Sunday, September 24, 2023

Sleep, Running, And Lessons For Corporate World

Lack of sleep can cause many problems such as heart disease. Young people suffer from it more than the elderly.

Today, it is five thousand days since a tragic event shook India’s running community as well as the corporate world.

Back in 2009, the then-CEO of SAP India, Ranjan Das, was an avid marathon runner. In October 2009, he came home from his gym, had a heart attack, and died. He was 42. Since I was (and am) also a marathon runner, and of the same age, many well-wishers told me to refrain from running and participating in marathons.

In response, I wrote the article below in March 2010, which became my first preventive health write-up. I sent it by email to my Runners Group, from where it was widely circulated around the world. Over the years, I found its copies originating even from Croatia, Australia, and Bahrain, with my name deleted.

The same material also appeared on many websites under different author names. Some blatantly usurped it and posted it on their blogs under their own names.

Even today, every few months, this article’s contents appear on social media under some strange author names such as Dr Siva, Cardiologist. So if you see it next time on WhatsApp, you know where it came from!

Coming back to the subject, I was surprised that marathon training could be the cause. So I looked at Ranjan’s earlier interviews. I found that he had admitted to his lack of adequate sleep. Eventually, I wrote the following article (posted with minor language editing) about sleep deficit and its effects on us.

Acknowledgement: I was the CEO of a medical informatics company at that time and our client had asked us to prepare educational material for physicians. Since it is nearly fifteen years, I will take the liberty of keeping aside the confidentiality part: It was based on a talk by Dr Brian Pinto, a very renowned cardiologist in Mumbai, speaking to doctors on the benefits of a sleep-inducing drug named Zolpidem, from a class of medicines called Z-drugs or sedative hypnotics. A well-known pharmaceutical MNC was launching this medicine in India at that time and had commissioned us to compile the material. I wrote this article for my running friends, based on what was covered in that talk. So the scientific information on heart health is entirely credited to Dr Pinto.

My article:

A Wake-Up Call For Corporate India

A few months ago, we heard about the sad demise of Ranjan Das from Bandra, Mumbai. He was very active in sports—was a fitness freak and a marathon runner. It was common to see him run on Bandra’s Carter Road. Just after Diwali, on 21st October 2009, he returned home from his gym after a workout, collapsed with a massive heart attack, and died.

It was certainly a wake-up call for corporate India. However, it was even more disastrous for runners like us. Since Ranjan was an avid marathoner (in Feb 2009, he ran Chennai Marathon at the same time I was running Pondicherry Marathon 180 kilometres away), the question arose as to why an exceptionally active, fit person succumbed to a heart attack at the age of forty-two years.

Lack of Sleep As The Cause

The reason everyone missed was a small line in the reports that Ranjan used to make do with four to five hours of sleep. Here is an earlier interview of Ranjan on NDTV® in the program “Boss’ Day Out: Ranjan Das CEO of SAP India“.

Heart Problems Caused By Lack of Sleep

Recently, I compiled a CME (Continuing Medical Education) program based on a talk by a well-known Mumbai cardiologist on “Heart Problems Caused by Lack of Sleep”. I have distilled the key points from that lecture below:

  1. Short sleep duration (less than five hours) increased the risk of high blood pressure (BP) by 350% to 500% compared to those who slept longer than six hours per night.
  2. Young people (25-49 years of age) are twice as likely to get high BP if they sleep less.
  3. Individuals who slept less than five hours a night had a three-fold increased risk of heart attacks.
  4. Complete or partial lack of sleep increased the blood concentrations of C-Reactive Protein (CRP), the strongest predictor of heart attacks. Even after getting adequate sleep later, the levels stayed high!
  5. Just one night of sleep loss increases very toxic substances in the body such as Interleukin-6 (IL-6), Tumour Necrosis Factor-alpha (TNF-α) and CRP. They increase the risks of many medical conditions, including cancer, arthritis, and heart disease.
  6. Sleeping for less than six hours per night leads to an eighteen per cent increase in heart disease.
  7. Sleeping for less than five hours per night leads to a thirty-nine per cent increase in heart disease.

Ideal Sleep

  • Sleep is composed of two stages: REM (Rapid Eye Movement) and non-REM. The former helps in mental consolidation while the latter helps in physical repair and rebuilding. During the night, you alternate between REM and non-REM stages four to five times.
  • The earlier part of sleep is mostly non-REM. During that period, your pituitary gland releases growth hormones that repair your body. The latter part of sleep is more and more REM type.

Below are my comments:

  • For you to be mentally alert during the day, the latter part of sleep is more important. No wonder when you wake up with an alarm clock after five-six hours of sleep, you are mentally irritable throughout the day (lack of REM sleep).
  • If you have slept for less than five hours (lack of non-REM sleep, too), your body is a complete physical mess, you are tired throughout the day, move like a zombie, and your immunity is way down.
  • Finally, as long-distance runners, you need an additional hour of sleep to repair the running-related damage.


Barring stress control, Ranjan Das did everything right: eating proper food, exercising, and maintaining an appropriate weight. But he missed getting adequate sleep—a minimum of seven hours. In my opinion, that eventually took his life.

Today’s corporate work culture not only brings stress but also obesity, potential hair loss, and weaker eyesight.

If you are not getting enough sleep, you are playing with fire, even if you have low stress.

Unfortunately, Ranjan Das is not alone when it comes to losing sleep. Many of us are doing exactly the same, perhaps out of ignorance.

It is fourteen years since I wrote this, but nothing much has changed in the corporate culture. Though five thousand days have elapsed since that ‘wake-up call’, it helps to remember a Hindi saying, “Morning starts when you wake up”.

Good morning, hopefully.

To Read More

First Published on: 13th March 2010
Image Credit: Gerd Altmann from Pixabay
Last Updated on: 29th June 2023



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