In this next essay in the series, exploring how to perform at your best, I present to you the other side of the coin. In a previous essay I talked about how, to be a top performer it is important to look at what you do outside of the workplace.
Sleep is one of THE most important factors outside of your work to optimise in order to have any chance of performing at your best in your work.
Yet, it is a common sight to see sleep deprivation as a badge of honour when describing success. Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer, for example, is noted for sleeping between 4-6 hours. However it looks like it might have caught up with her recently after oversleeping and arriving late to an important function.
I Don’t Need Sleep
The common rationale for having little sleep is they don’t need it and are able to get more done. This is highlighted in a UFC boss Dana White quote when he states
“I literally require no sleep. I can go to sleep for two hours, three hours, and I get up and can kill it.” [quote courtesy of mmamania.com].
However,low sleep is like eating McDonalds; its the cumulative effect that is going to hit you most rather than the isolated case.
I remember in university (college in the US) being able to go out all night, plough through the alcohol and then get up in the morning with little more than a bit of heaviness behind the eyes. It wasn’t just me, everyone was doing it! Yet, you only need to attend a music festival over a weekend to realise this pattern of sleep deprivation & day time functioning is not sustainable.
Why do we need to sleep?
Scientists haven’t pinpointed the exact purpose of sleep, yet we do know a number of things happen during sleep. The main process that happens during sleep is repair. Repair of both your brain and body.
Before we talk about what this repair means and why it is so important for you performance wise, lets back track.
Us humans love cycles! Yes, the bicycle kind, but also cycles in terms of processes that are going on in our body at any given time. This is known as the circadian rhythm, which can be defined as:
“Circadian rhythms are physical, mental and behavioural changes that follow a roughly 24-hour cycle, responding primarily to light and darkness in an organism’s environment” – National Institute of General Medical Sciences
At various parts of the day, certain hormonal and physiological processes will take place in the body and will respond accordingly. For example:
Around 6.45am there is a sharp rise in cortisol and subsequently blood pressure. Just the body’s way of saying “get your ass up”.
You are most alert around 10am and fastest reaction time around 15.30. If you want to get your PB on weight lifting, do it around 16.30 & 17.00 as this is when muscular strength is at its highest.
The body is beginning to shut down around when melatonin more on this later) secretion begins.
How does our body know what time of day it is?
Well, there is a reason casinos have no windows because just behind the eyes is a bundle of nerves called the suprachiasmatic nucleus (You’ll definitely look cool saying that name at a party!) which responds according to the amount of light coming through the eyes.
So when it’s light it will respond by telling the body ‘hey, its daytime‘, when the light begins to dampen it will respond by telling the body ‘bed time soon‘.
When the bed covers come over and eyes lids go down, its back to the cycles, 90 minute cycles to be precise. Yes, as you sleep it is not just one long period, it is 90 minute blocks where your brain will go through 4 stages;
- Stage 1 – This is around the first 5-10 minutes after you have settled down & a light sleepy like state occurs
- Stage 2 – Is when surroundings fade into the background, body temperature reduces and the sweet sound of sleep starts knocking on your neurological door.
- Stage 3 – Can be classed as deep sleep. You’re out of it at this stage, normally lasts around 30 minutes. Yet also the stage when sleep walking is most likely to occur.
- Stage 4 – is REM sleep. This is where increased brain activity occurs and dreaming happens. Your muscles become paralysed so you don’t act out your dreams.
At the start we go through stage 1-4 and after we hit our first REM stage We are cruising through stage 2-4 throughout the rest of the night.
Well, back to our central purpose for sleep; Repair.
Body Vs. Sleep
I mentioned Melatonin before. This is a hormone that helps regulate the sleep-wake cycle. It is a pinnacle part of the repair process by taking care of free radicals and protects against Mitochondrial stress (Mitochondria is like the life pack within each cell of your body).
It also seems to co-ordinate with your immune system in reducing inflammation in your body, which can be why it is easier to catch a cold if you have not been sleeping well.
Brain Vs. Sleep
In the brain, there is a common phrase for people to ‘sleep on it’ if they have a problem.
This is because the brain appears during sleep to compartmentalise information that we have accumulated over the day.
We take in ALOT of information during the day, some of it isn’t useful.
Sleep reorganises the chaos and a lot of that occurs during REM sleep which is noted for its consolidation of memory and learning by associating what we’ve learnt with patterns we are already aware of from similar past experiences.
What Happens When Sleep Is Affected?
As you can see, sleep is massively important because it allows the body to repair, fight off issues that can result in illness and mentally rearrange your brain for increased clarity.
If this DIDN’T happen can imagine how hard it would be to focus, have a clear head and your body be in working order, all vital components of performing well in the work place.
When your sleep is affected it tends to show up in 3 forms:
Sleep deprivation can affect pre-frontal cortex activities, notably reason & analytical thinking. If you want to test this out, try not sleeping and then having a 9am meeting with your bosses about numbers and projections!
As we looked at before, melatonin is released at night for the purpose of repair.
Also 2 hormones related to hunger play a role in sleep.
Leptin is a hormone that tells the brain it is full. Grehlin is a hormone that tells the brain it is hungry.
