The Sleep Revolution We Need

Life is short.  Perhaps an affirmation, an observation or a comment, but nevertheless an inalienable truth.  Life is short, at around 76 years for most of us, and about one third of this life is spent doing something we know very little about- sleeping.

As David Randall notes, “Sleep is so important, yet so poorly understood, that it led one biologist to say, ‘if sleep doesn’t serve an absolutely vital function, it is the greatest mistake evolution ever made.’” (Dreamland: Adventures in the Strange Science of Sleep)

We are hard-wired to need roughly one hour of sleep for every two hours we are awake, yet our world has become a twenty-four-hour phenomenon.  Culturally perhaps more than ever before, sleep is seen as something to be avoided- something to fight with coffee and distractions.  In many of our offices, people brag about how little sleep they can function on, and the demands of modern life mean that healthy sleep is not only (seemingly) unattainable for many of us, but perhaps even seen as a sign that you’re not ‘living life to the full,’ after all- life is short.

To learn more about the ‘crisis’ of sleep our world is facing, its impact, and what we can do about it, I spoke to Arianna Huffington, co-founder, president, and editor-in-chief of the Huffington Post Media Group, and author of fifteen books.

Arianna is one of the world’s most celebrated entrepreneurs, In May 2005, she launched The Huffington Post, a news and blog site that quickly became one of the most widely-read, linked to, and frequently-cited media brands on the Internet. In 2012, the site won a Pulitzer Prize for national reporting.

Based on her own experiences and research, Arianna’s 15th book, “The Sleep Revolution: Transforming Your Life One Night At A Time,” unravels the science, history and mystery of sleep, and in the process helps us understand one of life’s greatest puzzles; why sleep matters.

Q:  What are the causes and impacts of our current sleep crisis?

[Arianna Huffington] The bottom line? When we’re not well rested, we’re not as healthy. Lack of sleep is often the culprit behind anxiety, stress, depression, and a myriad of health problems.

A Russian study found that nearly 63 percent of men who suffered a heart attack also had a sleep disorder. Men who had a sleep disorder had a risk of heart attack that was 2 to 2.6 times higher and a risk of stroke that was 1.5 to 4 times higher. A Norwegian study determined that people who had trouble falling asleep were involved in 34 percent of fatal car accidents. And those with symptoms of insomnia are nearly three times more likely to die from a fatal injury.

By weakening our immune system, sleep deprivation also makes us more susceptible to garden-variety illnesses, like the common cold. It would actually be better for business if employees called in tired, got a little more sleep, and then came in a bit late, rather than call in sick a few days later or, worse, show up sick, dragging themselves through the day while infecting others.

As we go deeper under the hood, sleep becomes even more vital, playing a major role in brain maintenance. While we sleep, the brain is able to get rid of toxins, including proteins that are associated with Alzheimer’s disease. Which is to say, if we don’t allow the brain time to do this crucial work, the cost can be high.

Sleep affects our mental health every bit as profoundly as it does our physical health. Sleep deprivation has been found to have a strong connection with practically every mental health disorder we know of, especially depression and anxiety. “When you find depression, even when you find anxiety, when you scratch the surface 80 to 90 percent of the time you find a sleep problem as well,” says University of Delaware psychologist Brad Wolgast. In the Great British Sleep Survey, researchers found that sleep-deprived people were seven times more likely to experience feelings of helplessness and five times more likely to feel lonely.

This crisis is rooted in the collective delusion that burnout is the necessary price we must pay for accomplishment and success. Recent scientific findings make it clear that this couldn’t be less true. Our golden age of sleep science is revealing all the ways in which sleep plays a vital role in our decision making, emotional intelligence, cognitive function, and creativity. Not only is there no tradeoff between living a well-rounded life and high performance, performance is actually improved when our lives include time for renewal.

Q: Why do our cultures dismiss sleep?

[Arianna Huffington]  Sleep became not just devalued but actively scorned. After all, every hour spent sleeping was another hour spent not working—therefore another wasted hour. And despite a growing awareness of the importance of well-being, so many of our modern attitudes still reflect this.

Q: How does our culture ‘stay awake’?

