Across the spectrum of media – from Justin Timberlake to Megadeth and Al Pacino to Christian Bale and Shakespeare to Chetan Bhagat – insomnia has been glamorized, has been portrayed akin to love and longing and the butterflies-in-the-stomach feeling. And to incessant excitement – people spend sleepless nights over a problem they have or an idea that occurred to them or to study for the nerve-wracking exam. On the other side of this coin are the sermons of ‘productivity’. The self-help books, the seminars, the ‘day in the life of a CEO’ articles, the Buzzfeed listicles, the ubiquitous health and wellness advisories – all of them have laser sharp focus on how to improve productivity in the time that you are awake, aware, and conscious. Common suggestions are exercise for at least 30 mins a day, grab that energy bar, keep a journal, download a planning app, eat healthy food with omega-3 fatty acids to stimulate your brain, play sudoku, walk 10,000 steps, and drink a lot of water. I completely agree that a lot of these work. But are we focusing so much on our awake time that we are ignoring our sleep times? I do not believe that we understand what sleep means – we almost consider it a nuisance and think of it as something that comes in the way of things instead of helping. How many times have we thought ‘If only I had more than 24 hours in a day!’ – are we considering sleep time in this? When we want to feel productive and get things done, we always think of the time we spend wide awake and attentive. We make plans, we do 30-day abs challenges, 30-day abstinence from alcohol, 30-day journaling, 30-day sugar-free challenge. Have we ever done a 30-day 8-hour sleep challenge? ‘Wake up at 5 AM every day and see how your life changes!’ Sure, but the important and hidden takeaway there is that you also go to sleep at 9 PM, and not midnight. We need to take a moment to revisit our actions lest we sleeplessly slide into ill health.
Sleep is a way for our brains to reset, remove waste, and rejuvenate so that we can continue to function like the well-oiled machines that we are. During sleep, your brain arranges your memory, reinforces long term memory, and most importantly, takes a chance to eliminate waste. Imagine going a week without urinating or defecating. You would implode and would need surgical intervention. Now imagine the same thing for your brain. Waste accumulates in the brain in your every waking moment, and if it does not get the chance to pause and drain that, it would get completely overloaded and lead to disastrous outcomes. Every organ in our body goes through the process of metabolism (they consume materials for energy and then excrete waste) – for the brain this metabolic ‘trash’ accumulates in the fluid present around it, called the cerebrospinal fluid. Sleep is the only time when the brain actively works to wash away these toxins and there is no substitute for this. Sleeplessness (insomnia – yes it is a disorder, not the act of falling in hopeless love) manifests itself as depression, demotivation, tiredness, loss of productivity, anger, frustration, and a ton of other common issues that we think can be solved by vitamin supplements alone.
Before you think that the brain is the least of your worries when it comes to that deadline tomorrow or the promotion round the corner, let me tell you a few things about it to change your mind. The brain is a fantastic, complicated, mysterious organ and it is not to be taken lightly. While disorders in other organs like the intestines or the liver can be easily diagnosed, it is often difficult to tackle an issue with the brain. But the brain is as dangerous as it is magical.
Meredith Maran, at age 37, accused her father of sexual abuse, which spilt the entire family and caused unimaginable pain to her father who repeatedly refused the act. Eight years later, Meredith realized that she had been subjected to and suffered from False Memory Syndrome from visits to her therapist and realized that her father never laid a finger lecherously on her. By then her father had died and it was too late. She wrote a heartfelt book about it called “My Lie – A True Story of False Memory” but her family was already in shambles and her father could never hear her cries of apology.
Kenneth Parks was a Canadian man with a 5-year old child, a happy family, and a great relationship with his in-laws. One night in 1987, he drove his car 23 km to his in-laws’ house, strangled his father-in-law till he passed out, bludgeoned his mother-in-law with a tire iron, and stabbed them both several times. He then drove to a Police Station where the confused police saw that his forearms were both bleeding severely with shredded tendons, and Parks did not even seem to register that. Kenneth Parks was sleepwalking. He was not conscious, not responsible, and hence not guilty.
These are just a couple of examples of the mysterious ways in which our brains can operate. Even common things like déjà vu are inexplicable sometimes. It is imperative to take care of our brains and include sleep routines in our lives as enthusiastically as we adopt fitness or dietary routines. In his book Mastering Sleep, Swami Subramaniam pitches that the advent of mattress-making could have been as important in the history of human evolution as the use of iron tools and wheels and growing wheat were.
“Get up and get to work, you can sleep when you’re dead!” said Captain Barbossa to his pirate crew. Well, if you follow that, that’s what you will be – dead!