Sleep Your Way to Success: Authors of book on insomnia share hacks on cultivating and maintaining sleep hygiene
'What I do not like about allopathy is the focus on disease rather than health. I wanted to focus on health,' says Khurshed Batliwala, co-author of Sleep Your Way to Success.
If you have been struggling to sleep well, and need a manual to help you out, check out Khurshed Batliwala and Dinesh Ghodke’s book Sleep Your Way to Success, published by Westland. It is filled with tips on lifestyle choices and attitudinal changes that you can make to sleep longer and better, and wake up refreshed.
What is sleep hygiene? How does caffeine sleep? Why should you sleep at the same time every night? Which foods inhibit good quality sleep? These are a few of the many questions that the authors address. They met each other while studying at IIT Bombay almost 30 years ago, and now teach at Art of Living in Bengaluru.
Excerpts from an interview with Khurshed Batliwala:
You have picked a catchy title for your book. What is your target audience?
Our book is for anybody above the age 18, but primarily people who are in the age group of 30-45. That’s when sleep really starts becoming an issue for most people. That’s also a time when people examine their life carefully, think about the choices and compromises they have made, and figure out the direction they want to take.
Are you also targeting people from a particular socio-economic background? Some of the suggestions in your book around having a separate space to sleep, and using a certain set of products, might not be feasible for everyone.
No, not really. I myself went through that horrible period of insomnia. I invested a lot in some things that really improved my quality of life. I think that it is a good idea to invest even a lakh or a lakh and a half towards good sleep rather than spending little bits of money repeatedly on doctors and medicines that might give you side effects. It’s not like we have come from some super-rich background. We have scrimped on other things to prioritise what will enhance the quality of our lives. Let’s say the book is targeted squarely at the middle class in Tier-1, Tier-2, and Tier-3 cities. Dinesh is recording an audio version of this book in Hindi. Unfortunately, the problem with lack of sleep is universal. We also plan to bring out audio books in English and Tamil.
Could you talk about the knowledge systems that you are drawing on to make the claim that "enough good quality sleep makes you younger, smarter, sexier, and healthier?" Is this based on personal experience or scientific research?
I went through a phase of insomnia seven to eight years ago. It lasted for a few months, and it severely compromised my quality of life. I had made a very stubborn decision that I would not resort to any allopathic interventions to fix my problem. Ironically, the time that I couldn’t sleep got used up in researching about sleep. I do hold a Masters in Mathematics from IIT Bombay so one thing I know is how to do research. I read a lot of scientific articles, books on alternative healing, and even consulted allopathic doctors with the caveat that I would not take any medicines. It all came down to making good lifestyle choices, and following a routine or schedule.
Speaking of benefits, you must look at the deeper stages of sleep called N3 and N4, when you rest and rejuvenate yourself, your digestion improves, and your immune system is strengthened. You feel younger, you fall sick less often. You must look at the REM state of sleep wherein memories are created, your brain decides what to keep and what not to keep, what to move from short-term storage to long-term storage. Brainwave activity, known as sleep spindles and K-complexes, is associated with flashes of insight and inspiration. Even if you look at history, you will read about people who have been working hard and then just chilling. That is when the idea hits them, like it happened with Newton, Archimedes, and Madam Curie.
This is why we say that good-quality sleep will make you smarter. And, of course, lack of sleep will reflect on your sex drive. Sleeping well will also make you attractive.
How do you define “good-quality sleep”? Do age and gender play a role?
Gender, not really, though I have read some research suggesting that women should be sleeping longer than men. But generally speaking, eight to nine hours of sleep would be great for a normal healthy human being leading a so-called modern lifestyle without any heavy, physically exhausting work. Less than eight hours is not good, and less than six hours is really bad. If you are doing heavy workouts or a lot of cycling, walking, swimming, and athletics, you might need more than eight hours.
What was your life like before you discovered the importance of good-quality sleep? What pushed you to transform your lifestyle, and pick up new habits?
I am 52 now. Sleep was never an issue for me for the first 40 years of my life. But as a person who was in charge of the youth programmes of the Art of Living, I really abused my body by having food at all the wrong times. Especially junk food! Even vegetarian food can be junk food. There was no schedule or routine. By the time I was 40 or 42, I saw that I was falling sick very often. If I got a cold, it stayed longer. Suddenly, one night I could not sleep. And then it began to happen every night. I struggled to fall asleep at night. I slept during the day. I had brain fog. I couldn’t think straight. Teaching used to be my passion but during this time, I didn’t feel like teaching. I used to get others to fill in for me because I wasn’t up to it myself.
