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midnight zombies

When Neha Roy forgot whether she had sent her daughter to school or left her sleeping at home, she knew she needed urgent medical help. Roy’s forgetfulness had gone on for a year. The 38-year-old marketing executive of a Delhi-based multinational firm would forget names, misplace things and not remember what she wanted to buy when she walked into a shop. It drove her to the edge.

An examination revealed that Roy was suffering from lack of sleep. “Even a single night without sleep short-circuits the memory consolidation process,” says Manvir Bhatia, head, department of sleep medicine, Sir Ganga Ram Hospital, New Delhi, who counselled Roy.

Roy had been going without proper sleep for much longer. “She returned home from work at 9 pm. After that she helped her daughter with her homework, arranged dinner and watched TV. She was up at five the next morning to send her daughter to school,” says Bhatia. Months of a mounting sleep debt finally took its toll.

Roy’s isn’t an isolated case. Bhatia says she counsels over 10 working professionals suffering from sleep deprivation every month. Five years ago, she got no such cases.

As Indians become part of a 24-hour society, they have no time left to sleep, say experts. “Nights are packed with activity. There is round-the-clock television, all-night partying and Internet surfing. Call centres have turned work hours nocturnal,” says B. Gitanjali, professor of pharmacology, Jawaharlal Institute of Postgraduate Medical Education & Research (JIPMER), Pondicherry, who runs a sleep laboratory at the institute. “Urban Indians are sacrificing sleep for other night-time pursuits without realising the damage it does to their health,” she adds.

A 2005 AC Nielsen study on sleep habits around the world found that Indians are among the most sleep deprived in the world. Forty six per cent Indians — the highest in Asia — said they slept for less than six hours a night. Of these, 45 per cent said that long work hours were responsible for changing their sleep schedules. In comparison, 34 per cent of Americans, 32 per cent of Europeans and 27 per cent of Japanese burnt the midnight oil.

“There is a huge change in sleep patterns among Indians,” says Gitanjali. Till five years ago, only people above 60 years of age — who suffered from age-related insomnia — visited Gitanjali’s sleep lab. Today, most of her patients comprise students and working adults. “Seventy-five per cent of my patients complain of sleeplessness owing to work stress and academic pressures,” says Gitanjali.

Lack of sleep dulls the mind and impairs the nervous system. Experts believe this may just become urban India’s new health hazard. “Mounting sleep debt is linked to decreasing immunity, coronary heart disease, high blood pressure, diabetes and obesity,” says Manvir Bhatia. She adds that behavioural problems like irritability, depression and unsociability are also an outcome of lack of sleep.

In adolescents, sleep deprivation affects growth. “Growth hormones are released in the early night, during sleep. And the rapid eye movement (REM) phase of sleep is linked to memory and learning. Both are crucial for growing children,” says Gitanjali. Prabhjot Malhi, associate professor, department of paediatrics, Post Graduate Institute (PGI), Chandigarh, who has researched adolescent sleep patterns, says that sleep deprivation in this age group is associated with poor concentration and even poor performance in cognitive tasks like mathematics.

The luxury of an optimum eight-hour sleep seems to be long gone. Ojasvi Sharma, a 22-year-old assistant correspondent at the India Petro Group, says she manages to grab just four to five hours of sleep every night. “I get home from work by 11 pm. By the time I unwind, eat and catch up with friends over the phone and the Internet, it’s 3 am,” she says. By the third day of the week, the sleep debt begins to tell on Sharma’s system. “I feel sluggish when I wake up and my appetite nosedives,” she says.

While conducting a research on musculoskeletal disorders among 27,000 information technology and call centre employees in Bangalore, Dr Deepak Sharan stumbled upon a startling fact. “I found that one-third of these professionals suffered from sleep deprivation,” says the medical director of RECOUP Neuro-musculoskeletal Rehabilitation Centre, Bangalore. Sharan now runs an insomnia clinic which offers relaxation training, stress management, yoga and meditation classes to patients.

Sharan found that call centre jobs had caused chaos to thousands of body clocks. “Changing work shifts disturb the sleep rhythm of BPO employees. They are unable to sleep as their work shifts keep swinging between day and night,” says Sharan.

Swati Das, who works at Wipro’s BPO, Calcutta, knows of several people who quit their jobs because they couldn’t cope with the shift system. Das isn’t faring too well herself. “I get a headache and feel irritated owing to lack of sleep every time my shift changes,” she says. Calcutta-based psychologist Ishita Sanyal — who conducts stress management workshops in companies in the city — finds that mood swings, irritability and blood pressure problems are on the rise because of lack of sleep.

Work isn’t the only reason that keeps adults awake at night. JIPMER’s Gitanjali recently counselled a 30-year-old housewife, who watched so many serials on television at night that her husband had threatened divorce. “She watched television late into the night and couldn’t get up in the morning to get her son ready for school,” says Gitanjali.

While adults work and watch TV, adolescents swap sleep for study. Research indicates that adolescents need much more sleep — 9.2 hours every night — than adults. But a random survey conducted by Malhi in Chandigarh found that nearly one-fourth of high school students slept for just six to seven hours a night. “Most school students attend early-morning tuition. Nearly half the adolescents who started their day at 6 am were found to be pathologically sleepy and unable to concentrate in class,” says Malhi.

A study done in 2004 on 615 final-year medical students from six colleges in Tamil Nadu found that sleep debt is high in this group. “We found that exams, entertainment, friends, drugs and alcohol were making the young generation burn the midnight oil,” says G. Sivagnanam, professor of pharmacology, Chengalpattu Medical College, Chengalpattu, Tamil Nadu, who authored the study.

Sughandha Agnani, a management student at Xavier Labour Relations Institute, Jamshedpur, says it’s impossible to cope with a nine-hour daily academic schedule, be up-to-date with course work, keep in touch with friends and family and sleep as well. She adds that almost nobody at her institute sleeps for more than five to six hours a day.

Even children don’t remain tucked up in bed for long hours. “Children sleep late because their parents sleep late. With urban families becoming nuclear and both parents working, many young children are woken up and sent to crèches early in the morning,” says Bhavneet Bharti, associate professor, paediatrics, PGI, Chandigarh.

Early this year, Bharti conducted a study on the sleep habits of 374 Chandigarh-based elementary school children in the age group of four to nine years. She found that the children slept for an average of nine hours a day. In the United States, young children sleep for an average of 10 hours a day. “We found that children in India catch up on their sleep at inappropriate places like the classroom and in school buses,” says Bharti.

Evidently, urban Indians across all age groups are fast sinking into a state of weary sleeplessness.

With additional reporting by G.S. Mudur, Amrita Johri and Neha Kumar in Delhi and V. Kumara Swamy in Calcutta

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