Staying at home has not only changed our lives, but also our routines. A big casualty has been our body clock, which has led to erratic sleep and disrupted schedules. Now, when the world will soon get back to normal, can we return to our original routines?
During the lockdown, Noida-based architect Sumit Singh was confined to his home like everybody else. The restrictions on movement and the extended confinement caused serious alterations in his body clock and sleeping pattern. So much so that even after he resumed commuting to work to Delhi, the 30-year-old father of a toddler hasn’t been able to cope. “Getting back to normal was hard to accept, and dealing with it has become exhausting. I had to struggle with my body clock. I had stayed up way past my usual bedtime during lockdown and midnight binges were common. So it’s difficult to sleep early now,” says Singh, adding, “Even tracking my daily cycle of work could not improve matters… it was more about working and staying indoors, unmanageable meal timings and digital exposure that made my life significantly erratic. I am now struggling to resume my disciplined schedule.”
Singh’s struggle is sure to resonate with many, as stressed and interrupted routines, increased screen time due to work from home, oddly-timed meals, anxiety, erratic day and night schedules have become the new normals. Naturally now, when the situation is slowly getting back to normal with Covid-19 vaccines being rolled out, many people are finding it difficult to get back to their original body clocks and timetables.
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For Mumbai-based IT professional Snehanshu Mandal, the big culprit is work from home. Earlier, WFH meant quick meetings or urgent work requirements, but the pandemic blurred the lines, making Mandal work almost 18-19 hours a day. “With offices shut worldwide, IT departments are working round the clock. There have been times we had dinner around midnight. I could not devote time to my eight-year-old daughter,” rues Mandal, who ended up working in extreme stress, leading to irregular food habits and weight gain. He now wants to get back to his regular routine. “I am so looking forward to joining regular office, though it’s not immediately on the cards… but gradually, we will get back to the regular schedule,” says Mandal, who has clients all over the world.
Experts feel working from home has not only changed regular lifestyle, but also disrupted the sleep cycle, which, in turn, can lead to health risks. “WFH of late has led to other problems of mental fatigue and physical inactivity, which have definitely impacted our lives… but the lines between on- and off-work have been so blurred that work pressure has entered the bedroom. Earlier, an average working professional was exposed to the screen for 8-10 hours… that time has now increased to 15 hours or more,” offers MS Kanwar, senior consultant, respiratory medicine, Indraprastha Apollo Hospitals, Delhi.
Also, most corporate jobs and private organisations demand crazy work hours and have made employees work 24×7. “Once you finish the day late, you will start the next day late as well. And once you begin the day late, everything from there on is just a rush hour. This sort of work schedule can disrupt the sleep cycle and overall mental well-being,” says Manjari Chandra, consultant therapeutic and functional nutritionist, Max Healthcare, Delhi.
The problem lies with our inability to have a routine, says Mumbai-based Luke Coutinho, holistic lifestyle coach, integrative medicine. “WFH knows no end if you do not set a timeline for every task and have a timetable for yourself. The problem also lies with our inability to have a routine. There are so many who are able to keep up with this new normal and yet get in their exercise, sleep, family time and self-time. The key is discipline. Plan a day according to this approach—from 24 hours in a day, take out eight hours for sleep since that’s a priority. This leaves us with 16 hours. How much time do you want to devote to work, workout, play, family, yourself? This way you won’t miss out on any other part of life,” he advises.
State of distress
Interestingly, the most famous are the most sleep-deprived, or so it seems. Take, for instance, three-time Grammy-winning violin soloist Hilary Hahn, who posted on Twitter in December: “I have started drinking hot chocolate at 1:30 am. It’s either debauchery or a pandemic December.”
There also appears to be an interesting link between sleep and entrepreneurship. In 2018, Tesla CEO Elon Musk, perhaps the most famous of the ‘chief sleep-deprived officers’, told The New York Times that “it is often a choice of no sleep or Ambien.”
A new study by the University of Central Florida suggests that famous entrepreneurs may have always had issues sleeping. In fact, ADHD-like (Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder) tendencies drive them to entrepreneurial behaviour, helping them launch their own companies. “We’re not advocating depriving yourself of sleep to get ahead… We’re saying that ADHD-like tendencies can be a benefit rather than a hindrance in spurring ventures,” Jeff Gish, a professor of business at the University of Central Florida, and co-author of the paper, had said in a press release.
Not just disrupted routines and erratic sleep, there’s also seasonal affective disorder (SAD), a type of depression that’s related to changes in seasons, to deal with. Up to 3% people in the US, in fact, are affected by SAD each year—and women are four times more likely to experience it than men. On news website Health.com, Hanne Hoffmann, assistant professor at Michigan State University, says people with SAD tend to experience common depression symptoms—feeling depressed most days, losing interest in activities they once enjoyed, experiencing changes in appetite or weight, having problems with sleep, low energy and feeling hopeless or worthless. SAD, however, only affects people four or five months of the year—typically the winter months when the days become shorter.
“Light promotes the secretion of hormones and neurotransmitters in the brain, specifically serotonin, which stabilises mood and feeling of well-being and happiness,” said Hoffman. “Because there is less daylight and the light isn’t as intense in the winters, we don’t produce as much serotonin—and that can lead to depression.”
