How Important is Sleep?

by Rajeev Kurapati

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How do we know if sleep is important for a healthy living? Try missing it for just a day. Sleep deprivation can cause an irresistible drive to sleep and restlessness. This ‘sleep rebound’ we experience is an intense drive to sleep even during times when we would typically be awake.

The importance of a good night sleep lies in the effects of sleep on the brain and the body. One of the main characteristics of sleep is behavioral quiescence and reduced motor activity. Sleep is an adaptive mechanism of mind and body.

The function of sleep is no longer a mystery.

Jerome Siegel writes in his article, “Sleep in animals: A state of Adaptive inactivity”:

Sleep can be seen as a form of adaptive inactivity lying on this continuum. What is most remarkable about sleep is not the unresponsiveness or vulnerability it creates, but rather its ability to reduce activity and body and brain metabolism, but still allow a high level of responsiveness relative to the states of dormancy described previously. The often cited example of a parent arousing at a baby’s whimper but sleeping through a thunderstorm illustrates the ability of the sleeping human brain to continuously process sensory signals during the sleep period and trigger complete awakening to significant stimuli within a few hundred milliseconds.

Three recent studies done on the effects of Sleep come to mind:

1. Sleep disturbance negatively impacts the memory consolidation and enhancement that usually occurs with a good night’s sleep. Memory, by combining past events with new information, can help make better judgements in our routine life. That is why a restful sleep helps you to think sharply.

2. Specific brain region that contributes to a person’s appetite sensation is more activated in response to food images after one night of sleep loss than after one night of normal sleep. Poor sleep habits can therefore affect people’s risk of becoming overweight in the long run.

3. During sleep, our muscles relax to almost a paralyzed state. This is probably why a good night’s sleep helps loosen up all those tense muscles resulting from stressful day’s work.

That is why restorative sleep, along with regular exercise and nutritious food completes the trinity of healthy living. Regardless of the exact mechanisms of how sleep works, it is clear that adequate sleep is necessary for healthy functioning.

"DREAM UNDER A DESERT SKY," BY VISUALLY IMPAIRED ARTIST STELLA DE GENOVA

“DREAM UNDER A DESERT SKY,” BY VISUALLY IMPAIRED ARTIST STELLA DE GENOVA

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This is How Meditation Sharpens Your Memory

by Rajeev Kurapati

Memory is the thread that connects the contents of our mind to make sense of the world – to recognize the things and people that matter to us. Imagine your world devoid of this mysterious property of mind. Nothing would make much sense anymore, making impaired memory one of the most disabling conditions one can endure.

Memory is not just a property of the complex beings that are humans. The most fundamental unit of life – cells – has to remember things and events for two reasons: One, to avoid harmful predators or enemies and secondly, to seek favorable stimuli.  Without this faculty of memory, all living beings are vulnerable to forces of nature. And in this world of modernization, our memory banks are flooded with so much useless information that our minds have less and less time to process what’s important.

We have invented gadgets to help remember things, people, and events. But technology has its limits. We’ve also developed mental technique to bolster our memory by training and challenging our mind to remember and retain mass amounts of information – cross word puzzles, Sudoku, breathing routines, regular exercises, and myriad of stress relieving techniques are abound.

A recent study by Michaela Dewar and her colleagues discovered a simple, yet powerful practice that helps memory last over a long term. Here is an excerpt from this article to be published in the journal Psychological Science, a publication of the Association for Psychological Science.

All they really need to do to cement new learning is to sit and close their eyes for a few minutes.” Dewar and her colleagues show that memory can be boosted by taking a brief wakeful rest after learning something verbally new and that memory lasts not just immediately but over a longer term.

Dewar explains that there is growing evidence to suggest that the point at which we experience new information is “just at a very early stage of memory formation and that further neural processes have to occur after this stage for us to be able to remember this information at a later point in time.” The process of consolidating memories takes a little time and the most important things that it needs are peace and quiet.

The best part of this study is not the discovery that peaceful and quiet time helps increase our memory’s capacity, but the fact that this technique has already been practiced from time immemorial by our ancient civilizations. For instance, taking brief periods of time off from the stressful chores of the day and dedicating a few minutes to meditation rejuvenates our mind – giving our mind some quiet time where it can process the information. Several religions have already incorporated silent mind rest in their daily practice – Salah of Muslims, meditation by Buddhists and Hindus, etc.

It appears that we might be re-inventing the wheel when it comes to mind-healthy techniques and practices. Still not convinced that meditation techniques bolsters memory? Benefits of meditation is not a mere belief or a myth anymore. We all wonder if there is any evidence to support it outside of our own minds. With scientific advancement, we now have evidence to prove it. Here is one:

Professor Jim Lagopoulos of Sydney University, Australia, the lead researcher of the joint study between his university and researchers from the Norwegian University of Science and Technology (NTNU). According to this meditation research, electrical brain waves suggest that mental activity during meditation is wakeful and relaxed.

