The Sleep Revolution: Transforming Your Life, One Night at a Time

“The Sleep Revolution” is what you get when a powerful person feels passionate about a subject and writes with an unlimited research assistant budget: a comprehensive roundup of research and commentary peppered with personal anecdote that’s alternately intensely relatable (“This way of working and living seemed to serve me well—until it didn’t”) and completely foreign (“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. . . .”).

Arianna Huffington starts with the following premise: “[I]n today’s world, the path of least resistance is the path of insufficient sleep. And unless we take specific and deliberate steps to make it a priority in our lives, we won’t get the sleep we need.” She then tells readers how to go about doing so, including cultural shifts away from the elite, “macho status we give to the willingness to forgo sleep”; policy changes for things like driving while drowsy and school start times; and practical tips for individuals (summarized below).

Though not exactly gripping and a bit long-winded, the prose reads well, particularly for the amount of science and data conveyed. Content too passes muster for the most part: only the chapter on dreams failed to interest me. With a few minor exceptions, “The Sleep Revolution” strikes just the right tone (e.g., “Here is a list of things I’ve tried. If any of these resonate with you, give them a try, too, keep what works, and discard the rest.”).

Most importantly, Huffington delivers a wealth of information on a subject of the utmost importance. That makes “The Sleep Revolution” a must-read, even though not a flawless one.

The following quotes give a feel for the book’s style and tone:

“[T]he 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.”

“[T]here are differences between how men and women sleep alone versus together. A study from the University of Vienna found that women woke up more frequently throughout the night when they slept in the same bed as their partner, while men’s sleep did not change. . . . [W]omen said they had slept better only on nights they had sex. . . . [Also studies have ‘found that for women, poor sleep is strongly associated with high levels of psychological distress, and greater feelings of hostility, depression and anger.’”

“‘In twenty years, people will look back on the sleeping-pill era as we now look back on the acceptance of cigarette smoking . . . The chronic use of sleeping pills is an ongoing public health disaster.’”’

“‘Overwork has also become a way to signal class status: ‘I am slammed’ is a way of saying ‘I am important . . . .’ This represents a sharp shift from a prior era when having leisure was a ‘class act.’ . . . We have this weird reversal in the US where the elite work very long hours, while the poor typically can’t get even forty hours a week of work.’”

“‘We think of sleep as an inefficient use of time, and in fact it is the most efficient use of time in terms of learning and memory.’”

“During non-REM, slow-wave sleep ‘our brain undergoes a metabolic slowdown. During that time our cortex, the part of our brain that senses and reacts to the environment and is the essence of ‘us,’ becomes ‘disconnected’ from activity in other brain areas.’ Usually this type of slow-wave sleep happens early in the night, but if our sleep sequence is disrupted by things such as jet lag, drinking, or a crying baby, our slow-wave sleep might not kick in until the early morning—right when our alarm starts sounding.”

“[T]hroughout most of Western history people simply wore their daytime undergarments to bed. But the centuries spanning the Renaissance to the Baroque period were a turning point, as the wealthier class started to distinguish between day clothes and sleepwear. With the advent of the Industrial Revolution, sleepwear became more affordable as linen was superseded by cotton. And in the twentieth century, pajamas as we know them [came into widespread use.]”

“[N]aps are great for us . . . even a short nap ‘primes our brains to function at a higher level, letting us come up with better ideas, find solutions to puzzles more quickly, identify patterns faster and recall information more accurately. . . .’ A study of older adults by researchers from Japan found that, along with moderate exercise, a thirty-minute nap increased the quality of nighttime sleep, and decreased daytime grogginess. . . . Experts say that the best ‘circadian timing’ for a nap is the early afternoon.”

“‘A biological clock is ticking in every person, producing an individual daily timing. This defines a person’s unique ‘chronotype,’ which can vary greatly between individuals. For some people, internal midday may coincide with external midday. Others can reach their internal midday several hours before or after external midday. Social jet lag measures this difference between our external social timing and that of our internal clock.’”

“Like a horror movie in which the police dramatically announce that the menacing phone call is coming from inside the house, . . . the primary nighttime danger to our sleep is all too often coming from inside the bedroom, in the form of a partner with very different sleep habits.”

“[S]leep makes us better at our jobs while simultaneously reminding us that we are more than our jobs.”

“The pattern went on for years until, just before he turned thirty, [Warriors player Andre] Iguodala told Keke Lyles, Golden State’s director of performance, that he needed to see a sleep therapist. . . . [H]e moved his devices out of the bedroom, set his thermostat to a cool, sleep-friendly temperature, and started wearing a Jawbone UP to track his sleep. . . . When Iguodala adjusted to a consistent eight hours of sleep a night, his points per minute went up 29 percent, his free-throw percentage increased by 8.9 percent . . . .”

“Sleep is clearly the next innovation frontier in sports. And that’s a good thing, because sports exert a powerful hold on American culture.”

“[W]e’re living in a time when people seem open once again to the power of sleep on our waking lives. We’re emerging from the Dark Ages of Sleep into a Sleep Renaissance.”

Huffington’s practical suggestions for improving sleep quantity and quality include:

Scheduling: “When we think of sleep as an actual appointment—a meeting of sorts, with ourselves—we’re much more likely to grant it the time it deserves.”

Screens: “First, banish all tech devices from your bedroom at least thirty minutes before you turn off the lights . . . . [If you can’t,] there are some technological hacks available. . . . The range of options is wide—from apps designed to help us sleep, to a universe of sleep-centric hardware like noise-blocking headphones, smart earplugs and light bulbs that mimic the natural light of sunset and sunrise.”

Caffeine: Limit caffeine generally and cut it off around 2:00 p.m., about 8 hours before sleep is desired.

