Sleep Your Way to a Better Career and Life

In epidemiologic studies, shorter sleep has been correlated with incidence of obesity, hypertension and other metabolic disorders.

I’m a researcher by nature – blame it on the journalism degree. When I’m interested in a topic, I’ll read multiple articles on the subject just to make sure I’m getting information from all angles.

However, sleep is the one topic I’ve never been able to master. It seems to be ever elusive – I either can’t seem to get enough hours of it or learn enough about it to make the necessary adjustments so I’m not tired during the day. I’m working on it though.

When chatting with co-workers in the break room at work about sleep, I’m always astounded to hear that some people only get five to six hours of sleep every night. I’m the exact opposite. I’m perfectly content acknowledging that I’m one of those people who requires at least eight hours of sleep a night to function at my best, preferably nine hours if I’m able. My preferred bed time is 9:30 p.m., and I’m perfectly happy getting into bed at 9:00 p.m.; in fact, I prefer it. My friends often poke fun at my sleep-obsessed ways.

As a child, my parents often commented on how they appreciated the fact that they would never have to coerce me to bed, but my desire for early bed times and daily naps were always a cause for concern for my parents. After years of encouragement, I finally decided to get a sleep study. I saw how sleep was impacting my work performance – I felt sluggish in the afternoon hours and would often want to get a quick nap in after getting home from work. When I talked to one of my other doctors about how I was always tired and recently got a sleep study, he replied with, “Well, you’re always going 100 miles per hour, of course you’re always tired.” I sat there for a second and thought about my schedule. I’m often waking up at 5:30 a.m. to work out, I have a full-time job and a freelance job, I travel a lot, and I have tons of extracurricular activities and social engagements every week.

When do I really allow myself time to just do nothing? Rarely ever. As someone who is mildly hyper active, it’s always a challenge for me to sit still. If I’m at home trying to lounge, I realize the task is quite difficult for me – I usually eventually give up on the stillness and relaxation, and start doing something, whether it’s scrolling on my phone or watching television. Most times I’ll give up all together on couch time and start cleaning my house or cooking – sitting still just isn’t my strong suit.

This got me thinking that in the media, we often see conflicting messages about getting enough sleep and working hard. On social media, I often see memes that say things like, “Rise and grind, you can sleep when you’re dead.” All I can think is, if you don’t get enough sleep, you will be dead. So do Americans have it all wrong? Are we slowly killing ourselves to satisfy this “work hard” mentality? Well, I’m not a doctor, but the articles I read tell me that we do have a sleep problem in this country. A 2014 assessment by the National Sleep Foundation said 35% of Americans report their sleep quality as “poor” or “only fair.”

Everyone I know is also constantly exhausted. It could be a Washington, D.C. problem – we’re a city of overachieving, Type A personalities – so that would make sense. However, my friends who don’t live in this area also seem to share a sense of constant exhaustion.

A National Institutes of Health study revealed how important sleep is to overall health. “In epidemiologic studies, shorter sleep has been correlated with incidence of obesity, hypertension and other metabolic disorders. Experimental sleep studies find a similar connection. Increasingly, studies of the possible mechanisms behind these associations suggest that lack of sleep is part of a bigger problem with the 24/7 lifestyle many people today lead. Increasingly, scientists are finding that many physiologic activities related to metabolism don’t happen continuously but oscillate on a regular schedule. Studies in mice as well as humans suggest that when our internal clock is disrupted, it may throw off many bodily functions, especially metabolism.”

So, what can we do to sleep better and be more productive in the eight hours we do have at work? Here are a few tips I’ve learned from my battles with fatigue and reading lots of articles:

  1. Get a real alarm clock. So many people use their phone as an alarm clock. However, this means it’s likely next to your bed in a position where it’s easily accessible, making it easier to pick up and check social media. Instagram can be a time suck. Before you know it, you’ve been scrolling for two hours looking at cat videos. Trust me, we’ve all been there.

  2. Turn your phone on silent an hour before bed time. Around 8:30 p.m., I’ll turn my phone on silent and let anyone know who’s asking that I’m heading to bed. I generally don’t fall asleep until an hour later. However, I like to have a relaxation period before bed so I can wind down from the day. I’m an animated and passionate person, so if I stay up talking on the phone for an hour before bed, I’ll likely be energized and thinking about the conversation, which cuts into my sleep.

  3. Don’t have a television in your room. This has been a tough one for me because I love watching television in bed. However, “Using TVs, tablets, smartphones, laptops or other electronic devices before bed delays your body’s internal clock (a.k.a., your circadian rhythm), suppresses the release of the sleep-inducing hormone melatonin, and makes it more difficult to fall asleep. This is largely due to the short-wavelength, artificial blue light that’s emitted by these devices. The more electronic devices that a person uses in the evening, the harder it is to fall asleep or stay asleep,” according to the National Sleep Foundation.

  4. Stay on a sleep schedule – even on the weekends. As people read this, I can hear the long sighs. This means no staying out late. Ever wonder why you’re exhausted on Monday? It’s probably because you stayed up late all weekend.

  5. If you wake up easily from noise or light, get an eye mask and ear plugs. Yes, I do this. Don’t judge me!

  6. Exercise daily. I sleep so much better when I’ve exercised. It’s as if my body is so tired it doesn’t fight going to sleep.

My sleep study revealed I have sleep apnea. If you feel like you’re constantly tired, I encourage you to make an appointment with a sleep specialist. Hopefully, these tips will allow you to get better sleep and be more productive at work!

A version of this article originally appeared in the Credit Union Times.