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Sleep less: Fantastic four


Is four hours of sleep enough? A new scientific study, and the wisdom of ancient yogis, indicates it just could be.

Divya Mattoo, 32, works almost 10 hours every day as an IT consultant in Gurgaon. Despite her taxing work schedule, she also manages to fit in an hour of brisk walking, a couple of hours of television viewing and reading in her day. She is always active with a spring in her step and twinkle in her eye. And she never sleeps for more than five hours a day.

Lalit Sharma, 37, a business editor based in Mumbai chooses to sleep for just four hours a day because "there's so much to do". "Read, write, watch, photograph, work out, talk - 24 hours are nearly not enough for all this. The easy and obvious sacrifice to make is of sleep, " says Sharma who still manages to stay alert at work.

Mattoo and Sharma are not just plain lucky. A variety of factors come together to make them do with fewer than recommended - and desperately needed by most - eight hours of sleep. Says Dr PP Bose, a sleep physician based in Delhi, "What time you go to bed, exercise, diet, stress level and to a certain degree your genetic predisposition determine how long and how well you sleep. " However, a recent study indicates that your genes might just be more at play in deciding your sleep hygiene.

A Europe-based study, conducted on 4, 000 people from seven different countries, found that people who slept for just four hours a day had two copies of one common variant of gene ABCC9. Interestingly, this gene has also been linked to diabetes and heart disease.

"So apparently the relationships of sleep duration with metabolic syndrome symptoms can, in part, be explained by an underlying common molecular mechanism, " says Dr Karla V Allebrandt, first author on the study, on a science news website. In simpler words, there could be a connection between high levels of insulin, blood pressure, cholesterol, abdominal obesity and sleep. But what exactly is this connection is still unknown.

What is implicit, though, is that people who sleep less succeed in doing much more in a day. Late Margaret Thatcher, former prime minister of the UK, famously used to function well with just four hours of shut eye. So could Napolean Bonaparte, and ancient Indian yogis. How do they manage with less sleep?

Since the jury is still out on this question, modern science maintains that eight hours sleep is required for healthy functioning of the body and mind. However, according to Patanjali's Yoga Sutra a person can lead a healthy life with just four hours of dreamless sleep called sushupti. Dr Subhash Kak, head of computer science department at Oklahoma State University who has also studied the Vedas and other Hindu texts, says, "Sushupti provides real rest. But this does not mean that the yogis knew they could do with little sleep, which was possibly due to their genes. The Yoga Sutra and other yogic texts speak of amazing degree of control the practitioner can obtain over his involuntary nervous system."

The trick to get undisturbed sleep in the long term lies in leading a healthy life with certain amount of discipline. "Eat healthy, which means more of fruits and vegetables. You should have your dinner at least three hours before you sleep. Curtailing the consumption of alcohol and tobacco, regular exercise and doing mind relaxation activities, like yoga and meditation, can help you get the maximum rest from minimum number of hours, " says Dr Subhash Manchanda, a consultant cardiologist based in Delhi who has done research on reversal of heart disease by meditation, diet and exercise. He, too, sleeps for just four-five hours a day and gives credit for his stamina and energy to the daily practice of yoga and meditation.

In the short term, taming your sleep is a matter of right timing, say yogis. If you wake up between 4am and 6am, a phase known as amrit bela, you will feel full-o-beans through the day even if you had just four to five hours of sleep. "Your body is the most rested and relaxed at this time, " says Manchanda. "A probable reason why yoga recommends early-to-bed-early-to-rise schedule could be the lack of bright light at nights in the days Yoga Sutra was written. However, our body clock was set when our forefathers lived in caves. Growth hormone in our body gets secreted before dawn and the secretion of serotonin, the antidepressant hormone, is regulated by sunlight, " explains Dr Yash Welanker, faculty member at Madhavbaug Ayurved Cardiac Rehab Centre, Mumbai.

After 6am, the blood pressure starts to rise and levels of cortisol, which releases blood sugar, also peak. Perhaps a reason, say doctors and scientists, why the maximum number of heart attacks and strokes are reported between 6am and 10am. It's not easy for everyone to wake up early. What is easy, though, for all is to identify one's body clock and respect it. Even if it means pressing the snooze button way too often.

Reader's opinion (2)

Prakash ChandraJan 7th, 2012 at 00:27 AM

My wife & I are regular with our pranayama & meditation & adhere to most of the things this article talks about. For the last three years my wife has turned vegetarian & one can see the difference that satwik food has done to her. My own consumption has gone healthy; the result of which is evident

Madhusudhan BhatDec 12th, 2011 at 17:45 PM

So long as one lives with positve attitude for 20 hours a day tuning oneself to a cool, tension less life, I think four hours physical rest should be good enough. Working with a sense of duty, enjoying it to the core without bothering about results will lead to tension less life.

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