While good and proper sleep catalyses happiness, balanced metabolism and other important functions of the body, improper sleep can lead to a state of distress, weakness, even weight loss and sterility. In poor quality of sleep, the amount of deep sleep—particularly N3 (delta) sleep which is called restorative sleep—is highly deficient, while the relatively superficial sleep gets increased, giving a false sense of adequate sleep of seven-eight hours to the patient. “This is seen in sleep apnoeics and in upper airway resistance syndrome… it also occurs frequently in shift or call centre workers, etc,” says Indraprastha Apollo Hospitals’ Kanwar. To prevent such a situation, he advises no planning and no active thought processes once in bed. One should also be in bed by 11 pm, he says. “Fixed work timings, a dark quiet room, comfortable temperature, a light meal at night, switching off all thought processes while in bed, staying away from any bright lights emitted from screens of TV, computer monitors or phone for half an hour before bed time can help,” he says.
Kanwar cautions against a disturbed day and night cycle, which can have health implications like obesity, diabetes, cardiac ailments, besides interrupting hormones that regulate appetite. It can also hamper basic cognitive functions of the brain and cause memory loss, reduced concentration and productivity, he adds.
No number of drugs, pills or medicines can ever replace the magic of a good sound sleep, shares Coutinho. “Deep breathing, especially left nostril, an early dinner, honouring the circadian rhythm cycle, weaning off gadgets and artificial light post-sunset, avoiding stimulating and stirring conversations are some of the simple yet effective lifestyle changes that can help cope in the most natural way,” he says.
To better manage a busy lifestyle, ayurveda has a very simple algorithm that defines the impact of three elements—Kapha (water and earth), Pitta (heat) and Vaata (air and ether)—during different time zones in a day. These elements flow not only within our body, but also in nature. “Your activities and food choices should support the dominant energy inside and in nature at a given time,” says Mumbai-based yoga trainer and naturopathy enthusiast Roopashree Sharma. “A day’s schedule is divided into a four-hour cycle starting at 6 am (or sunrise timing) followed by Pitta element at 10 am (time of productivity backed by the biggest meal of the day) and Vaata element at 2 pm (ideal for creative pursuits and problem-solving, one should avoid meals)… and the same is repeated again starting 6 pm (advisable to wind down and eat a light dinner followed by bedtime). Following this will bring us in sync with nature, increasing our efficiencies to draw the maximum out of each time zone during the day, while keeping diseases at bay,” adds Sharma, who is also the founder of AtharvanLife, a wellness brand.
It’s true that sleep plays a vital role in metabolic health, and food choices can significantly impact the body cycle. “Stress and anxiety can hinder the sleep cycle. Incorporate some complex carbohydrates such as vegetables and millets, as well as sleep-inducing amino acids like tryptophan by consuming foods such as hummus, brown rice, nuts, high-fat yoghurt or salmon,” suggests Chandra of Max Healthcare. “Insulin response evoked by the intake of complex carbohydrates stimulates the production of tryptophan, which is converted by our body into serotonin and melatonin, actively relaxing the mind and promoting sleep. On the other hand, late-evening coffee or a sugary snack can negatively impact melatonin levels. Finish the last meal a couple of hours before bedtime and take half a teaspoonful of turmeric or a little saffron before going to bed ensures good sleep,” adds Chandra.
Realising that sleep has become a precious commodity, the wellness market today is going beyond categories like food, fitness and mental health to offer sleep solutions. Take, for instance, the charcoal-infused foam pillow and ayurvedic mattress from Livpure. The products are made from chemical-free memory foam and have sandalwood-infused latex.
Then there is Forest Essentials’ Nidra Tranquil sleep spray made with essential oils of geranium, lavender, nutmeg and sandalwood for a restful sleep. Goodearth also offers sleep-inducing products like aromatherapy blends and roll-ons.
There are several gadgets and apps that ensure good sleep. Like Samsung Health, a health and wellness app. It provides access to guided meditation programmes through integration with Calm, a sleep and meditation app. Enhanced sleep analysis algorithms help users work towards healthy sleep patterns. Philips India has a Dream Series range of products to improve care for obstructive sleep apnea patients.
Yoga trainer Roopashree Sharma advises that sleeplessness can be cured by measures such as pleasant smells and sounds to ease the mind, application of soothing ointments on the eyes, head and face, and body massages to relax the muscles. “Curd rice and milk are recommended to induce sleep. Herbs such as lavender, ylang ylang, sandalwood and jasmine are known to induce sleep. They can be used in the form of essential oils or soothing balms and elixirs,” she says.
Disturbed day and night cycle results in health and mental issues, resulting in loss of productivity —MS Kanwar, senior consultant, respiratory medicine, Indraprastha Apollo Hospitals, Delhi
Honouring the circadian rhythm cycle and weaning off gadgets after sunset can help cope in the most natural way —Luke Coutinho, holistic lifestyle coach, integrative medicine, Mumbai
Complex carbohydrates such as vegetables and millets, and foods with tryptophan such as hummus, nuts, etc, induce sleep —Manjari Chandra, consultant therapeutic & functional nutritionist, Max Healthcare, Delhi