This default activity of the brain is often underestimated. It probably represents a kind of mental processing that connects various experiences and emotional residues, puts them into perspective…”

A mind that is wakeful and relaxed is the key here.

This practice of letting your brain rest for brief periods spread over two or three times a day gives your brain some time to better process the information it receives throughout the day. Now we know that there is a purpose to those rituals and practices that our ancestors laid down in our traditions.  In the name of modernization, we tend to dismiss some of the beneficial techniques our ancestors have shown us. So, the next time you dismiss a ritual or practice as nonsense or absurd, try to see the logic behind it.

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Weight Gain Mystery Revealed

by Rajeev Kurapati

fat_vitruvian_man

All of us know for a fact that our body determines how it digests the food we eat. But this is only one side of the coin. The other side is more interesting: What we eat tells our bodies how to digest.

When you eat a cheese cake on your birthday, how you digest and metabolize that cheese cake is determined by your friends within your gut – your gut microbes. These gut microbes helps with the absorption of dietary fats, allowing the host to extract more calories from the same amount of food.  Your gut microbes play vital role in how you metabolize the diet.

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What we eat tells our bodies how to digest it.

Recent research shows that the abundance of this friendly bacteria in the gut was actually influenced by our bodies’ diet.  Not only that, a diet rich in fat promotes the growth of these fat-loving bacteria, resulting in more fat absorption. So, each time you eat a diet rich in fat, your fat-loving gut microbes grow in number, which results in more fat absorption. As these fat-loving bacteria establish a firm niche in your gut, all you need is a small amount of fat-rich foods to extract a lot more calories. This new information seems to explain why obese people need to work much harder to curb fat absorption from diet.

The bottom-line: No two people extract the same number of calories from the same food they consume. The next time you read the calorie-count on packaged food, keep in mind that the calories you extract vary from person to person, based on how each of our gut microflora processes the food we eat. Think about it!

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Each time you eat a diet rich in fat, your fat-loving gut microbes grow in number, which results in more fat absorption. As these fat-loving bacteria establish a firm niche in your gut, all you need is a small amount of fat-rich foods to extract a lot more calories. This new information seems to explain why obese people need to work much harder to curb fat absorption from diet.

 

Human Ecosystem from Genetic Science Learning Center on Vimeo.

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Happiness Illusion

by Rajeev Kurapati

optical-illusions-faces-wallpaper-1

In the book titled, “How Much is Enough? by economist Robert Skidelsky and his son Edward proposed seven alternatives to the pursuit of money as a means to happiness. They are: health, security, respect, personality, harmony with nature, friendship and leisure. But something most people consider essential seems to be missing from these seven components of a “good life”: faith and religion. 

Let’s assume, theoretically, we have all the seven aspects in abundance in our life. Do you think you will be happy? Probably not. Because, at this stage of perceived happiness, you are still left with one fundamental question: “I have all these things that are the raw materials for my happiness, but what exactly is my life’s purpose?” So now, your happiness hinges upon finding a convincing answer to this question. You start seeking answers in various places: spiritual teachers, converting to other faiths, adopting various “pathways.” A new journey to chase the “real” happiness starts all over again.

For most of us, happiness is always just beyond arm’s reach. We are incessantly trying ways to find happiness, but even when we find it, it seems to be short lived.

We use various “pathways” to happiness, from the “Eight Fold Pathway” of Buddhists to the “Seven Steps to Happiness” of various contemporary spiritual gurus. While these are aimed at individual happiness, there are other principles that are directed toward entire societies and even whole nations. Bhutan is working on implementing a happiness measure called “Gross National Happiness” (GNH) index as an enlightened Eastern alternative to the materialistic pursuit of wealth in the West. Bhutan’s solution to a “happy” society is what it calls the “four pillars”: sustainable economic development, conservation of environment, preservation of culture and good governance. To implement these four pillar approach, the government of Bhutan designed numerous surveys with questions like: “How many people can you count on for help in case you get sick? When did you last spend time socializing with your neighbors?”

If you are spiritual seeker, you tend to think that by repeating formulas, blindly following pathways, reciting gospels, and cultivating virtues, you will be that happy persont you longed to be. You have religions drawing out their own pathways to happiness. The Five Pillars of Islam – faith in oneness of God, daily rituals, charity of the needy, fasting and pilgrimage to mecca. These pillars form the foundation of a happy and fulfilling life of a believer.  Numerous pathways to happiness seem to offer a glimpse so hope from time to time, but our underlying suffering remains more or less the same. Why?