Typically during sleep Grehlin levels are at their lowest because there is no requirement for food and as a result Leptin is high when in sleep. However when sleep deprived, grehlin levels increase prompting the assumption you are hungry. Add the stress hormone cortisol & you have a raising waist line on your hands.
If the body & brain don’t have the opportunity to have its repair time it leaves the body much more susceptible to illness that you would normally be able to avoid with ease.
Keys For A Kick Ass Sleeping Experience
“How’s your sleep?”
“Yea, great – I get around 7 hours a night”
“Do you wake up much in the night”
“Ah, yea loads!”
When talking about sleep there are 2 considerations to make;
- How long you sleep each night
- The quality of your sleep once in bed.
The following protocols can help with both.
Before & Bedroom Environment
Cut Out Blue
I talked earlier about the role of melatonin and how the circadian rhythm responds to light. Well it turns out melatonin reacts worse to the colour blue.
If your circadian rhythm operates optimally, melatonin release should occur around 9pm. If exposed to bright light & especially blue light melatonin release is diminished which, considering what the role of melatonin is in the body (repair), this can create cumulative problems.
A great app to use if a lot of your work is on the computer in the evening is f.lux, which changes your screen brightness dependent on the time of day.
Wind Down Around 45 Minutes Before
One time in university I had a night out drinking nothing but red bull. Although sober when I went to bed, I was WIRED! Completely wide awake a 3am.
Being overly stimulated before going to bed is like trying to walk in a straight line after being spun around in circles 10 times; Not the best state to be able to do what you want!
Instead you want to look to wind down to bed. This can involve switching off all TV or computers up to 45 minutes before bed. You can have a warm shower to ease your muscles and then slowly ease yourself into reading some fiction (not non-fiction as the aim is for non thought related stimulation).
Due to what we have said about light, it is recommended to have your room as dark as possible. I use black out curtains to achieve this, but you can go hardcore and have an eye mask if you must.
Temperature wise, due to your body temperature reducing in order to induce sleep, you’ll want to have a room temperature to help achieve this. Replicating sauna conditions is asking for trouble and Sleep medicine professor Ralph Downey PHD recommends between 18’C-22’C (65-72’F) room temperature, although trial & error may be helpful until you buy that thermometer!
In my next article I go into nutrition for performance more. In relation to sleep, there has been some research on the optimal time to eat in relation to sleep quality.
It is generally agreed that eating around 3-4 hours before sleep is better in terms of sleep quality than around 1 hour before bed.
In relation to WHAT to eat, that is a little more unclear, with some saying a high GI carbohydrate meal being better for ‘Sleep Onset Latency‘ (time it takes to get to sleep) whilst another saying a low carbohydrate meal increases the quality of sleep.
However this was found in people who were considered healthy good sleepers so my next article will be of interest if this doesn’t apply to you! You could conclude from this that it is best not to go to bed hyper full, or hyper hungry, both will likely diminish sleep quality.
Focus on breathing
We associate sleep with rest & relaxation, so it is a good idea to set your breathing up that coincides with that idea. When considering breathing, the exhale activates the ‘parasympathetic nervous system’ which can simply be described as out ‘rest & digest’ system.
This is why, if you have ever done Yoga there is a particular emphasis on your outward breath.
When in bed it is a good idea to begin the process of going to sleep by focussing on your breathing and in a calm & controlled manner breath through your nose & slowly exhale out your mouth.
A simple starting pattern can be:
– Inhale through your nose for 4 seconds
– Hold your breath for 4 seconds
– Exhale through your mouth for 8 seconds
Isolate Thoughts To One Area
The sneaky structure of the previous suggestion (shhh don’t tell anyone) aside from regulating your nervous system is it focusses your attention on one particular thing.
A problem that can occur in bed is we are ‘alone with our thoughts’ and this can induce worry and anxiety if allowed to run wild.
If you wake up in the night, limit worry by not excessively attempting to go back to sleep. Instead repeat the breathing protocol. Other ways to focus the mind can include anything ‘sterile’ (non stimulating) such as:
- Imagining a blackboard in your mind & when you say the number you see the corresponding letter on the board (e.g. 1=A, 2=B & so on).
- Recounting the journey from your home to where you buy shopping.
If still awake after 20 minutes, get up and do something non-stimulating (best if you know this before you go to bed) and then go back to bed again (courtesy of Richard Wiseman book night school). There is nothing unusual with waking up at night with some suggesting we are naturally inclined to have segmented sleep where sleep is essentially split into 2 blocks throughout the night.
During the day
One of the functions of sleep is neurological repair & maintenance. However it can only do so much.
Spending the day hyper stressed and ending the day worried and anxious about the day & week ahead is not the best foundation for a great sleep. Follow the instructions in the first article & here and here to manage stress & worry.
Marathon runner Paula Radcliffe sleeps 9 hours a night and a 2 hour nap in the afternoon, Lebron James sleeps 11-12 hours a night and Ariana Huffington Slips in 8 hours. They do this because they see the value it brings to the overall performance in what they do. If you want career performance at your best, optimising how to sleep HAS to be part of the protocol.
What Methods & Tricks Do You Use To Have A Perfect Nights Sleep?