help.
Follow a strict device discipline, reducing the number of times you check the phone.
If using a desktop or laptop, give yourself breaks of 20 minutes and move around.
Take meditation breaks as well.
Couples who are working from home can give each other light head massages during breaks.
Try to take your breaks together.
Self impose a digital curfew one or two hours before sleep time.
Rubbing Lavender oil on the soles of your feet just before sleeping, listening to soothing music or chants are helpful in preparing your brain for the switch off.
Scientific research is clear that sleep is essential at any age.
Sleep powers the mind, restores the body, and fortifies virtually every system in the body. Needless to say, during a pandemic like the one we are facing today, sleep helps build immunity.
We need to make hard behaviour changes and stop lighting up our nights with screens. A digital detox is absolutely key to getting high-quality, restorative sleep. We need to adapt work and school schedules respecting solar time, seasons and age chronotypes. We need to address the lightmare exploding in our increasingly urban world and find ways to turn off our screens.