Welcome to life in the Swiggy & Netflix world. A world where you have more conveniences than ever before. But also a world where your life seems busier than ever before. And more tiring.
The demands on your time seem endless. Long days at work, daily commutes, catching-up on news, social media, your seemingly endless list of whatsapp groups, spending time with family and friends, some chores at home, helping the kids with some homework, some TV etc. If that isn't enough, there is always the backlog of things that you never seem to get time to do, like a walk or a workout or that book you’ve been meaning to read. Even though the day is spent mostly sitting and staring at screens, it’s somehow exhausting. Before you know it, the day is gone and you feel like you’re in low-battery mode and in need of a recharge. At some point you’ve got to go to bed, and so you do.
Sleep follows. Or does it?
Are you happy with your sleep?
Do you fall asleep quickly?
Are you lying in bed and thinking of the day or what's ahead tomorrow?
Do you get anxious when you cannot sleep?
Do you sleep without interruptions?
Do you wake up in the middle of the night and find that you cannot fall back asleep?
When you wake up, do you feel rested or tired?
Do you get enough sleep?
It’s likely you answered ‘No’ to at least one of the above questions. I certainly did.
I find that I am often unable to fall asleep as I am still thinking about things that happened during the day or that last news headline I read disturbed me or sometimes for no reason at all (and counting sheep does not help, I’ve tried).
Sleep is becoming a popular topic these days. And rightly so. If you’re reading this, you probably realise the importance of sleep and are looking for ways to get it right.
But we seem to think of sleep as something that just happens. The body is supposed to do this thing called sleeping whenever it is that we decide that we’re done for the day and go lie down on our bed. That could be 10 pm today, 1 am tomorrow or something else.
There’s just one problem: that’s not how the body works.
Your body does not know when you’re done for the day. You need to speak to it in a way that it understands and that will help you ease into a good night of restful sleep. And there’s a language - a rhythm, that your body recognises very well.
Your body has an internal clock.
It’s called the Circadian rhythm.
Your circadian rhythm is basically a 24-hour internal clock that is running in the background of your brain. It affects the daily rhythm of many processes in your body. It’s also known as your sleep/wake cycle.
As humans, we’ve developed our sleep/wake cycle over millions of years, so it's important to understand it, respect it and use it to your advantage.
The diagram below depicts the circadian patterns typical of someone who rises early in the morning, eats lunch around noon, and sleeps at night (10 pm). The exact times of your circadian rhythm will vary on many factors, which we will discuss in this article.
Image: “The Body Clock Guide to Better Health” by Michael Smolensky and Lynne Lamberg; Henry Holt and Company, Publishers (2000)
You’ll see that the diagram above has times over a 24hr day.
How does your body know what time it is in order to set your circadian rhythm?
Your body pieces this together based on various clues that it receives from you and your environment.
The main factors that set your circadian rhythm are:
- Light: all light whether natural (sunlight) or artificial (office and home lighting, lights from bright displays like a TV, tablet or phone). Light is the most important signal your body uses to set your sleep/wake cycle.
- Your habits: your daily schedule and the order in which you perform tasks.
- Ambient temperature: the temperature in your home and bedroom.
- Meal times: when you have your last meal.
- Stress levels.
Even as recently as 15-20 years ago, it was typical for people to wake up around sunrise and then go to bed soon after sunset. You will find that this is still the case in not-so-developed parts of the world (like some rural areas). In fact, if you were to holiday anywhere with poor network connectivity, you will find that you fall asleep much earlier than you would in your big-city home. Why? Because these environments are very similar to the ones we evolved in and where our sleep/wake cycle is largely set by the rising and setting of the sun.
Holidays to remote places are the few rare occasions when we allow our body to revert to its natural state and follow the sleep/wake cycle that it knows and craves. Today's Swiggy & Netflix world is set up to disrupt this cycle too often and that in turn causes problems with both our physical and mental well-being.
3 reasons our sleep/wake cycle breaks
Reason 1: Too much light
Light is one of the biggest factors influencing our sleep/wake cycle. There are certain situations where this influence remains very strong even today. If you’ve ever been to a conference where they dim the lights, you’ll notice that you (and possibly many others) will fall asleep or struggle to stay awake. There you are in the middle of the day, struggling to keep your eyes open. Even coffee does not help.
What is going on?
Why do we fall asleep when the lights are dim?
It’s your body’s natural reaction to dim lights. When the light entering your eyes dims, it signals the body to produce melatonin, a hormone that causes drowsiness and helps you ease into sleep. Your body is meant to put you to sleep when the lights dim, which for most of our evolution happened at sunset.
For millions of years, humans and our ancestors have evolved to sleep at night (when it is dark) and wake during the day (when it is light). However, in the modern world, we work indoors all day, often in areas that are darker than the outside world. And then, at night, we look at bright screens and televisions. Low light during the day, more light at night: It’s the opposite of naturally occurring cycles.
The result? There is no way for your body to tell when it’s time to sleep or wake up, i.e. a broken circadian rhythm.
Reason 2: Taking your anxieties to bed
It’s likely that your days are hectic and that you're swamped with a lot of new information - developments at work, news about family or friends, social media updates, the latest news and more. You will naturally have an emotional response to a lot of this (eg worry, frustration, anticipation) and your brain will process this information for a while. If you go to bed with your mind racing from all of this, you’ll find yourself anxious, restless and unable to sleep.
The result is poor sleep and over a period of time it will break your sleep/wake cycle.
