Waking Up: We’re Focusing On the Wrong Metric

Even after we’ve grown up, we still believe in superheroes. 

The “work hard, play hard” mentality has convinced a generation of “wantrepreneurs” that hard work, long hours, and a swiss-army-knife-array of lifehacks are the key to success. Those who can endure such grueling schedules are not only seen as more than successful—they’re superhuman

An obsession with the lifestyles of high-achieving entrepreneurs and personalities has led many to fixate on a popular hustle metric: what time you get up in the morning. 

And guess what? According to recent scientific research, they’d have to be superhuman for such lifestyles to be sustainable. 

The Downside of Irresponsible Early Rising

The appeal of getting up early is the goal of adding hours to one’s days. Though you stayed up late, getting up early gives you a headstart on life—providing time to exercise, tend to your wellbeing, or squeeze in an edge on the snoozing competition. However, science says that the wakefulness we steal from our mornings to pay for this edge are debts that will very likely come due. 

According to sleep scientist Matthew Walker and author of the acclaimed book, Why We Sleep: Unlocking the Power of Sleep and Dreams, forgoing the medical community’s recommended quantity of sleep is associated with a shorter, more disease-ridden life. 

“Every disease that is killing us in developed nations has causal and significant links to a lack of sleep,” Walker reports. “So, that classic maxim that you may [have] heard that you can sleep when you’re dead—it’s actually mortally unwise advice from a very serious standpoint.”

Sleep & Dementia

Most of us are familiar with the zombie-like walk to the bathroom after a night of bad sleep and the brain fog that looms over our day. This sensation may be a precursor to a more permanent condition. New studies have found a startling association between insufficient sleep and the likelihood of greater cognitive decline

Our waking brain has been found to maintain a build-up of metabolic waste. This beta-amyloid waste has been associated with the impairment of communication between neurons present in Alzheimer’s patients.  Though this sounds scary, there’s a bright side: like running the dishwasher overnight on pots and pans, sufficient sleep releases a flood of cerebrospinal fluid to wash this waste away. 

Failing to achieve sufficient sleep can be compared to leaving your dried peanut-butter-coated china in the dishwasher overnight and hoping a light rinse will leave them adequately ready for important company the next day. 

In Why We Sleep, Walker contributed two examples of famous high-achievers who frequently boasted their lack of a need for sufficient sleep—the U.S. President Ronald Reagan and British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher. Both of these officials were known for almost superhuman ability to function on very little sleep. What else did they have in common? They both later suffered from severe dementia that robbed them of their mental acuity and likely shortened their lives. Though these are just two examples, the before mentioned has established associations between a lack of sleep and advanced cognitive decline.

Sufficient Sleep Recommendations

So, what is considered insufficient sleep? 3 hours a night? 4 hours a night? Think again: anything below 6 hours a night.  

In addition to cognitive decline, Walker’s research has also linked insufficient sleep to a significant increase in the likelihood of developing:

  • Cardiovascular disease
  • Cancer
  • Obesity
  • Disrupted sex hormones and infertility
  • Anxiety
  • Depression
  • An overall depleted immune system 

In other words, any condition that can kill you is aided by insufficient sleep. To add insult to injury, Walker pointed out in a noted TED Talk that men who only sleep five hours a night have, on average, been found to have smaller testicles. So, in case you needed any other reason to get more sleep, fellas—there you go.  

The Time You Should Be Obsessed With

What is the most important alarm for those who want to get an early start? It’s definitely not their morning alarm, but an evening alarm. Because the evening hours are notorious for slipping by us, setting evening “get ready for bed” and “lights out” alarms are your best bet to getting to bed at a time required to receive sufficient sleep—anywhere from between 7-9 hours of sleep, according to Walker. 

Powering Down in Phases

There’s absolutely nothing wrong with getting up early. If anything, some of the highest performing athletes also beat the dawn. However, unlike many of their peers in achievement, professional athletes carefully structure their hours of sleep. How do they do this? By regimenting and guarding their evening activities. In addition to a designated “light’s out” time, many sleep guardians are known to practice power-down phases to prepare their bodies and minds for sleep.