Because we fail to realize that all the “pathways” laid out by the prophets and mystics are the byproducts of enlightenment. We falsely believe that the paths are actually not a formula or short cut to enlightenment. If you don’t believe me, look at the life of any prophet of major religions – you will see that they found enlightenment only by giving up the status quo.

And if you are a scientific person, you think that the next invention will ease the dissonance. By no means am I undermining the scientific inventions of human mind. I recognize that it is these inventions that essentially make living easier and more comfortable. From ancient man using silicon rocks for hunting to the modern man making silicon chips that power our day-to-day lives, we have truly mastered the elements of nature. Scientific method made our lives far more comfortable than any species on Earth. In fact, it is because we made space in our daily lives by inventing such survival tools and organized institutions that we are able to dedicate more time to our loved ones. Imagine all our time being spent hunting and fishing, and trying to survive against odds of nature. We would have no time or mind to think about existential inquiries such as our life’s purpose.

My point is that living comfortably is not the same as having a fulfilling life. Even people who don’t have luxurious lives may still lead far more satisfying and fulfilling lives. The key to that fulfillment lies in leaving this planet a better place than how we found it.

 

Living comfortably is not the same as having a fulfilling life.

 

If I strive toward the well being of others, what about me? What about my own problems and struggles?

When your goal is to become useful to lives around you, you are transcending personal ambitions. Once you establish your usefulness in the society, your personal problems become the problems of everyone else. They will see so much value in you that they’ll internalize your problems as their own. At this level, you transcended your little petty issues, idiosyncrasies, and egoistic feelings.  Now, people won’t over analyze your qualifications.  Your qualification is simply your desire to help others.

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Meditation – What It Is And What It’s Not

by Rajeev Kurapati
Art by Nicholas Roerich

Art by Nicholas Roerich

A student went to his Zen master and said, “My meditation is horrible! I feel so distracted, my legs ache, I’m constantly falling asleep. It’s just horrible!”

“It will pass,” the teacher said matter-of-factly.

A week later, the student came back to his teacher. “My meditation is wonderful! I feel so aware, so peaceful, so alive! It’s just wonderful!’

“It will pass,” the teacher replied matter-of-factly.

The point here – the state of mind is in constant flux. Keeping it in a steady state comes with discipline and dedication. Meditation is one such technique to bringing your agitated mind into a balanced state. But it requires practice to sustain the beneficial effects of this mental exercise. For many of us, even if attained the “zen” state, it is more or less temporary because mind craves newness. The moment you think you got very comfortable with this exercise, you find yourselves distracted by a passing by event or a desire. That is what the Zen master was alluding to. Therefore, the key to practicing meditation is not to follow a formula but to understand the mechanics of our mind – how our mind controls our body and vice-versa.

Meditation pertains to the state of mind that is achieved by certain deliberate practices. What we are actually doing in this active process of “calming” our mind is bringing it from an excited state to a balanced state of equanimity. The key to achieving balance is to regulate our breathing pattern.

Imagine when you are stressed and anxious. The first thing you’d notice is your breathing is rapid and shallow. This stress response is actually helpful in the short term. It’s our body’s mechanism to counter physical threat or emotional disturbance. But if this stress response becomes our constant companion, our breathing gets into an inefficient shallow pattern, which brings in less oxygenation to the tissues. Adding to this, a perpetual state of stress keeps the body in a high adrenergic and cortisol flooded state, which is detrimental to the health of blood vessels in the long run. This results in chronic ailments such as diabetes, high blood pressure, and muscle tension just to name a few. Beyond a doubt, the effects of long-term stress were detrimental.

The key to cutting this viscous cycle of inefficient breathing and chronic stress is to modify one or both of these variables. You can deliberately regulate your breathing, bringing it to a more efficient pattern by gently coercing yourself to take deep and steady breathing. By mindfully reminding yourself to focus on your breath, regular breathing eventually becomes habitual.

Meditation in the form of breathing exercises pertains to the mind-and-body aspect of our being.

For most of us, stress is an integral part of daily life. Sometimes, stress levels are at a breaking point. A good night sleep can rescue us and keeps us sane to take on the challenges of the next day. You can watch anyone in deep sleep – their breathing pattern is steady and more or less consistent. One of the main reasons behind such a rejuvenated physical and mental state after a good night sleep is because of the breath’s steadier pattern. Sometimes, a quick nap during the day can make all the difference.

In this calm state of mind, you can think sharper – reducing your mind-wandering tendencies. While this has tremendous health benefits, it is not to be confused with any spiritual liberation or salvation. Meditation in the form of breathing exercises pertains to the mind and body aspect of our being. To understand what is “spiritual” about your being, you have to go beyond the mind and body. But how?… 

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