Smita Mahadik (name changed) a 34 year old mother of two came to me last week. My heart sank as she pulled out a thick folder out of her bag and another huge pile of MRI and CT scans. “Doctor, you are my last hope, nobody seems to understand and clear my problem”.

Smita was suffering from low back pain for last 2 years. All her scans and blood reports were normal. She had undergone physiotherapy and had seen even a pain specialist. Nothing helped.

When we discussed her daily routine I found out that she slept at 1 am every day. She then woke up at 5.30 to prepare tiffin for her 2 boys and her husband. I asked her why she slept so late? Her husband reaches home by 12 midnight as he has a fair distance to travel from his work place. Smita puts her boys to bed at 10 pm and keeps watching television till her husband arrives, they then have dinner and sleep at 1am. On further questioning, Smita complained that she felt lethargic most of the times and had become very short tempered since last 1 year. She had also gained 10kgs in last one year. She was otherwise healthy and was not on any medications. She had taken her last holiday around a year ago. Smita complained that she felt her batteries had drained out by 5 PM every day.

I did not find anything abnormal when I examined Smita. What Smita was suffering from is known as “Sleep deprivation”.

Many effects of a lack of sleep, such as feeling grumpy and not working at your best, are well known. One in three of us suffer from poor sleep, with stress, computers and taking work home often blamed.

However, the cost of all those sleepless nights is more than just bad moods and a lack of focus.

Regular poor sleep puts you at risk of serious medical conditions, including obesity, heart disease and diabetes – and it shortens your life expectancy. It’s now clear that a solid night’s sleep is essential for a long and healthy life.

How much sleep do we need?

Most of us need around seven to eight hours of good-quality sleep a night to function properly. We can do away with les sleep as we age – but some need more and some less. What matters is that you find out how much sleep you need and then try to achieve it.

As a general rule, if you wake up tired and spend the day longing for a chance to have a nap, it’s likely that you’re not getting enough sleep.

A variety of factors can cause poor sleep, including health conditions such as sleep apnoea (people who snore loudly usually have sleep apnoea). But in most cases, it’s due to bad sleeping habits.

After several sleepless nights, the mental effects become more serious. Your brain will fog, making it difficult to concentrate and make decisions. You’ll start to feel down, and may fall asleep during the day. Your risk of injury and accidents at home, work and on the road also increases. Research has shown that if you sleep one hour less on a long term basis your brain functions exactly like you have had 3 pegs of Whiskey i.e. you are not legally fit to even drive a car!

If it continues, lack of sleep can affect your overall health and make you prone to serious medical conditions, such as obesity, heart disease, high blood pressure and diabetes.

Research has shown that sleep helps you in following ways:

1. Sleep boosts immunity

If you seem to catch every cold and flu that’s going around, your bedtime could be to blame. Prolonged lack of sleep can disrupt your immune system, so you’re less able to fend off bugs.

2. Sleep can slim you

Sleeping less may mean you put on weight! Studies have shown that people who sleep less than seven hours a day tend to gain more weight and have a higher risk of becoming obese than those who get seven hours of slumber.

It’s believed to be because sleep-deprived people have reduced levels of leptin (the chemical that makes you feel full) and increased levels of ghrelin (the hunger-stimulating hormone).

3. Sleep boosts mental wellbeing

Given that a single sleepless night can make you irritable and moody the following day, it’s not surprising that chronic sleep debt may lead to long-term mood disorders like depression and anxiety.

When people with anxiety or depression were surveyed to calculate their sleeping habits, it turned out that most of them slept for less than six hours a night.

4. Sleep prevents diabetes

Studies have suggested that people who usually sleep less than five hours a night have an increased risk of having or developing diabetes.

It seems that missing out on deep sleep may lead to type 2 diabetes by changing the way the body processes glucose – the high-energy carbohydrate that cells use for fuel.

5. Sleep increases sex drive

Men and women who don’t get enough quality sleep have lower libidos and less of an interest in sex, research shows.

Men who suffer from sleep apnoea – a disorder in which breathing difficulties lead to interrupted sleep – also tend to have lower testosterone levels, which can lower libido.

6. Sleep wards off heart disease

Long-standing sleep deprivation seems to be associated with increased heart rate, an increase in blood pressure and higher levels of certain chemicals linked with inflammation, which may put extra strain on your heart.

7. Sleep increases fertility

Difficulty conceiving a baby has been claimed as one of the effects of sleep deprivation, in both men and women. Apparently, regular sleep disruptions can cause trouble conceiving by reducing the secretion of reproductive hormones.


What are good sleep habits?

Watching television or reading books just because you can’t sleep actually stimulates your brain and it gets more and more difficult to sleep. Hence at a dedicated time just create a nice dark room with good temperature and put on light music. Temperature control is vital and in a country like India we see a lot of sleep deprived patients in summer season. I see a lot of people resorting to alcohol..2pegs doc and I sleep well. Though alcohol may induce sleep the REM sleep (the vital part of your sleep) gets shortened and one may get up groggy or irritable in the morning. Addiction to alcohol or sleeping tablets is thus very common. Long term uses of both cause impairment of your brain function.

We now have access to a lot of applications (free) on our smart phone which help to play soothing sounds or help you meditate and relax. Using these free apps does help.

Smita was not convinced (like many patients) that sleep deprivation was the cause of her problems. After all she had spent close to a lakh of rupees on doctors and investigations. I was not offering any drugs or ordering fancy investigations!

She finally said “lets give it a try to what you say!”

I saw happy and smiling Smita 4 weeks later. We will see how Smita improved her sleep pattern in the next article.