Noted triathlete Chris Leiferman has reported an evening schedule that he and his wife are committed to observing: 

“I follow the same bedtime routine and start getting ready for bed around 9 p.m. My wife and I turn off the TV and don’t look at our phones other than setting the alarm to have 30-45 minutes of no ‘blue’ light before we go to sleep. I then read a book to get my eyes tired, then I kiss my wife goodnight, and I’m out cold in a couple of minutes.”

Following a similar routine can ensure you receive sufficient sleep.

Bring the Lights Down

As the sun sets, you should also start to bring down the lighting in your home. Turn off unnecessary lights and soften any that you can. Increased lighting in the home has been found to suppress melatonin—a key sleep hormone.

Reduce Blue Light Sources

While turning off bright overhead lights can help you prepare for bed, your favorite devices can also be suppressing your melatonin and throwing off your circadian rhythms by emitting generous amounts of blue light. Televisions, computer monitors, and phone screens are the worst offenders. About an hour before bed, try to limit your use of such disruptive devices. Instead, opt for that book you’ve meant to get to, journal about what’s on your mind, or play a board game with another member of your household.

What to Avoid Before Bed

To ensure quality sleep, there are several behaviors and consumables you will want to avoid. Some of these seem fairly straightforward. Others seem counterintuitive. 

  • Alcohol: Though it can feel like the occasional glass or two of wine can help you nod off easier, its key ingredient can lead to later tossing and turning. Though the alcohol can help you drift off, the body won’t begin to fully metabolize it until later—a process that can leave your body feeling restless. The consumption of alcohol before bed has also been found to inhibit deep R.E.M. sleep.  
  • Caffeine after 5 PM: Though caffeine only spikes your energy levels for about a half-hour to an hour after consumption, it’s effects can linger for as much as five hours. Yes, that trip to Starbucks after work may be the reason you’re still tossing and turning at night.
  • Exercise: I’ll admit, I used to enjoy using up the last of my energy for the day with a jump rope in my driveway at 9 PM. However, the effort of intense exercise can spike levels of cortisol—your body’s main stress hormone. For this reason, keep your exercise to no more than three hours before lights out.
  • Distractions in the bed: As we’ve mentioned above, the blue light from TV, computer, and mobile devices can inhibit the production of melatonin—disrupting your brain’s circadian rhythms. While all screens should be avoided in bed, your bed should also be treated as a place reserved for two things—1. Sleep 2. Sex. Watching TV, working on a laptop, or even reading books can muddy your brain’s understanding of the purpose of your bed and result in restlessness. 
  • Sleep aids: For many, getting to bed means popping a popular sedative. There’s only one problem with that—sedation and sleep are not synonymous mental states. Natural sleep is an incredibly elaborate restorative process of the mind and body. Sedatives, on the other hand, simply induce unconsciousness without many of the other attributes of sleep. As Matthew Walker put it, “We don’t have any good pharmacological approach right now to replicate such a nuanced and complex set of biological changes.”  

In Bed ≠ Time Asleep

When running the numbers on how to achieve sufficient sleep, remember to leave a window of time to actually fall asleep. For most healthy individuals, falling asleep takes about 10 to 20 minutes on average.  For this reason, it’s important to differentiate “lights out” from “sleeping” time. 

What to Do When You Can’t Sleep

There will always be occasions when, despite your best efforts, you simply can’t sleep. What to do now? Get out of bed. 

Why get out of bed? According to Walker, your brain is an extremely environmentally sensitive machine. If you spend enough time awake, staring at your ceiling in rumination, your brain will associate that activity with your bed. Instead, get out of bed, possibly even going into another room. Use that time to read a book (not on a screen), listen to soothing music, write in a journal, play solitaire with a deck of cards, or meditate until you grow tired enough for sleep. These types of relaxing activities will not only help you to grow sleepier but will also likely distract you from the anxieties that may be keeping you awake. 

In Conclusion

For its importance to absolutely every aspect of our health, the only reason we’re not asked about it more by our physicians is the timeliness of understanding its importance—thanks to the very recent strides in imaging technology. Despite these earth-shattering discoveries, neurologist Matthew Walker believes that we are, as a society, experiencing a “catastrophic sleep-loss epidemic.” 

So, what is the best way to attempt to maximize your own potential to live the lives of your idolized superheroes? Go to bed on time. 

Because, as Walker put it in his TED Talk,

“Sleep is your superpower.”

Ken Lane
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