My own sleep journey really started with my painful wakeup call. On the morning of April 6, 2007, I was lying on the floor of my home office in a pool of blood. On my way down, my head had hit the corner of my desk, cutting my eye and breaking my cheekbone. I had collapsed from exhaustion and lack of sleep.
In the wake of my collapse, I found myself going from doctor to doctor, from brain MRI to CAT scan to echocardiogram, to find out if there was any underlying medical problem beyond exhaustion. There wasn’t, but doctors’ waiting rooms, it turns out, were good places for me to ask myself a lot of questions about the kind of life I was living.
I wrote about my wake-up call in my last book, Thrive, and as I went around the world talking about the book I found that the subject people wanted to discuss most – by far – was sleep: how difficult it is to get enough, how there are simply not enough hours in the day, how tough it is to wind down, how hard it is to fall asleep and stay asleep, even when we set aside enough time.
And since my own transformation into a sleep evangelist, everywhere I go, someone will pull me aside and, often in hushed and conspiratorial tones, confess, "I’m just not getting enough sleep. I’m exhausted all the time." Or, as one young woman told me after a talk in San Francisco, "I don’t remember the last time I wasn’t tired." By the end of an evening, no matter where I am in the world or what the theme of the event is, I’ll have had that same conversation with any number of people in the room. What everyone wants to know is, "What should I do to get more and better sleep?" So I decided I wanted to take a fuller look at the subject because it’s clear that if we’re going to truly thrive, we must begin with sleep. It’s the gateway through which a life of wellbeing must travel.
Which is all to say that I went into The Sleep Revolution with a very healthy respect for sleep. But the most surprising thing I learned overall while researching and writing the book is just how important sleep is – how deeply and profoundly it is intertwined with every aspect of our physical wellbeing, our mental health, our job performance, our relationships and our happiness. There are 50 pages of scientific endnotes in the book – if there was an interesting or notable study I missed, it wasn’t for lack of trying! – but here are a few conclusions that surprised me.
1) It’s long been known that sleep is important to our brain health, but recent research is revealing some of the particulars of that relationship. For centuries, especially since the Industrial Revolution, it was assumed that the sleeping brain was simply resting, that it was the opposite to our active, alert daytime brain. It turns out that the sleeping brain is feverishly busy, and the work that’s being done is as important as anything being done during the daytime. For example, it is during sleep that our brain clears toxic waste proteins – the kind associated with Alzheimer’s disease.
I loved the way Dr. Maiken Nedergaard from the University of Rochester put it: "It’s like a dishwasher," she said. "The brain only has limited energy at its disposal, and it appears that it must choose between two different functional states – awake and aware or asleep and cleaning up. You can think of it like having a house party. You can either entertain the guests or clean up the house, but you can’t really do both at the same time."
2) I was stunned by the extent to which the sleep revolution is in full swing in the sports world. It’s no longer a secret that sleep is the ultimate – side-effect-free – performance enhancer. In fact, the elite sports world is helping to demolish our collective delusion that sleep deprivation is the macho, tough, disciplined way to live your life if you want to win. It’s exciting to see more and more world class athletes coming out of the burnout closet to talk openly about how embracing sleep helps them win on the court and in the field.
One of these is the Golden State Warriors’ Andre Iguodala. In the beginning of his career, he paid little attention to his sleep – he’d usually stay up late watching TV and then wake early to hit the gym. This went on until he turned 30.
That’s when he told the Warriors’ director of performance he wanted to see a sleep specialist. And he started taking his relationship to sleep much more seriously. He banished devices from his bedroom, he started tracking his sleep, and he began to go to bed earlier. As he put it, "Sleep good, feel good, play good."
The results? His playing time increased by 12 per cent and his three-point shot percentage more than doubled. His points per minute went up 29 per cent, his free-throw percentage increased by 8.9 per cent, and his turnovers went down 37 per cent. And he was named the MVP for the 2015 finals. After which he Instagrammed a picture of himself cradling the MVP award – credit where credit is due – while sleeping!