[Arianna Huffington] Our sleeping pill problem is global: in 2014, people around the world spent a staggering $58 billion on sleep-aid products, a figure projected to rise to $76.7 billion by 2019. Not surprisingly, the use of sleeping pills is highest among those who regularly get less than five hours of sleep a night.

Those who want to explore herbal sleep aids— and especially those who want to wean themselves off sleeping pills— have many options to consider. Valerian root, for example, is a natural sedative whose use dates back to ancient Greece, where Hippocrates prescribed it in the fourth century BC. In recent years, its effectiveness has been supported by research. In addition to valerian root, Dr. Frank Lipman also recommends other nutrients that can improve sleep, including gamma-aminobutyric acid, or GABA (a naturally occurring chemical that dampens brain activity), and L- theanine (an amino acid found in green-tea leaves that induces brain waves connected to relaxation).

Interior designer Michael Smith, who spends a large part of his life on planes, told me he sprays orange essential oil on the T-shirt he sleeps in at night. He finds the scent calms his mind and has a humidifying effect. The lesson here is that it is important to experiment. And the mere fact that you’re taking any deliberate action to improve your sleep means that you likely will.

We associate insomnia with sleep eluding us at night, but it is often connected to a state of hyperarousal throughout the day. “Although hyperaroused insomniacs complain of fatigue and tiredness, . . . their problem is that they cannot relax,” said Dr. Alexandros Vgontzas, a professor of psychiatry at Penn State. But there are treatments. Dr. Gregg Jacobs developed cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) for insomnia after studying the meditative practices of Tibetan monks and seeing the control they have over their brain waves.

Q: What would be the impact to our lives (and our business & communities) of better sleep?

[Arianna Huffington] The sleep revolution is finally hitting the workplace. It’s not in full swing yet, but you can see the evidence all around. Of course, it was also in the workplace where sleep first got knocked off its pedestal in the Industrial Revolution. But now the business world is waking up to the high cost of sleep deprivation on productivity, health care, and ultimately the bottom line. We’re living in a different time from when Seinfeld’s George Costanza had to build a custom “bed-desk” at his office to keep his napping habit a secret. Still, we often define ourselves by our work. And so we reverse-engineer the structure of our non-work lives to conform to our work lives. Because of that, it becomes much easier to change our sleeping habits when we have supportive workplace policies and a business culture that embraces sleep. I expect the nap room to soon become as universal as the conference room.

My own life has improved in pretty much every way. These days, 95 percent of the time I get eight hours of sleep a night. Now, instead of waking up to the sense that I have to trudge through activities, I wake up feeling joyful about the day’s possibilities. And I’m also better able to recognize red flags and rebound from setbacks. It’s like being dialed into a different channel that has less static.

Q: What are the key changes and techniques we can introduce into our lives to improve our sleep?

[Arianna Huffington] The change I’m most passionate about – because of the impact it’s had on my own life – is creating a healthy transition to sleep that begins before you even step into your bedroom. I treat my own transition to sleep as a sacrosanct ritual. First, I turn off all my electronic devices and gently escort them out of my bedroom. Then, 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 pajamas, 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. I love reading real, physical books – especially poetry, novels and books that have nothing to do with work.

Another practice that my older daughter, Christina, has been using, and that I’ve borrowed, is making a gratitude list part of our bedtime routine. I find that it focuses my mind on the blessings in my life— large and small— rather than on the running list of unresolved problems.

Q: How can we cope with jet-lag and the demands of global travel?

[Arianna Huffington] Even for those who normally sleep well, nothing can disrupt sleep like travel. I’m actually a little bit obsessed – okay, totally obsessed – with trying to do everything I can to make my flights more sleep-friendly. That’s because I travel so much, and I’ve learned over time that a little preparation goes a long way. So here are a few of my tips for making sleep more likely.

