Get ahead: Sleep your way to the top

What would you think if I said the way to reach your goals and get ahead is by sleeping around?

We spend one-third of our lifetime in sleep, yet no one seems concerned if they are actually getting enough. In fact, in some companies there is a culture of ‘who can sleep the least’ that is regarded as a badge of honour. I’ve heard it all “Big day yesterday, left the office at 1am, but still up at 6am to hit the gym”. What a hero, soon to be one of the scores of people burnt out by their mid-thirties.

There are countless articles on the best fitness and diet plans, but without the right amount of sleep and rest you will struggle to see the best results as this, although it may seem counterintuitive, is the time you are getting stronger. Exercise is just a stressor to initiate this. Sleep is absolutely essential for maintaining healthy physical, mental and emotional functions. Sleep disorder impairs your ability to think quickly, to work efficiently, and to associate freely, causing you to feel generally disconnected from the world. In some serious cases, the sleep disorder-related conditions may lead to serious neurasthenia (nerve weakness) and depression.

For many people there are not enough hours in the day so they get round this by sleeping less. However, this creates more problems than it solves leaving them less able to function the next day and so need to work longer to get the same amount of work done. Sound familiar?

I spend a lot of time writing and (mostly) talking about food, however, there is no diet that can compensate for lack of sleep…and no, coffee is just a short term fix. Do not work hard, work smart and is the key to many of the most successful people in the world. Watch this interview with Arianna Huffington of the Huffington Post, explain how the HP grew better after she started to look after herself (and her sleep) better. If you don’t think this way, maybe you need to redefine what you need to do to achieve success.

So what happens when we go to sleep? Well…er…we don’t really know yet. Such is the complexity of the human brain, how it recuperates itself in this ‘All systems down, vital functions only’ capacity is only just coming to light in recent discoveries. Earlier this year, researchers at New York University, showed that sleep promotes memory and learning as more neuronal connections were made during sleep (1). Most importantly, even intense training could not make up for lack of sleep.


What we do know is what happens is when we do not get enough. While you may get away the odd night without enough, it is the night after night of lack of sleep that does the real damage. A study in the University of Pennsylvania showed that people who slept 6 hours or less after a week had the same cognitive deficiencies as those that had been awake for an entire 2 days (2) ! What is really interesting is that even 14 days into the study some of the participants said sleepiness was not affecting them, in fact their performance had suffered. It turns out that sleep deprivation also makes you worse at judgments and decisions, so you are not as good as you think you are. It’s a vicious cycle. You have to be fully asleep to be full awake.

Insufficient sleep even affects you at a genetic level affecting genes associated with circadian rhythm (your body clock), oxidative stress, and your metabolism (3). If that was not bad enough interference with your sleep homeostasis causing it to be more difficult to get a decent night’s sleep the next night.

It can also make you put on weight aswell. Ghrelin, the hunger hormone, is elevated even after one night of sleep loss, while leptin, the satiation hormone, is decreased therefore you feel the need to eat more, often in between meals. Even after one night of bad sleep, ghrelin and leptin levels are disrupted (4) Lack of sleep affects brain regions known to be linked to motivation and desire and increasing the propensity to seek food in individuals who are not getting enough sleep. Interestingly, in the same study men showed less overall brain activity in response to foods compared with women. Another study showed that people are more than likely to have make less healthy choices if they have insufficient sleep.  (5). Basically, if you don’t get your normal ’40 winks’ you will be craving an extra pain au chocolat, or a full English.

So if you’ve tried hard to diet but can’t resist your cravings. Maybe it’s something as simple as not getting enough sleep.

So how much sleep do I need?

There is no universal answer to this, but most experts indicate 7-8 hours. From most of the sleep studies it appears anything less than 7 is detrimental. Like everything there is a balance, more is not better. Sleeping over 9 hours is linked obesity, depression, headaches, diabetes and heart disease(66). While correlation does not equal causation, it’s definitely something to be wary of.

Everyone is an individual, some will need more while others can get away with less. With resources like Quantified Mind, you can experiment to see what’s optimal for you.

Nutritional help

There are many articles out in the internet ether pushing magnesium as an important factor for sleep. However, there is very little clinical evidence for this, with most studies performed in animals that do not directly translate to humans, due to the massive differences in the brain.

Inability to get to sleep could be due to low iron and vitamin B12 levels, so make sure you have adequate levels (7)

Roxanne turn ON your red light

With late night of mobile phones, computers and TVs, the blue light from these devices is wrecking our sleep habits. Blue light decreases melatonin production making it more difficult to get to sleep. So turn down the brightness of your screen, and for computers use a free program called f.lux that syncs with the local time zone to turn off blue light at dusk, and back on again at dawn. I’ve used this for a while now and it’s certainly made a difference

There’s an app for that

Name a problem, and without a doubt there will be some bright techy spark that has THE solution for it. The latest in sleep devices is Hello's sense which has launched on the back of a phenomenal Kickstarter campaign.  Best part of this device and app is it's smart alarm that will wake you when is best for your sleep cycle around your chosen time, so you feel less groggy when you are awaken.

Make a change with tiny habits

There isn’t much use to information if you can’t use it to change your own habits. It’s near to impossible to change them instantly. After all, Rome wasn’t built in one day. Put some easy actions in place to start with

  • If you use a computer, download f.lux
  • No TV and social media after 11pm. Does having a late night twitter trawl really bring you that much value?
  • Make your room as dark as possible, external light can interfere with melatonin production and can cause you to wake out of deep sleep earlier than you should be.
  • Reduce caffeine intake after 2pm. Keep those coffees for the morning
  • Put down on paper what a regular sleep pattern that suits your work life looks like, and gradually build up towards getting to that point.
  • Changing routine is a challenge, but starting small and now is the important ting. Imagine getting better, even by something tiny like improving 1% every week. By the end of the year you’ll be 52% better off.

Sleep smarter, achieve more

Other fascinating articles on sleep

Sleep and the Price of Plasticity: From Synaptic and Cellular Homeostasis to Memory Consolidation and Integration  (Review)

Sleep for cognitive enhancement

Sleep enhances memory consolidation in children

The weird and terrible effects of sleep deprivation