Sleep: The Backbone of Mental Fitness

In this fast-paced, information-overloaded modern world, one of the few times that we stop our persistent informational consumption and inwardly reflect is when our heads hit the pillow. – Matthew Walker, PhD, Why We Sleep

In the modern corporate workplace (as well as schools), there’s a cultural myth around the Sleepless Hero. I’m sure at some point in your life, whether at work, school or home, you’ve encountered a Sleepless Hero. The zombie-like corpse may have boasted about how few hours of sleep they got because of a busy schedule. “I stayed up until X hour last night and got, like, no sleep.” I’m guilty of uttering this phrase as well. The underlying implication in such statements is that the Sleepless Hero is hard-working and accomplished. They have such good genetics and willpower that sleep simply won’t stand in the way of their (much more important) tasks. But is a Sleepless Hero really a hero, or do they just lack productive habits?

In truth, sleep is the most important component of your routine for mental clarity and productivity. One study involving surgeons found that sleep-deprivation increased task completion time by 14% and caused 20% more errors when compared to well-rested individuals.[1] Cutting back on sleep can have a pernicious negative feedback loop whereby the mind becomes less efficient as it gets tired, causing working hours to extend and thereby leaving less time for the mind to rest up. The costs are significant. According to a recent Harvard Medical School report, 40% of the US workforce chronically under-sleeps, causing over $63 Billion in lost productivity annually.[2]

But the consequences of undersleeping extend far beyond the workplace. Lack of sleep harms our memory, immune systems, testosterone levels, appetite, and virtually every other aspect of health and lifestyle that we care about. In the interest of time, many people are cutting out the most powerful healing force of nature. Ironically, sleeping less also shortens your lifespan, actually reducing your overall time on this planet. So if you’re looking for a time shortcut, sleep is not the answer!

Our internal biological clock, called the suprachiasmatic nucleus, takes cues from the sunlight, as well as temperature and other regular inputs, in order to tell the pineal gland when to release a sleep hormone called melatonin. Many facets of modern living often send the wrong signals to this internal sleep regulator, throwing off our natural rythms.

Our internal biological clock, called the suprachiasmatic nucleus, takes cues from the sunlight, as well as temperature and other regular inputs, in order to tell the pineal gland when to release a sleep hormone called melatonin. Many facets of modern living often send the wrong signals to this internal sleep regulator, throwing off our natural rythms.

Part of the problem is that modern Homo sapiens are sleeping very differently than our ancestors did. With the advent of central heating, caffeine, sleeping pills,[3] tobacco, alcohol, blue LEDs and city noise, we have lopped off about 20% of the sleep that is required.

Humans aren’t the only ones who require quality R&R in order to thrive.Every species thus far discovered sleeps, and even bacteria follow a circadian rhythm. Sleep is so essential for health that (despite the vulnerability and time tradeoffs) nature couldn’t design an effective organism without it! 

Sleep Hygiene

The prescription for lack of sleep quantity and quality entails good sleep hygiene. It’s like brushing your teeth, but 10x more important.

 Just as with physical training, a good night’s sleep can make all the difference between optimal and abysmal performance. Gift yourself an 8-hour sleep opportunity.It sounds obvious, I know, but most individuals aren’t sleeping the way we were evolutionarily designed to. Here are some basic habits that will have you jumping out of bed refreshed each morning:

-       Light: Your body bases its sleep rhythm largely upon your exposure to light. Your skin actually has sensors that can detect light as well. I suggest making your room as dark as possible by implementing blackout curtains. Also, avoiding electronics before bed is essential because screens will suppress melatonin. If you do insist on using your computer, there’s an app called Flux that will help eliminate blue light from the screen. Upon waking up, in order to help your circadian rhythm, making sure that you’re getting proper sunlight exposure. If you live in a dark house or cloudy area, you might purchase a blue light device, like the Philips Blue Light (available on Amazon). 

-       Drugs: Avoid tobacco and alcohol, which suppress REM sleep. Avoid taking sleeping pills or other sedatives.

-       Shutting Down: You might journal your thoughts before bed, read fiction,[4] and use specific meditation techniques to fall asleep more quickly.

-       Routine: Perhaps the most essential piece of sleep hygiene is to establish a regular sleep schedule, going to bed and waking up at the same time each day. Lowering your room temperature to around 65 degrees Fahrenheit (18 degrees Celsius) and taking a hot shower before bed will help your body get into a good rythm.[5] Also, avoid naps after 3pm and avoid your bed unless you are sleeping. Getting physical exercise (but not right before bed) helps as well. 

-       Supplements: I use ZMA and Huperzine A. When traveling across time zones, I’ll use melatonin to combat jet lag and get back on a good rythm.

PS - Claim a free trial of the FitMind meditation app here.

[1]Altschuler, Eric Lewin. "Prospective, randomised trial of sleep deprived versus rested surgeons." The Lancet 353.9151 (1999): 501.

[2]https://hms.harvard.edu/news/insomnia-costing-us-workforce-632-billion-year-researchers-estimate

[3]Sleeping pills simply sedate the cortex, without improving quality of sleep. 

[4]This is thought to help the narrating mind get into dream-mode more quickly.

[5]The reason these last two techniques are effective is that a change of temperature helps signal to your internal system that it’s time to sleep. This makes sense evolutionarily since the environment would have naturally grown cooler as the sun went down.