  1. I have my sleeping gear permanently packed in my carry-on: an eye mask, noise-canceling headphones, earplugs, herbal teas (including lavender and licorice), and my favorite neck pillow.
  1. The difficult truth of air travel is that a great deal of the experience is out of our control. Variables from turbulence and crying babies to chatterbox seatmates and jolting announcements can thwart even the best-laid sleep plans. Given that you don’t know how rested you will be when you land, it’s best to allow time for some real sleep before you schedule meetings or hit the tourist spots.
  1. To ease the transition between time zones, bring your own nourishing snacks. My own travel kit includes salt-free almonds and walnuts, cut vegetables, and on long flights my favorite: goat cheese and honey-baked turkey in a small container with an ice pack. If you don’t have anything to eat, it is going to be much harder to resist the airline’s offerings of salty pretzels, chips, and “freshly baked” cookies.
  1. Once you arrive at your destination, a sleep-friendly hotel can make all the difference. The hotel industry has made sleep a priority, in a way that was unimaginable just a few years ago. Now, sleep is the industry’s new holy grail, and options for sleep-obsessed travelers, like me, now go well beyond the classic request to be on a high floor and away from the elevators.
  1. As with your bedroom at home, keep your hotel room dark, quiet and cool – my preferred temperature is 67 degrees. I charge my devices in the bathroom and I travel with stickers to put on any blinking lights from the phone, the TV, the alarm clock, light coming through the door from the hallway, etc. I use a towel to block the light!

Q: How can businesses take advantage of the sleep revolution?  

[Arianna Huffington] At HuffPost, there was skepticism when we first installed nap rooms in New York in 2011. HuffPosters were reluctant to be seen walking into a nap room in the middle of a bustling newsroom in “the city that never sleeps.” But now they are perpetually full, and we’re spreading nap rooms around the world, starting with our London office. And more and more companies are installing nap rooms, including Ben & Jerry’s, Zappos, and Nike. The business world is waking up to the high cost of sleep deprivation on productivity, creativity, health care, and ultimately the bottom line. And we have a growing number of business leaders realizing that well-rested employees are better employees.

And it’s not just productivity and creativity. It’s a broader cultural shift, where we’re redefining what we value, and changing workplace culture so that walking around sleep-deprived becomes stigmatized instead of lauded!

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 percent and his three-point shot percentage more than doubled. His points per minute went up 29 percent, his free-throw percentage increased by 8.9 percent, and his turnovers went down 37 percent. 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!

Q: In your own personal journey, how has your relationship with sleep changed, and how has it changed you?

[Arianna Huffington] My journey toward a healthier relationship with sleep 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 wakeup 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. And 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 well-being must travel.

Q: What would be your vision for a society with better sleep?  

[Arianna Huffington] In addition to those wish list items, my vision is for a world where we free ourselves from our collective delusion and reclaim the special realm of sleep— not just because it makes us better at our jobs (though there’s that) and not just because it makes us healthier in every way (there is that, too) but also because of the unique way it allows us to connect with a deeper part of ourselves.

Editor’s Note:

In my own life, I’ve learned the hard way that sleep matters.  As a business-owner, teacher, investor and mentor, my life (for many years) revolved around functioning on very little sleep, huge amounts of coffee and the promise that there will be plenty of time to rest when my time is up.  This didn’t work out so well; and the dozens of therapists, counsellors and mental health professionals I’ve seen in my life whilst fighting depression and anxiety all note that sleep is one of the most important things to maintain healthy minds.  I didn’t believe this until I struck a Faustian bargain with my psychiatrist to change my sleeping habits and practices.

You know what? Within one month, my life had improved so much I found myself thinking, “think of all that life I missed by not sleeping more…


The Sleep Revolution: Transforming Your Life, One Night at a Time, by Arianna Huffington is available now.

Published by Harmony – Apr 05, 2016 | 400 Pages | 5-1/2 x 8-1/4 | ISBN 9781101904008


Thought Economics

About the Author

Vikas Shah MBE DL is an entrepreneur, investor & philanthropist. He is CEO of Swiscot Group alongside being a venture-investor in a number of businesses internationally. He is a Non-Executive Board Member of the UK Government’s Department for Business, Energy & Industrial Strategy and a Non-Executive Director of the Solicitors Regulation Authority. Vikas was awarded an MBE for Services to Business and the Economy in Her Majesty the Queen’s 2018 New Year’s Honours List and in 2021 became a Deputy Lieutenant of the Greater Manchester Lieutenancy. He is an Honorary Professor of Business at The Alliance Business School, University of Manchester and Visiting Professors at the MIT Sloan Lisbon MBA.

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