As many of us are painfully aware, sleep deprivation can be deeply unpleasant. It upsets our natural rhythm, makes us feel lethargic and, in extreme cases, can cause a host of physical and mental ailments. For those fasting during Ramadan, maintaining and managing consistent sleep routines can be a tricky affair – and two-and-a-half weeks into fasting, you may well be feeling the effects of disrupted patterns.
The pre-fasting suhoor meal before 4am can play havoc, says Dr Walid Abdul-Hamid, clinical director and consultant psychiatrist at the Priory Wellbeing Centre in Dubai. "This, in turn, can have negative consequences on mental health and well-being."
His advice is to try to go to sleep and wake up at the same time every day, even if it's much later or earlier than your usual routine, and try not to nap during the day. "Don't eat excessive amounts before bed," he says, "and avoid processed and fast foods, which can greatly affect quality of sleep. Increase exposure to sunlight in the mornings and decrease exposure to artificial light in the evenings to help with your body's natural circadian rhythm. Try to avoid stimulants such as coffee, fizzy drinks and chocolate," adds Abdul-Hamid.
As for our electronic devices, he says they are best left out of the bedroom because their backlit screens, vibrations and noises can interfere with sleep. He also advises we make sure to get some physical activity during the day, even if it’s nothing more than a walk around the block.
Dr Hady Jerdak specialises in internal medicine, pulmonary diseases and sleep medicine at Medcare Hospital in Dubai. He says that inadequate sleep is a serious problem in the UAE, even outside of Ramadan. "Repeated sleep problems can be the body's way of hinting at something more," he says. "Increased stress levels, mood swings and anxiety are all ways your body might be trying to tell you it's suffering from a sleep disorder. The opposite is also true, with sleeping problems sometimes leading to anxiety disorders."
He points out that lack of sleep can lead to more far-reaching issues. “It can weaken the immune system’s defences against viruses, increase the risk for high blood pressure and type 2 diabetes, and lead to issues related to heart disease.”
Jerdak says that the majority of people in the UAE are simply not getting sufficient shut-eye, and reminds us that good-quality sleep consists of four-to-five cycles where each has 40 per cent superficial sleep, 40 per cent deep sleep and 20 per cent rapid eye movement (REM, or dream state).
Abdul-Hamid explains that the REM stage of sleep is the most restful, when our brains process the problems and traumas experienced the day before. "Not being able to have REM sleep has been proven to cause detrimental effects on mental health, such as irritability, stress and, in worst cases, depression and panic disorder," he says. "It can dramatically cloud judgment and affect performance the following day.
Some studies have even associated sleep deprivation with the most severe psychiatric symptoms, including those associated with psychotic disorders, when people lose touch with reality and start to hear voices and see things that are not real.”
So far, so worrying, but there are practical steps we can take to mitigate harm. Jerdak advises making a plan for the last stretch of the holy month that fits in with our schedules and is realistic enough to be able to maintain.
“Schedule times of worship,” he says, “and try to ensure your sleep environment is quiet and dark. Ear plugs and eye masks can work wonders for getting into, and staying in, a deep sleep, and you should avoid processed and salty foods as they cause dehydration.”
He also recommends sleeping two hours after iftar and keeping suhoor light if you intend to sleep afterwards.