One night, I had a very severe panic attack. It’s difficult for me to even talk about it now. It was a horrifying experience. I wouldn’t wish it upon my worst enemy. The effects of it lingered for two to three days. Then it happened again. Through all this anxiety, only my daily practice of meditation kept me sane and functional. I also had the support of friends. It took me three to four months to gain normalcy. I accepted that it was happening, and I decided that I would fix it without allopathy. My allopathic doctor said that she could give me a mild anti-depressant but it would be addictive. She said, “You have been meditating for so long. You have it in you to fix yourself.”
I read a lot during this time. Matthew Walker’s work was particularly helpful for me. I found that most researchers were saying basically the same thing: wake up on time, eat on time, sleep on time, don’t mess with your body, and nature will not mess with you. I decided to follow that. Then there were other sleep hacks, like staying away from white light in the evening, and watching the sunset. Gradually, I found that my panic and anxiety disappeared like dew drops in the sunlight. I found myself again.
I was open and frank about my problems, so others who were struggling with sleep came to me. I shared my research with many people on an informal basis. They began to find it useful, and encouraged me to write a book to share my learnings.
How did the collaboration with Dinesh Ghodke, your co-author, happen?
Dinesh and I have been partners in crime for almost 30 years. He is a total fitness enthusiast, a meditator, a yogi. He held my hand throughout the illness that I had. He had an onlooker’s perspective. We have worked on other books, so that helped.
Why were you against the idea of using allopathic medicines for better sleep?
The approach taken by allopathy is extremely symptomatic. Allopathic doctors do not take a holistic view of the entire body-mind system. They look at heart issues, lung issues, and kidney issues in isolation. They have broken up the body into various parts. They do not look at the system as a whole. That said, I do have full respect for allopathic doctors when an intervention is genuinely and urgently needed.
What I do not like is the focus on disease rather than health. I wanted to focus on health.
Let’s say that my decision was also shaped by my being a Parsi, if you know what I mean.
Why is sleeping at night seen as more beneficial than sleeping during the day?
That’s because the human body is designed to sleep at night. The melatonin that is secreted by your pineal gland, which is the signal for the body to wrap up the day and go to sleep, happens in darkness. You are supposed to feel drowsy and sleepy at night. During the day, the system actually wakes you up. The secretion of melatonin stops as the sun rises. However, there is a lot of research about afternoon naps as well. It is highly recommended that you take a nap for half an hour in the afternoon. Any time between 2 PM and 4 PM is fine.
A lot of people are expected to do night shifts at work. Besides that, we have people employed with multinational companies who work in teams across time zones. They cannot sleep at night. What advice would you offer them?
I would advise them to quit their job. I am being very blunt, I know. The havoc that this creates in your system is crazy. The World Health Organization has now declared night shift work as carcinogenic. It causes certain types of cancer. I have talked to quite a few small and medium enterprise owners who are re-examining work schedules because they are concerned about the health of their employees.
The people who are working in multinational companies are doing it out of choice. I am more worried about people working in emergency services like the fire brigade and the police force, even doctors and nurses. These people are really sacrificing their health and their lives so that we can be comfortable, safe, well-taken care of. I feel that governments of the world should recognise this, and give them bonuses.
During the COVID-19 pandemic, many people are being asked to work from home. The bedroom, which was earlier associated with rest, sleep, and leisure, is now doubling up as a work space. In this context, have you had to revisit any of your ideas about the environment that enables good-quality sleep?
It is helpful to demarcate an area of the house where work happens, and an area where you sleep. In my own house, I have a bedroom that is also my office. I am very clear that work happens only at the table. I do not take my laptop to my bed. If you have a smaller space, like I do, some discipline can go a long way. If you have the luxury of space, then you can have separate rooms for work and rest.
What would you say to people who feel they are most productive at night?
Certain people are genetically imprinted to be more effective at night. They sleep late normally, and wake up late normally. For these people, this is fantastic. They can do it. There are others who are genetically wired to sleep early, and wake up early. When they work against this, they do not experience a fraction of productivity. They might find it best to align with the way their bodies have been designed to function.
Chintan Girish Modi is a freelance writer, journalist, and book reviewer.