This piece was originally published in Maclean’s.
Arianna Huffington wants you to get more shut-eye. The co-founder and editor-in-chief of the Huffington Post — slumber be damned — became an unapologetic bedtime evangelist after collapsing from burnout and exhaustion in 2007. She dedicated space on her website to “Sleep + Wellness,” used a 2010 TED Talk to sound the alarm on deprivation one-upmanship — “How to succeed? Get more sleep” — and explored the theme in Thrive, a 2014 bestseller. In her new book, The Sleep Revolution, she makes the case that where sleep is concerned, more is more. In this email exchange with Maclean’s, she discusses the science of sleep, Donald Trump —“his behaviour displays all the symptoms of sleep deprivation” —and things that go beep in the night.
Q: Let’s start with exploding head syndrome. It’s a real and apparently not uncommon sleep disorder, in which people hear very loud imagined noises when they’re falling sleep or waking up. It’s one of many you explore in the pages just before a chapter on dreams. The act of sleeping seems simple enough. How does it get so messed up?
A: In many cases, we make sleep a lot more complicated than it needs to be. 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.
One of the main reasons I wrote The Sleep Revolution was 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.
Q: The book is dedicated to all those who are sick and tired of being sick and tired. How many North Americans do you suppose that is?
A: According to a recent Gallup poll, 40 percent of all American adults are sleep-deprived, clocking significantly less than the recommended minimum seven hours of sleep per night. So that may give some sense of how all of us in North America are sleeping. In Canada specifically, 26 percent of the workforce reported having called in sick because of sleep deprivation. And nearly two-thirds of Canadian adults report feeling tired “most of the time.”
Q: The National Sleep Foundation recommends adults aged 26 to 64 get seven to nine hours of sleep, older adults slightly less. What would you say to people reading this who might insist they are exempt from the guidelines?
A: I’d point them to the research. A lot of people in our culture — especially hard-charging men — like to think they don’t need much sleep and even brag about it. It usually goes something like this: “Sure, other people need a full night’s sleep in order to function and be healthy and alert. But I’m different.” The truth, however, is that less than one per cent of the population actually qualifies as “short sleepers,” those rare few able to get by on little sleep without experiencing negative consequences. Though many people would like to believe they can train themselves to gain admission to the short-sleeping one per cent, the trait is actually the result of a genetic mutation. You either have it or you don’t, so it’s not something you can develop over time or something you magically acquire because of your dedication to your job.
Q: The book links a lack of sleep to the risk of heart attack, stroke, diabetes, obesity, depression, feelings of loneliness, cognitive impairment, infertility, compromised decision-making, fine lines, wrinkles. Did I miss anything?
A: That list seems like more than enough! Though we also pay a price in terms of creativity, memory consolidation, our ability to learn and solve problems, our ability to manage stress and anxiety, and a well-functioning immune system.
Q: Since we’re discussing a long list of side effects, we should talk about the sleeping pill Ambien. The stories you relay are like something out of The Walking Dead.
A: Yes, it’s not pretty. 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.
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.
Q: The title of your book heralds a golden age of sleep. How will we know when we’re in it?
A: We’re in it now. Our relationship with sleep is currently in crisis, but we’re also living in a golden age of sleep science — revealing all the ways in which sleep and dreams play a vital role in our decision-making, emotional intelligence, cognitive function, and creativity. Every week, new research reveals how vital sleep is to our health, happiness, job performance, and relationships.
People want more sleep, and the market is responding. Hotel rooms are being transformed into sleep temples, schools are modifying start times to suit the sleep needs of teenagers, an exploding market in wearable technology has emerged that tracks our sleep, and a range of smart products — from smart mattresses to smart headphones — has entered our lives.
Q: Many would say this is a First World problem.
A: I wish it were so, but no, the sleep deprivation crisis is global and afflicting people from all walks of life. For far too many people in the world, the vicious cycle of financial deprivation also feeds into the vicious cycle of sleep deprivation. If you’re working two or three jobs and struggling to make ends meet, “get more sleep” is probably not going to be near the top of your priorities list. As in the case of health care, access to sleep is not evenly — or fairly — distributed. Sleep is another casualty of inequality. A 2013 study from the University of Chicago found that “lower socioeconomic position was associated with poorer subjective sleep quality, increased sleepiness and/or increased sleep complaints.”
