A Conversation with Arianna Huffington:
The Sleep Revolution

The Sleep Revolution

What led you to write The Sleep Revolution?

As I went around the world talking about my last book, Thrive, 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. From the moment we’re born until the moment we die, we’re in a relationship with sleep. I wrote The Sleep Revolution to examine this ancient, essential, and mysterious phenomenon from all angles, and to explore the ways we can use sleep to help regain control over our out-of-kilter lives.

Why are you so passionate about the power of sleep?

For one thing, sleep is something we all have in common – it’s one of humanity’s great unifiers. It binds us to one another, to our ancestors, to our past, and to the future. No matter who we are or where we are in the world and in our lives, we share a common need for sleep. And right now, we’re in a sleep crisis.

At the same time, in the last four decades, science has validated much of the ancient wisdom about the importance of sleep. We’ve made incredible discoveries about all the things going on in our brains and our bodies while we’re sleeping, and these findings have fueled a sleep renaissance, in which the power of sleep to profoundly affect virtually every aspect of our lives is beginning to be recognized.

You say that sleep deprivation is the “new smoking.” How so?

Unfortunately, the comparison is apt, both in terms of the dangers and our attitude. Everywhere you turn, sleep deprivation is glamorized and celebrated, from “You snooze, you lose” to highly burned out people boasting, “I’ll sleep when I’m dead.” The combination of a deeply misguided definition of what it means to be successful in today’s world—that it can come only through burnout and stress—along with the distractions and temptations of a 24/7 wired world, has imperiled our sleep as never before.  

What do we lose when we lose sleep?

It’s a long list. To name just a few things we lose, there’s creativity, memory consolidation, our ability to learn and solve problems, our ability to manage stress and anxiety, and a well-functioning immune system. Yet the myth persists that we can do our jobs just as well on four or five or six hours of sleep as we can on seven or eight. It’s a delusion that affects not only our personal health but our productivity and decision making. In other words, we may not have as many good ideas as we would have otherwise had, we may not be as able to come up with creative solutions to problems we’re trying to address, or we may be short-tempered or waste a day (or day after day, or year after year) going through the motions. And in some occupations—in our hospitals, on our highways, or in the air—lack of sleep can be a life-or-death matter.

An Australian study found that after being awake for seventeen to nineteen hours (a normal day for many of us!), we can experience levels of cognitive impairment equal to having a blood alcohol level of .05 percent (just under the legal limit in many US states). And if we’re awake just a few hours more, we’re up to the equivalent of 0.1 percent—legally drunk.

Sleep deprivation affects our health – in a big way. The incidence of death from all causes goes up by 15 percent when we sleep five hours or less per night. A 2015 article based on the latest findings by the American Academy of Sleep Medicine, provocatively titled “Sleep or Die,” discussed the connection between lack of sleep and an increased risk of heart attack, stroke, diabetes, and obesity. In other words, getting enough sleep really is a matter of life and death.

Not only that – we wear our lack of sleep on our faces. An experiment in the UK tested the effects of sleep deprivation on a group of thirty women. Their skin was analyzed and photographed after they slept for eight hours and then again after sleeping six hours for five nights in a row. Fine lines and wrinkles increased by 45 percent, blemishes went up by 13 percent, and redness increased by 8 percent.

How are cultural attitudes about sleep hurting us?

Our cultural assumption that overwork and burnout are the price we must pay in order to succeed is at the heart of our sleep crisis. The method (or cheat code) we use isn’t a mystery: feeling that there aren’t enough hours in the day, we look for something to cut. And sleep is an easy target. In fact, up against this unforgiving definition of success, sleep doesn’t stand a chance. Indeed, in much of our culture, especially in the workplace, going without sleep is considered a badge of honor.

For far too long, too many of us have been operating under the collective delusion that burning out is the necessary price for accomplishment and success. Recent scientific findings make it clear that this couldn’t be less true. Not only is there no tradeoff between living a well-rounded life and high performance, performance is actually improved when we make sleep a priority.

There’s the macho habit of people bragging about how little sleep they get. Can you talk about how misguided this is—and how detrimental to true success it can be?

To me, this is the ultimate indicator of our sleep crisis – not only are we dangerously misguided in our attitude toward sleep, but we are bragging about it!

My favorite – or least favorite – perpetrator of spreading this delusion is Thomas Edison, who went so far as to call sleep “an absurdity, a bad habit” and declared that “there really is no reason why men should go to bed at all.”

Today, so many of us fall into this trap of sacrificing sleep in the name of productivity. But, ironically, our loss of sleep, despite the extra hours we put in at work, adds up to more than eleven days of lost productivity per year per worker, or about $2,280. This results in a total annual cost of sleep deprivation to the US economy of more than $63 billion, in the form of absenteeism and presenteeism (when employees are present at work physically but not really mentally focused).

