Top tips for sleep from this year's new research

Autonomous Autonomous | Mar 9, 2017

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Since the early 2000s, when sleep deprivation was finally acknowledged as a silent epidemic in the United States, more and more research has been done into the effects sleep deprivation has on our bodies and minds. It seems like common knowledge now that not getting enough sleep makes your brain foggy and puts you at risk for various health issues. 

But as we continue to culturally romanticize having a professional role that we want to “give our all” to, one angle of sleep deprivation has gone largely unaddressed. Yes, everyone should try to get enough sleep, but people in leadership roles should be the most vigilant about it. 

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(Only kittens are cute when they fall asleep in meetings). 

In the words of researchers from the Centre for Cognitive Neuroscience at the Duke-NUS Medical School of Singapore, despite widespread awareness of the dangers of little sleep: 

“Voluntary sleep curtailment is becoming more rampant.”

If you’re a decision maker where you work — whether you’re a CEO, a manager, a team leader or the freelancer-in-chief — research decisively shows that you are significantly impairing your ability to lead if you are not getting enough sleep. 

Just this year a new study confirmed, yet again, that sleep deprivation disrupts the normal functions of the prefrontal cortex, the part of our brain which is essential to good judgement, to the same extent as detectable levels of inebriation. In other words, if you’re not sleeping much, you’re basically drunk. 

Top tips for sleep from this year's new research

(this is you with no sleep)

It goes further than that, though. All of the various ways that subpar sleep hampers our brain functions compound to not only make us uninhibited poor decision-makers in the moment, but actually, well, dumber over time. New research this year has shown that a lack of sleep slows brain metabolism, inhibits longterm and spacial memory formation, and increases the likelihood forming false memories

Usually, our brains naturally prioritize important information out of all the stimuli we receive, in order to form memories that will be pertinent in the future. When we sleep, we continue the process of prioritizing by forgetting information we don’t need. Without deep REM (stage N3) sleep, we all but lose this essential aspect of a good memory as well. 

But enough doom and gloom. Some good news is that the same research also shows that less quantity of high-quality sleep is better than a full night of restless sleep. So if you sometimes feel that you need to choose between sleep and work, optimize the time you have to make sure you get some deep REM. 

If you're not in a position to totally orient your life around the perfect night of sleep, the key is “sleep hygiene” or integrating habits into your day that set you up for successful sleep. Basically, you need to be your own parent and have a bedtime routine. Don’t just do it for the health of your heart, your waistline and your own brain, do it for the health of your career and the people you manage! Seriously. 

Try starting with a combination of five simple habits. They’re not cutting-edge body hacks, they’re just easy guidelines that you can follow with a few good decisions throughout the day, and together they make a big difference. With some initial effort you won’t constantly think about maintaining your sleep hygiene, but you’ll be sleeping better. 

(See, it’s easy.)

1. The sleep diet 

Pretty simple. 

  • Don’t drink caffeine at least six hours before you go to bed. If you can, don’t consume caffeine after lunch. 
  • Eat dinner three hours or more before you plan to go to bed. Complex carbs boost sleep-inducing tryptophan in your brain. 
  • Sugar works against you. 
  • And while it may give you the illusion of helping you fall asleep, alcohol significantly disrupts REM sleep, the most important phase for memory and concentration. Consider not drinking alcohol before bed on weekdays as well. 

2. Exercise in the morning or early afternoon 

Gentle yoga or stretching can be good before bed, but do any cardio or other high-intensity workouts in the morning or early in the afternoon to get an afternoon boost that won’t disrupt your sleep. 

3. Block out blue light and make natural light your ally

If you must look at screens within three hours of sleeping, use blue light blockers religiously. Newer iPhones come with a “nightshift” setting built in, there are Android apps and f.lux is super easy to install on your computer. We are simply wired biologically as humans to respond to light. At the same time, make sure that your bedroom is filled with natural light in the morning. If you are sensitive to light and wake up after sunrise, use an eye mask but don’t draw your curtains, natural light in the morning will kick on hormones in your brain that help you wake up naturally. 

 4. Cozy jammies, and a bedtime story 

If you’re the kind of person who likes routine, a basic bedtime ritual helps you gear down psychologically. If you need someone to say it, you deserve a pair of silky pajamas and a bottle of lavender mist by your bed. Reading for half an hour instead of checking email or scrolling through Facebook helps you avoid blue light while letting your body and mind wind down. 

5. Keep a sleep diary, do you need professional help?

There are several apps to help track sleep, including the built-in health app on the iPhone, and Sleep as Android, but you can also do the good old pen and paper method. Simply write down when you go to bed, approximately when you actually fell asleep, when you wake up, and any significant interruptions in sleep throughout the night. If you notice very frequent interruptions in sleep or long periods of restlessness in bed before falling asleep, or you constantly fatigued, you should bring it up with your doctor. 

And, don’t forget, if you’re laying restlessly in bed for more than half an hour, get up. Do something relaxing, such as a breathing exercise, or a brief warm shower. Shorter periods of quality sleep are better than hours of frustrating restless sleep. 

A few other tips from Business Insider, including advice to wake up at the same time every day and have sex before bed. (May be next level habits for some).

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