Q: The book concludes with 1,200 end notes, a nod to five researchers, and thanks to a long list of scientists, doctors and historians. For those who consume news in 140 characters, what do you hope is the top takeaway?
A: Whoever we are, wherever we are in our lives, sleep is the ultimate performance enhancer, with no nasty side effects.
Q: For those who prefer listicles, could you share your top three sleep tips?
A: Don’t charge your phone next to your bed. Even better: gently escort all devices completely out of your bedroom.
No caffeine after 2 p.m.
Create a ritual around your transition to sleep. It will be different for each one of us, but for me it includes a hot bath with Epsom salts, some light stretching, deep breathing or meditation to help ease my body and mind into sleep.
Q: Apple’s iOS 9.3 includes a “Night Shift” feature that changes the light on an iPhone or iPad to yellow from blue. Problem solved?
A: It’s a very welcome step forward and I hope other phone makers will follow suit. Blue light, the sort given off by our ubiquitous electronic devices, is especially good at suppressing melatonin, which makes it especially bad for our sleep. Staring at a blue-light-radiating device before you go to bed can serve as “an alert stimulus that will frustrate your body’s ability to go to sleep later,” said George Brainard, a circadian-rhythm researcher and neurologist at Thomas Jefferson University in Philadelphia.
Q: Near the close of the book you thank Sheryl Sandberg [chief operating officer of Facebook and author of Lean In] for line-by-line edits of an early draft. How did she influence the final product?
A: Sheryl is a great friend who just happens to be a brilliant writer and editor, so I always look to her for honest feedback and original insights. The manuscript improved dramatically with her edits. I love that the last line of her blurb is, “Sometimes we need to sleep in to lean in!”
Q: You argue that waking in the middle of the night can be a precious luxury. Could you elaborate for those of us who don’t yet see it that way?
A: That line in the book comes in a very specific context: meditation. Because 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 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.
Q: Still on the topic of lost sleep but veering into politics, what do you make of the campaign trail?
A: Sleep deprivation is very much a factor on the campaign trail. The daily email newsletter theSkimm, in its coverage of the 2016 presidential election, asked the candidates, “How many times do you hit snooze in the a.m.?” [Ted Cruz hits it twice, Carly Fiorina “doesn’t have time to hit snooze these days,” and for Hillary Clinton it “depends on the morning.”] Now, of course, hitting the snooze button isn’t a sin, but if you need to do it — because you can’t get up when your alarm goes off — that’s a strong message that you’re not getting enough sleep (and the decision-making benefits that come with it). One of the persistent clichés of the presidential campaigns is the question, “Would you want this person to have his or her finger on the nuclear button?” Well, when it comes to having a president operating on all cylinders, we should also ask whether we want someone with one finger on the snooze button and the other on the nuclear button.
Q: In July 2015, Huffington Post announced plans to cover Donald Trump as entertainment, not politics. “Our reason is simple,” editors explained. “Trump’s campaign is a sideshow.” What would you call his campaign now?
A: Since then Trump’s campaign has certainly lived up to that billing. But it’s also morphed into something else: an ugly and dangerous force in American politics. That’s why, last December, we announced we would no longer be covering his campaign in [the] entertainment [section]. At first, his over-the-top xenophobia, though disgusting, played as the sour shtick of a washed-up insult comic. Now the “can you believe he said that?” novelty has curdled and congealed into something repellent and threatening, laying bare a disturbing aspect of American politics.
His behaviour displays all the symptoms of chronic sleep deprivation: lack of judgment, inability to process basic information, inchoate outbursts of anger, lack of impulse control, trouble listening to others, irritability, mood swings, paranoid tendency to spout conspiracy theories, and false memories.
Q: What keeps you up at night?
A: Like anyone, I’m kept up occasionally worrying about my never-completed to-do lists. So I have a quote by Ralph Waldo Emerson by my bed that helps me silence my mind: “Finish every day, and be done with it . . . You have done what you could — some blunders and absurdities no doubt crept in, forget them as fast as you can, tomorrow is a new day. You shall begin it well and serenely, and with too high a spirit to be encumbered with your old nonsense.”