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  • Andrew Stephenson

Survive then Thrive Part 3: Sleep

"There does not seem to be one major organ within the body, or process within the brain, that isn't optimally enhanced by sleep (and detrimentally impaired when we don't get enough)." - Matthew Walker, neuroscientist, UC Berkley

If you missed Part 1 or Part 2 of this series, you can find them here and here.

Before we even start talking about sleep… I know. I know saying “get more sleep” is much easier than actually making time to get more sleep. But compelling recent and emerging research is making it more difficult to ignore the fact that we simply have to find a way to prioritize sleep if we want to optimize our health, longevity, resilience, and performance.

Our modern cultural concept that exhaustion is some badge of honor is treacherous. People seem to think that being “busy” equals being important or successful. It doesn’t. What it really equals is burnout and inefficiency. We’ve all heard about celebrities or successful business people who brag about getting up at 4 am or who say sleep is wasted time and …. Yawn… it makes me tired to even write about it.

So instead of getting into a conversation about celebrity life-hacks, let's instead focus on a few facts. Lack of sleep:

  • Amplifies emotional reactivity (or should we say over-reactivity?) by 60%

  • Significantly suppresses your immune system (those who sleep less than 7 hours a night are 3 times more likely to catch a cold than those who sleep 7-8 hours… not a good thing during a respiratory virus pandemic)

  • Disrupts hormones which help regulate appetite and satiety (ahem… #quarantine15)

  • Increases the likelihood of heart disease, diabetes, potentially cancer, and is linked to early death

  • Increases the likelihood of depression and potentially dementia or Alzheimer’s disease

  • Reduces cognitive function and decreases memory functions and ability to learn or retain new information

If you haven’t heard or read his work before, you should watch this TED talk by UC Berkley neuroscientist, Matthew Walker (if you’re short on time even the first 30 seconds might be enough to convince some… did he say smaller testicles 😮).

Many people have convinced themselves that they “only need” or “function fine” off of 5-6 hours of sleep. Matthew Walker unequivocally says that is not true. While there are some genetic exceptions that seem to allow some people to remain healthy off less sleep, they are so rare that the probability you are one of them is almost none. Sure, we can certainly become conditioned to chronic sleep deprivation and we can seemingly get-by. But for most, it’s simply because they don’t know how much better they could feel or function if they actually improved their sleep. They essentially have a stunted sense of “normal” as their baseline. The truth is, you will feel better, be healthier, and function more effectively if you improve the consistency of healthy sleep.

Right now, as a population, we are stretched thin and incredibly stressed and anxious. For a lot of people, traditional work hours were hijacked by this pandemic. But working late into the night and rising early with your kids day in and day out will ultimately lead to poor effectiveness with your work, emotional dysregulation, and strained relationships with your loved ones. It is unsustainable and leads to poor physical and mental health. This completely belies what we actually need at this moment, which is to diligently protect our health (physical and mental), strengthen and appreciate our family relationships, and be as efficient as possible with the time we have available for work. Prioritizing sleep is far from being lazy; it’s actually an investment in your health and performance.

The science recommends 7-9 hours of sleep. For many, that would mean carving out a sleep window of at least 8 hours daily. This is NOT wasted time; this is a NECESSARY INVESTMENT in yourself.

Practical tips for improving your sleep:

  • Go to bed and wake up at the same time every day (or as often as you can), even after a bad night’s sleep and on the weekend.

  • Keep your bedroom temperature cool (Walker recommends about 65 deg F). Wear socks if your feet get cold 😊.

  • An hour before bedtime, dim lights and turn off all screens. Blackout curtains are helpful and necessary for shift workers who routinely need to sleep during daylight hours.

  • If you can’t sleep, get out of bed and do something quiet and relaxing (avoiding screens) until the urge to sleep returns. Then go back to bed.

  • Avoid caffeine after 1 pm and avoid alcohol. Alcohol disrupts sleep cycles and reduces the effectiveness of sleep, including specifically suppressing REM sleep.

  • Regular exercise can also improve sleep quality

Like I said at the start… I know. I know that creating extra time for sleep isn’t easy. But the payback in terms of health, emotional balance, and productivity is worth it. Now more than ever.

If you’d like to support your employees with science-driven approaches for promoting health behaviors, including resilience and high-performance programs, please reach out and let us share some of our unique and industry-leading health, mental fitness, and high-performance solutions. Be well.


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