What role does technology play in the sleep crisis? How can our nightly routines, and taking our phones out of our bedrooms at night, help us sleep better?

The ubiquity of technology and its addictive nature have made it much harder for us to disconnect and go to sleep. With technology, we can now carry our work with us—in our pockets and purses in the form of our phones—wherever we go. The problem is that our relationship with our devices is still in that honeymoon phase where we just can’t get enough of each other—we’re not yet at the stage where we’re comfortable being apart for a few hours or taking separate vacations. In fact, a 2015 survey showed that 71 percent of Americans sleep with or next to their smartphones.

But the blue light emitted by our phones is like an anti-sleeping drug or a stimulant—something few of us would willingly give ourselves each night before bed, especially when so many of us are using sleeping pills or other sleeping aids in a desperate effort to get some sleep.

Our houses, our bedrooms—even our beds—are littered with beeping, vibrating, flashing screens. It’s the never-ending possibility of connecting—with friends, with strangers, with the entire world, with every TV show or movie ever made—with just the press of a button that is, not surprisingly, addictive. Humans are social creatures—we’re hard-wired to connect. Even when we’re not actually connecting digitally, we’re in a constant state of heightened anticipation. And always being in this state doesn’t exactly put us in the right frame of mind to wind down when it’s time to sleep.

Can more sleep really lead to more sex?

Yes! In a 2015 study, researchers measured the duration of women’s sleep and compared it to their level of sexual desire the next day. They found that every additional hour of sleep brought with it a 14 percent rise in the likelihood of having some kind of sexual activity with her partner. So more sleep is better—especially if you want more sex (or at least, if you want to make more sex more likely). Though we can’t say that improving our sleep will magically translate into a better sex life, it’s clear that when we’re sleep-deprived and exhausted, sex isn’t the first thing on our minds.

How is the sleep revolution transforming the workplace? Do you believe we’re moving toward a business culture that embraces sleep?

The sleep revolution is finally hitting the workplace. It’s not in full swing yet, but you can see the evidence all around. The business world is waking up to the high cost of sleep deprivation on productivity, health care, and ultimately the bottom line. It becomes much easier to change our sleeping habits when we have supportive workplace policies and a business culture that embraces sleep. From offering nap rooms to encouraging more flexible work hours, companies are exploring new ways to help employees make sleep a priority. I expect the nap room to soon become as universal as the conference room.

The good news is that pressure to change is coming both from employees, who are realizing that they are actually more productive when they don’t drag and drug themselves through the day like workplace zombies, and from employers, who are realizing that healthy employees make for a much healthier bottom line.

Some of the positive changes in the business world may be motivated by the increasing competition for recruitment and retention, while others are coming from business leaders who simply want their companies to succeed while creating a culture that allows their employees to thrive. But whatever the motivation, the result is that sleep makes us better at our jobs while simultaneously reminding us that we are more than our jobs.

How can we go about making sleep a priority—even when we’re busy or traveling?

I get asked all the time, what do you do when, for whatever reason—a sick toddler, a bad cold, jet lag, a project deadline, or a late night out—you just can’t get the recommended seven to eight hours of sleep? Fortunately, in those instances in which you really can’t get enough sleep at night, there’s a great remedy to that problem: the nap. Naps are a cheap and readily available way to enjoy what the National Sleep Foundation calls “a pleasant luxury, a mini-vacation.”

In fact, as it turns out, naps are great for us even when we are getting good sleep at night. According to David Randall, the author of Dreamland, even a short nap primes our brains to function at a higher level and more easily come up with solutions. While chronic poor sleep can have long-lasting effects on our health, naps can help mitigate some of those effects. Short of time travel, a next-day nap may be the closest we can get to a second chance at a good night’s sleep.

Some people are actually trying to get more sleep but can’t fall asleep. What advice do you have for them?

When I’m really having trouble sleeping, or wake up with thoughts crowding my mind, I’ve found meditation to be a great remedy. Instead of stressing out about how I’m staying awake and fearing I’ll be tired the next day, I prop a few extra pillows under me and reframe what’s happening as a great opportunity to do something else – in my case, practice my meditation. If it’s in the middle of the night, I remind myself that that’s precisely when many avid meditation practitioners, like the Dalai Lama, wake up to get in two or three hours of meditation; this both takes the stress out of my wakefulness and adds an extra layer of gratitude to my practice. Just by reframing it from a problem to a blessing that allows me to go deeper without a deadline or any distractions, I find that I both have some of my deepest meditation experiences and, inevitably, drift off to sleep at some point.