3) It’s amazing how much creating a nightly ritual around sleep can help you change your habits. Think about how we put children to sleep – a highly ritualized march toward bedtime that may include a bath, story time, tucking in. And yet, as adults, we push sleep away. So when we walk through the door of our bedroom, it should be a symbolic moment that marks leaving the day, with all of its problems and unfinished business, behind us. When we wake up in the morning, there will be plenty of time for us to pick up our projects and deal with our challenges, refreshed and recharged. I treat my transition to sleep as a sacrosanct ritual.
Before bed, I take a hot bath with epsom salts and a candle flickering nearby – a bath that I prolong if I’m feeling anxious or worried about something. I don’t sleep in my workout clothes as I used to (think of the mixed message that sends to our brains) but have pyjamas, nightdresses, even T-shirts dedicated to sleep. Sometimes I have a cup of chamomile or lavender tea if I want something warm and comforting before going to bed. Think of each stage as designed to help you shed more of your stubborn daytime worries.
4) Our culture is obsessed with weight and of course weight can be a serious health issue, implicated in a vast array of diseases. But seldom mentioned in the discussion is sleep. We think of weight mostly in terms of eating, and therefore mostly in terms of what happens while we’re awake. But our weight is intimately connected to our sleep.
A study by the Mayo Clinic found that those who get only six hours of sleep per night are 23 per cent more likely to be overweight. Go to less than four hours and the increased likelihood of being overweight climbs to a staggering 73 per cent. And researchers are also finding out why. It’s at least partly due to the fact that when we sleep for eight hours we produce less of a hormone called ghrelin — the so-called ‘hunger hormone’, which increases our appetite. And we also have lower levels of the hormone leptin, the ‘satiety hormone’, which lowers our appetite. Other studies have shown a relationship between sleep and the production of orexin, a neurotransmitter that stimulates physical activity and energy expenditure. When you’re sleep-deprived, you have less of it.
In other words, if you want to gain weight, just cut back on your sleep.
5) I learned that the complex workings of the sleeping brain aren’t just keeping sleep scientists busy – they’re also inspiring and informing the work of innovators like Demis Hassabis, whose artificial intelligence company, DeepMind, was purchased by Google in 2014. The company’s mission is to use artificial intelligence and insights from neuroscience to help solve some of the world’s biggest problems.
As they are making advances in artificial intelligence, Hassabis and his team are being driven by a key insight summarized by artificial-intelligence expert Stuart Russell: "Basically a machine that sleeps and dreams learns more and performs better in the long run than one that is always awake. What it means for a machine to sleep is to essentially switch off its direct connection to perception and action, while to dream means to repeatedly replay experiences in order to extract the maximum learning signal from them." As Hassabis told me, "It is a paradox. We think of sleep as an inefficient use of time, and in fact it is the most efficient use of time in terms of learning and memory."
And here are three tips you can use to improve your sleep immediately.
Don’t charge your phone next to your bed
Make a point to disconnect from your devices, for the sake of your sleep and your overall wellbeing. I have a specific time at night when I regularly turn off my devices – and gently escort them out of my bedroom.
No caffeine after 2 pm
Today caffeine has become a key component of our sleep-deprived culture. But when taken too late in the day – when we are trying to fight off that afternoon slump – caffeine hinders our ability to fall asleep at night. As a result, we are even more tired the next day. So we reach for another caffeinated drink in an endless sleep- deprived cycle.
Create a ritual around your transition to sleep
It will be different for each one of us, but for me it includes a hot bath with Epsom salts, some light stretching, deep breathing or meditation to help ease my body and mind into sleep.
The Sleep Revolution: Transforming Your Life, One Night at a Time by Arianna Huffington is available now, published by WH Allen on 7 April 2016, hardback £16.99