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Epidemic of Sleeplessness

Rest is now a four-letter word


Dr Rubin Naiman is a US-based sleep and dream specialist who has worked with a diverse clientele ranging from Fortune 500 CEOs to world class athletes, from homemakers to entertainers. He chats with TOI-Crest about the epidemic of sleeplessness and how we are putting a high premium on being awake.

You have talked about a very interesting phenomenon called dream deprivation and not just sleep. What does it mean?

It is an issue I have been concerned about for more than a decade. When we sleep we also dream. There is plenty of scientific evidence that shows dreaming is crucial for our emotional well-being and creativity. But, increasingly, now there's also evidence that due to our modern lifestyles we are dreaming less and less (in REM sleep). It is known that excessive alcohol consumption, many commonly prescribed medicines, anti-depressants and sleeping pills suppress dreaming as do medical conditions like sleep apnea. But dreaming is critical to mental health and cognitive processes. It can be a contributing factor for dementia and Alzheimer's disease, which is a huge concern.

The reason we are witnessing this epidemic is because we don't really understand what sleep is. We look at sleep as subservient to wakefulness. We have forgotten that sleep is the primary source of spirituality and joy. We are increasingly so conscious of nutrition and what we eat that we lose our sense of joy around food. The same has happened to sleep - it is something we HAVE to do now. People need to fall back in love with sleep. I have spent time at the Aurobindo Ashram and spiritual leaders, too, understand this and say this. Sleep is not the opposite of waking, not simply unconsciousness. Pills do not create sleep, they create unconsciousness and that is the problem.

You also say that sleeplessness is due to our addiction to wakefulness. Should it then be treated like an addiction?

We put a high premium on wakefulness. Research shows that there are three states of consciousness - wakeful, asleep and dreaming. But we don't give as much importance to sleep and dreams as we give to wakefulness. We believe that being awake is the centre of consciousness. We are addicted to this thinking. To change this we need people who can gather and receive support on this at a social level.

What is the economic cost of insomnia?

US data roughly estimates it between 50-100 billion dollars. There is such a range because it depends on how you define it. Are you looking at just the cost of treatment or the cost of productivity? It is hard to measure - it impacts mood, can cause depression, affect productivity, immune systems. Sleep disorders are the number one concern in this part of the world.

How much sleep do we actually need?

This is a misleading question and, hence, a large part of the problem. If someone has to ask you how many calories you need, it depends on a lot of things, such as if you are pregnant, age, exercise levels, occupation. Similarly, some people can do well with 3-4 hours a night and some need at least 10-11 hours. But quantity and quality of sleep are different. If you feel energised during the day and are in a good mood without taking too much caffeine or sugar, then you are getting enough sleep. But it is normal to get sleepy in the afternoon.

Why are so many of us struggling with this problem

It is because of our culture of valuing the wakeful state more. I agree that productivity is important but people, including those who are doing quite well, are constantly racing to succeed and survive. The race never ends. Rest is now a four-letter word - it is confused with inebriation, recreation or even getting stoned. Rest is the bridge between wakefulness and sleep. Too many of us spend little time with ourselves. I often say sleep is an act of faith. It has critical personal and spiritual issues. When we are punching out for the day the question in our mind is 'if life is safe enough to let me rest?'

Once Einstein was asked: 'What is the most important question a person can ask' ? And he replied: 'Is the universe a friendly place?' This is the question that confronts us every night. Can we truly rest?

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