Reason 3: Your habits
Your circadian rhythm works best when you have regular sleep habits, like going to bed at night and waking up in the morning around the same times from day to day. When things get in the way, like a late night TV session or jet lag, you can disrupt your circadian rhythm.
Your body craves a routine. It takes clues from your habits to determine whether you’re ready for bed. But when you keep it guessing and keep throwing new things its way - like a late night coffee, an ice cream at midnight, sleep at a different time each day or an unplanned intense exercise session, it’s clueless about when it’s time to sleep.
You disrupt your sleep/wake cycle.
The cost of a broken sleep/wake cycle
A sleep/wake cycle that is broken results in insufficient and poor sleep. This means that your body is unable to carry out a number of tasks that are essential for your physical and mental health and that it can only undertake during sleep.
The result? The cost of all those sleepless nights is more than just bad moods and extra coffee. Here’s some of the consequences that we’ve learned about from the sleep research till date:
- Fatigue, short temper and lack of focus.
- Difficulty in concentrating and making decisions.
- Higher risk of injury and accidents.
- Increased rates of heart attacks, strokes, obesity and other diseases.
Neglecting sleep undercuts your creativity, problem solving, decision-making, learning, memory, heart health, brain health, mental health, emotional well-being, immune system, and even your life span. Recent research has shown that sleep deprivation has the same effect on your brain as drinking too much alcohol, which might explain the lapses in memory and difficulties in concentration that arise from poor sleep. It's now clear from the scientific evidence that a good night's sleep on a regular basis is essential for a long and healthy life.
This means keeping your sleep/wake cycle intact, or acting now to restore it.
How can you do this?
Have a ‘power down’ ritual
You need to prepare your body for sleep. Think of it as a gradual slowing down for the day.
Most of us often hit the bed while still carrying ‘baggage’ from everything that’s happened during the day. Your mind is still racing, which keeps your stress levels high and prevents your mind from calming down. Then there’s all the bright lights around you at home or from electronic devices.
With all this going on, you’re just not allowing your body to power down and ease into sleep.
If ever there was a routine required, it’s in the crucial last hour before you hit the bed. The body loves ritual. The entire circadian diagram you saw earlier is one big, daily routine.
So it’s important that you establish and maintain a set of actions that help you power down for the day, both physically and mentally. The main purpose of this ‘power down’ ritual is to make it clear to your body that you’re done for the day and you are starting to wind down. This also means that you need to be consistent and have the same ritual each day. If you’re a parent, you know that this works like a charm with babies. It works just as well on adults too.
It does not need to be anything elaborate. I’m talking about 3-5 things that are always the last things you do each day, every day.
Here are the specific actions I would suggest as part of a daily power down ritual.
Feel free to save this infographic for reference.
It need not be these exact steps, the above is meant to give you an idea of what a power down ritual looks like. The more of these you can add, the better. Here’s my ‘power down’ ritual:
- Last coffee before 5pm.
- 30 mins before bed - final check on news feeds.
- 20 mins before bed: I’ll dim the lights in my study and stretch for 10-12 mins. It’s very relaxing and I get some stretches done that help undo some of the effects of sitting all day.
- 5 mins before: I’ll brush my teeth.
- When I go to bed: I set the room temperature to 24 degrees. It’s pitch black. I switch data and wi-fi on my phone off.
- In the morning: I wake up, brush my teeth and open the curtains to let some sunlight into the bedroom.
Keep it simple and most importantly, get started. It might take some practice and a few changes before you find the ritual that works well for you.
A few important points to note:
How much is enough? I couldn't possibly write an article on sleep without dealing with this. You need to aim for 7hrs or more on average. For those who’ve been getting by with far less, no, you’re not special. Your body is coping and it is costing you. You just don’t know it as yet. Please don’t wait to find out, get your 7 hrs.
Stick to a regular schedule. This is worth repeating - your body loves routine. Go to bed and wake up around the same time each day. If your days seem unstructured, doing this one thing adds a structure to about a third of your day.
Use relaxation techniques. Researchers believe that at least 50 percent of insomnia cases are emotion or stress related. Find outlets to reduce your stress and you'll often find that better sleep comes as a result. Proven methods include daily journaling, deep breathing exercises, meditation, light exercise and keeping a gratitude journal (write down something you are thankful for each day).
Did you know?
Being overweight or obese can also wreak havoc on your sleep patterns.
It could also put you at risk for conditions like sleep apnea (a potentially serious sleep disorder in which breathing repeatedly stops and starts). This is a vicious cycle as poor sleep in turn can result in poor eating habits and affect your metabolism.
Getting to a healthy weight and staying there is only possible if you fix your sleeping habits and restore your sleep/wake cycle. It’s not just diet and exercise, sleep is also a critical part of the solution. Sadly, it’s rarely considered in a proper way and this leads to poor progress and frustration.
We recognise this fully and focus a lot on sleep at the Daily9. Restoring your sleep/wake cycle has many effects, it triggers this chain reaction of good things. When we help people fix their sleep, what we see is:
- sugar cravings go down.
- mental alertness goes up.
- energy levels and productivity go up.
- progress with weight loss.
- eating patterns get better.
- immunity goes up.
The opposite is also true, not fixing your sleep/wake cycle leads to many downstream effects (a chain reaction of bad things) - sugar cravings, low energy levels, mental fogginess, low productivity at work etc. So instead of trying to fix these symptoms, we’re asking you to fix the root cause by restoring your sleep/wake cycle.
You owe it to yourself to develop better sleep habits and a ‘power down’ ritual that works for you. Your body and mind will thank you for it.