Alcohol: “According to a 2015 study from the University of Melbourne, alcohol does indeed initially act as a sedative. But later in the night, it changes allegiances and acts as a sleep disrupter. . . . A study from the London Sleep Centre confirmed this, finding that ‘at all dosages, alcohol causes a more consolidated first half sleep and an increase in sleep disruption in the second half of the night.”

Sleepwear: “[W]ear to bed . . . anything you feel comfortable and relaxed in—except what you wear to work out.”

Sex (or masturbation): “‘Orgasms are Mother Nature’s best answer to insomnia.’”

Temperature: Huffington reports that the ideal sleeping temperature is somewhere between 60 and 66 degrees. Setting homes to remain in the 70s overnight, as many of us do can disrupt sleep.

Food: “We shouldn’t eat big meals right before bed . . . [because of acid reflux and] eating late or at odd times can disrupt our circadian rhythms and therefore our sleep-wake cycle.” Huffington reports that spicy foods, fatty foods, and sugar all decrease sleep quality for various reasons. Others improve it: “The necessary building blocks for sleep . . . contain magnesium (such as nuts, seeds, leafy greens, and bananas), B6 (such as fish, beans, and poultry), and tryptophan (an amino acid found in foods like chickpeas, seaweed, egg whites, pumpkin seeds, halibut, and most famously, turkey). Another food that may help us sleep is cherries, which are rich in melatonin. A 2014 study from Louisiana State University found that participants who drank a glass of tart cherry juice twice a day for two weeks slept an average of eighty-five minutes more each night than those who drank the placebo.”

Acupuncture: “Acupuncture has a long history as a sleep aid, and now modern science confirms what practitioners and patients have known for centuries. . . . increased nighttime secretion of melatonin and lowered anxiety levels.”

Herbs: One of the most popular herbs for sleep is lavender, which has been used throughout history for healing and relaxation. . . . A Thai study found that smelling lavender helps us relax by slowing down our heart rate, decreasing our blood pressure, and lowering skin temperature. Other studies have found sleep quality improved in a room scented with lavender or when lavender oil was sprinkled on pajamas or pillows. And in Germany, lavender tea has been approved by their equivalent of the FDA as a treatment for insomnia. . . . Valerian root . . . is a natural sedative whose use dates back to ancient Greece.” She also recommends GABA and L-theanine.

Meditative arts: Give yoga, meditation, and qigong a shot.

Daylight exposure: “A 2014 study . . . found that employees whose offices had windows got forty-six minutes more sleep every night than coworkers without access to natural light.” 

Routine: “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.”

Mind dump: “One way to finish every day and be done with it is . . . call[ed] the ‘mind dump.’ Before bed, write down all the things you can think of that you need to do. This can empty your mind and reassure you that you don’t need to remember your tasks through the night-your to-do list will be waiting for you in the morning.”

Gratitude list: “Making a gratitude list part of our bedtime routine . . . focuses my mind on the blessings in my life . . . rather than on the running list of unresolved problems.”

Sleep talismans: Huffington recommends using a “sleep talisman . . . an image that brings you peace and serenity, one that you can keep on your nightstand. It could be photos of your children, your pets, or a soothing landscape-anything that helps you exhale the tensions and incompletions of the day.” She also lists an old-fashioned music box and a “weighted eye pillow lightly scented with lavender.”

Breathing exercises: “The 4-7-8 method popularized by Dr. Andrew Weil, is rooted in the ancient Indian practice of pranayama. . . . you inhale quietly through the nose for four counts, hold for seven counts, and exhale with a whooshing sound through the mouth for eight counts. Weil says that with practice and regularity it can put you to sleep in one minute—and anything that can help you get to sleep that quickly is worth a try.”

Visualization: “Psychiatrist Brent Menninger recommends: ‘Visualize images that evoke serenity, like a picture of the Mona Lisa. . . . The half-smile relaxation response is available to you as you breathe. Inhale as you visualize serenity. As you exhale, express a half-smile. Inhale the serenity. Exhale with a half-smile. . . . The half-smile starts with relaxed lips which turn slightly upward and a loose jaw and the eyes are soft and relaxed. Then the half-smile spreads to the whole face as your scalp and neck relax and your shoulders drop.’”

Don’t force it: “[I]f you’ve been in bed struggling to sleep for twenty minutes, try switching to meditating or reading a book . . . that has nothing to do with work . . . .” In fact, actively try to stay awake (without screens, caffeine, etc.). Studies show, Huffington reports, that when one tries to stay awake rather than fall asleep, “paradoxical intention” leads to “a significant reduction in sleep effort, and sleep performance anxiety.”

Relaxation generally: Because people “develop a ‘fear of sleeplessness,’ which intensifies their emotional arousal perpetuating their insomnia. . . . [A]nything that can help us de-stress can help break the cycle.”

Combat jet-lag: “[W]e can adjust our eating schedules to trigger our circadian rhythms to adapt more quickly. ‘A period of fasting with no food at all for about 16 hours is enough to engage this new clock. . . .’ [F]ly in the afternoon if you’re headed west and in the morning if you’re going east. . . . If you have to take a night flight, . . . at least try[] to get in a nap the day before. . . . Another way to try to beat jet lag is to not adjust to local time at all. . . . Re-Timer, an eyeglasses-like piece of headwear that can be used not just by travelers but also by shift workers who need to make regular adjustments to their circadian rhythm, especially in the winter. Worn over the eyes, it exposes the wearer to a simulation of outdoor light, which, when used in the morning can help reset our body clock so that we can fall asleep at the right bedtime.”

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One thought on “The Sleep Revolution: Transforming Your Life, One Night at a Time

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