What are some tips, tricks and techniques for getting better, more restorative sleep?

When we walk through the door of our bedroom, it should be a symbolic moment that marks leaving the day, with all of its problems and unfinished business, behind us. When we wake up in the morning, there will be plenty of time for us to pick up our projects and deal with our challenges, refreshed and recharged. I treat my transition to sleep as a sacrosanct ritual. Before bed, 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. Think of each stage of your bedtime ritual as designed to help you shed more of your stubborn daytime worries.

Why do you strongly believe that sleeping pills aren’t a long-term answer?

There are, of course, times in our lives—a traumatic experience, the death of a loved one—when we might need some temporary help getting to sleep. But it’s important to make a distinction between turning to sleep aids at such moments and turning to them as an everyday cure for sleeplessness.

Sleep difficulties can turn into serious medical problems. For the vast majority of us, however, sleep difficulties are a lifestyle problem. Yet we tend to treat all our sleep-related woes the same way: with a pill. This is hubris on the scale of Greek mythology. We expect, as if by magic, to wrestle sleep into submission. This isn’t accidental. Combine the marketing power of the modern pharmaceutical industry with a client market that includes, potentially, every fatigued and burned-out worker—which is to say nearly every worker—and you’ve got the makings of the juggernaut that is the modern sleep-aid industry.

The potential dangers of sleeping pills don’t stop at your being turned into a mindless zombie. There are also longer-term health hazards to go along with Night of the Living Dead–like misadventures. Researchers have discovered that the use of benzodiazepines (such as Xanax and Restoril), usually taken for anxiety or as a sleep aid, increases the risk of developing Alzheimer’s by 32 percent after being used for three to six months. Taking these drugs for more than six months raises the risk by 84 percent.

“In twenty years, people will look back on the sleeping pill era as we now look back on the acceptance of cigarette smoking,” UCLA’s Jerome Siegel told me. “Movies and TV glamorized smoking. Advertisements, often with doctors or actors posing as doctors, were used to sell cigarettes.” Only after many years and many studies linking cigarettes to lung cancer and other diseases did the government step in to regulate tobacco advertising. So we may have moved beyond the era of Joe Camel and advertisements proclaiming “More doctors smoke Camels than any other cigarette!” and “Give your throat a vacation . . . Smoke a fresh cigarette,” but as Siegel put it, “history appears to be repeating itself. The chronic use of sleeping pills is an ongoing public health disaster.”

Now that we know that sleep has the potential to transform our lives, how can we put this knowledge into action?

I’m often asked a question that goes something like this: “Arianna, it’s great that you get all this sleep now, but would you have had the same career if you had done this earlier in your life?” And my answer isn’t just a categorical yes—I also believe that not only would I have achieved whatever I’ve achieved, but I would have done it with more joy, more aliveness, and less of a cost to my health and my relationships.

But if we’re going to truly restore sleep to its proper role in our lives, we have to look beyond all the tools and techniques, the lavender pouches, the blackout shades, the space-age mattresses, the rules about caffeine and screens. At the end of the day (literally), being able to do something as natural as going to sleep shouldn’t require chronically medicating ourselves or putting ourselves on a nightly war footing against all the screens, foods, and activities that stand between us and a good night’s sleep. Rather, it starts with something as simple as it is profound: asking ourselves what kind of life we want to lead, what we value, what gives our lives meaning.

To be able to leave the outside world behind each night when we go to sleep, we need to first recognize that we are more than our struggles and more than our victories and failures. We are not defined by our jobs and our titles, and we are vastly more than our résumés. By helping us keep the world in perspective, sleep gives us a chance to refocus on the essence of who we are. And in that place of connection, it is easier for the fears and concerns of the world to drop away.

For many of us, thinking this way is a big change. It certainly has been for me. After all, we live in a world that celebrates getting things done above all else. So who are we when we are not getting things done? If we stop emailing or texting or planning or doing, will we cease to exist? (It’s not hard to imagine a modern-day Descartes declaring, “I tweet, therefore I am.”)

To be sure, we can strive to get more sleep without asking these existential questions. But making the most of the third of our lives that we should be spending asleep and reaping all the benefits sleep offers in terms of our health, our clarity of thinking, our decision making, and our engagement in our lives requires reflecting on what matters most to us and then reprioritizing our days—and our nights—accordingly. As our days become more and more consumed by doing, by distractions and urgency, sleep, waiting for us every night, offers a surrender.

Join the Be Well Sleep Workshop with myself, Arianna Huffington and Barry Cik of Naturepedic on Monday, April 18th to learn more on the importance of healthy sleep and enter to win The Good Night’s Sleep Collection Giveaway. Sign up here.