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'You don't need eight hours of sleep a night'

July 19, 2010 16:39 IST

Author of Tired But Wired, Dr Nerina Ramlakhan dispels myths about how much rest you need and suggests ways to cope with pressure.

Here's a health professional who doesn't believe it's how long you sleep, but that it's the quality of your sleep that counts.

Dr Nerina Ramlakhan, an England-based organisational consultant and physiologist, is an expert on human alertness, sleep, memory and productivity. In her book Tired But Wired, she looks at dispelling the eight hour myth and suggests that five hours of core sleep is all you need.

In an e-mail interview, Dr Ramlakhan tells us what constitutes quality sleep and suggests ways to ensure you wake up fully rested:

Why do you believe the concept of eight hour sleep is overrated?

Human beings are designed to be flexible in their sleep requirements. This is a throwback to the caveman days, when it would have been counter-survival to have absolutely needed eight hours of sleep in order to function normally.

We are designed to be able to adapt more. I place more emphasis on the quality of sleep and living life more restfully in general.

Is there a minimum amount of rest one should get each night?

Research indicates that ideally one should get around five hours of 'core' sleep and then an optional (nice to have) further three to five hours. However, the core sleep must constitute enough deep sleep and the right amount of REM (rapid eye movement) sleep.

What constitutes quality sleep?

Deep, refreshing, nourishing sleep interspersed with periods of REM sleep, which we wake up from feeling revitalised on every level -- physically, mentally, emotionally and spiritually.

What are the five most prominent reasons that lead to sleep disorders?

  • Lack of rest during the day.
  • Poor nutrition -- sugary snacks, caffeine, stimulants and alcohol, dehydration
  • Too much exposure to technology -- mobile phones, computers etc
  • Worry and inability to let go of control.
  • Lack of inner safety -- this can be related to lack of spiritual practice

What are the five healthy practices one must follow to get a healthy amount of sleep?

The opposite of all of the above. Learn how to live life more restfully. Eat and drink healthy. Don't be a slave to technology. Nurture your spiritual health.

Is there a diet pattern one must follow to get sound sleep?

Always eat breakfast within 30-45 minutes of rising, try to include protein in each meal (protein is used to make the sleep hormone melatonin) and avoid eating heavily before bedtime. Have a small snack before you go to bed, like a cup of warm milk and drink at least two litres of water every day.

What is the ideal time to indulge in exercises -- like gymming, swimming, cycling? And what about heavy exercises like weight-lifting?

Exercise at any time that suits you, but not after eating a heavy meal. It is important to help you get good sleep, but you should avoid very stimulating, heavy, competitive exercises closer to bedtime -- this raises the excitation level, due to the production of stimulating hormones called endorphins.

If you exercise late, make sure you eat a moderate-sized meal within 20 minutes of exercising and practise some gentle yoga stretches or pranayama (alternate nostril breathing) before going to bed to calm the nervous system.

Is there anything such as 'correct posture' while sleeping? Some of us cannot sleep on the back, for instance.

This is very individual and there is no 'right' posture as such. Being overweight can cause snoring if you sleep on your back.How does one curb snoring?

Weight loss and exercising helps reduce snoring. Minimise the intake of alcohol, practice yoga breathing exercises (pranayama) to strengthen the respiratory airways and muscles. Being well-hydrated is also very important.

Under what circumstances do you recommend sleeping pills? What are the dos and don'ts of using them?

There may be circumstances when the patient really can't sleep and is becoming ill as a result. Sleeping tablets can help them get some rest.

In the long term they stop working and the danger is of developing tolerance towards and/or dependence upon the tablets.

Ideally, the patient and doctor need to work towards weaning the patient off the tablets, while building up his/her sleep strategies.

What advice would you give young people on how to deal with stress?

Don't try to avoid stress -- it's a normal and healthy part of life that teaches you resilience. Instead, look upon stress as a challenge and aim to strengthen your coping strategies so that you can take on anything.

These coping strategies are:

  • Physical: Exercise regularly and sleep well; learn how to relax when under pressure (meditation and yoga are excellent for this); minimise alcohol; don't smoke; eat healthily; drink at least two litres of water each day.
  • Emotional: Take time to build strong, supportive relationships; don't repress negative feelings, instead learn how to get rid of them constructively.
  • Mental: Learn how to switch off your brain, create healthy boundaries between work and home; don't be a slave to your mobile phone; manage your time with laser focus -- know what is important and do it first.
  • Spiritual: Take time out to assess your values; know what you care about and make time for it; cultivate faith and optimism even in times of adversity, meditate or pray regularly.
Abhishek Mande