Odds are you’ve had—or currently have--a boss or colleague who sends emails at all hours of the day and night. Who hasn’t rolled their eyes upon seeing a 2:00 am time stamp upon checking their phone in the morning? Burning the midnight oil used to be a badge of honor. Now, thankfully, we know that getting a full seven to eight hours of sleep a night makes you a better leader and a better worker, among other proven health benefits like decreasing the risk of high blood pressure, type 2 diabetes, depression and obesity (CDC, 2014).
Brain activity that is impacted by sleep deprivation includes functions related to the prefrontal cortex. The prefrontal cortex oversees executive functioning, including problem-solving, reasoning, organizing, planning, and executing plans. Studies have shown that sleep deprivation impairs the ability to focus attention, solve problems effectively (including recognizing patterns that, when not fatigued, inspire creative thinking), accurately weigh the significance of different “inputs,” and minimize cognitive bias (Van Dam & Van der Helm, 2016). Moreover, “chronic sleep-restriction experiments—which model the kind of sleep loss experienced by many individuals with sleep fragmentation and premature sleep curtailment due to disorders and lifestyle—demonstrate that cognitive deficits accumulate to severe levels over time without full awareness by the affected individual.” (Goel et al., 2009). So, you may not even know you’re at risk of being impaired.
Sleep warrior Arianna Huffington has been beating the drum for more sleep in what she has coined the Sleep Revolution (also the name of her 2016 book). She points out that while people may think they can train themselves to be “short sleepers,” they are fooling themselves. In reality, only about 1% of us can forego the recommended sleep dose, because they have a genetic mutation enabling them to stay alert with only brief sleep intervals.
We know we need more sleep (you knew that before reading this blog) but with our 24/7 lifestyles, not to mention news cycles that compel us to keep checking our phones, how can you slow down your brain to obtain that nourishing sleep?
Research shows that mindfulness meditation is a powerful sleep aid. In a study of Americans 55 years of age and older, half of the participants took part in a two-hour mindfulness awareness program once a week for six weeks; the other half spent the same amount of time in a sleep education class learning ways to improve sleep habits. The mindfulness curriculum was formal and consistent, incorporating sitting meditation, mindful eating, mindful walking, appreciation meditation, and homework (readings and guided meditation). Those in the mindfulness group experienced less insomnia and fatigue than those in the study-only group. (Black et al., 2015). Less insomnia and fatigue, in turn, leads to improved executive function.
Other studies have focused on the impact of popular forms of meditation like TM (transcendental meditation) and Vipassana on sleep. Similar results have emerged. For example, in a study of Vipassana meditators, multiple age groups showed an increased number of sleep cycles, indicating the quality of sleep. (Sulekha et al., 2006)
However, one doesn’t need to become a TM or Vipassana practitioner to experience the benefits of mindfulness on their sleep behavior. Here are some simple ways to help you “power down.”
- To free you from worry and allow for a stress-free power down process, complete your evening tasks like cleaning up from dinner, putting the kids to bed, or anything you need to do to prepare for the next day.
- Once you have completed your evening tasks, find a comfortable place where you can dim the lights. This will signal to the brain to start unwinding. Try to find a relaxing activity like reading or writing in your journal to pass the time quietly.
- Now here is the hard part for most of us….. Avoid looking at anything with a screen. Stow away your tablet, phone, computer, and TV for the night—the light can keep you awake and alert.
- Consider a relaxing scent for your power down process. Many people like to light a candle or spray a scent on their pillows. Just make sure the scent is designed to relax you…like lavender.
Once “powering down” becomes a regular routine, you’ll find that your body and mind become habituated to the routine enabling you to consistently get that much-needed sleep.
Black, D. Ph.D., MPH, O’Reilly, G.A. BS, Olmstead, R., Ph.D.; Breem, E.C, Ph.D.; Irwin, M.R., MD (2015). Mindfulness Meditation and Improvement in Sleep Quality and Daytime Impairment Among Older Adults With Sleep Disturbances, A Randomized Clinical Trial JAMA Intern Med. 175(4):494-501.
Borelli, Lizette (March 17, 2014). Sleep Deprivation: 7 Dangerous Effects Of Long-Term Sleeping Problems. Newsweek Media’s Medical Daily.
CDC Data Statistics (2014). https://www.cdc.gov/sleep/data_statistics.html
Goel, N. Ph.D., Rao, H. Ph.D., Durmer, J., M.D., Ph.D., and Dinges, D. Ph.D. (2009). Neurocognitive Consequences of Sleep Deprivation. US National Library of Medicine National Institutes of Health, Sep; 29(4): 320-339.
Van Dam, N. and Van der Helm, E. (February 16, 2016). There’s a Proven Link Between Effective Leadership and Getting Enough Sleep. Harvard Business Review.
Schwabel, D. (April 5, 2016). Arianna Huffington Shares How Sleep Can Make Leaders More Productive. Forbes.
Sulekha S., Thennarasu K., Vedamurthachar A., Raju T. R., Kutty B. M. (2006). Evaluation of sleep architecture in practitioners of Sudarshan Kriya yoga and Vipassana meditation. Sleep Biol. Rhythms 4, 207–21410.
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