Behind the Sleep Revolution

Sleep has become both personal obsession and big business


Elizabeth Taylor in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, 1958. Picture / Getty Images

The chatter spread quickly across social media. Oscar-winning British actress and famed eccentric Tilda Swinton was asleep in a glass box at the Museum of Modern Art. It was the spring of 2013, and as the news spread, thousands of people poured in from the streets of New York to get a glimpse of Tilda as she slept for six hours, fully dressed, her spectacles tucked to one side.

As an art piece, it received dubious reviews. As a career move for sleep, however, it was a game-changer; a perfect convergence of the titillating proximity of a movie star engaged in a usually-private act and an embodiment of the fantasy — no doubt prevalent in New York — of being able to slip off to crash out in the middle of the day.

In the years since Tilda’s stunt, sleep has become the new status symbol, according to a recent, much-shared article in The New York Times. Once a basic bodily function on par with breathing, blinking and going to the toilet, sleep has gradually been rebranded as a “mindful luxury”, with a raft of accessory lines to match.

Once, talking about how tired you were was a subtle way to signal your indispensability to the world. “Life-hacking” articles scrutinised the sleep habits of business leaders such as Yahoo’s Marissa Mayer and Virgin’s Richard Branson, and concluded their achievements were linked to only sleeping 5-6 hours a night.

Donald Trump, always keen to go one better, boasted on the campaign trail that he gets “three, four hours of sleep”. (That may be standalone evidence that more sleep is needed to function well.)

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But there’s been a turnaround. Today, the celebrities, beauty editors and CEOs at the forefront of the wellness revolution (think Gwyneth Paltrow, Blake Lively, everyone in Silicon Valley) have become devotees of getting a full eight hours, and eager to dispense advice on how they do it.

Arianna Huffington, founder of news website The Huffington Post and wellness start-up Thrive Global, is such a convert to the importance of sleep that she wrote a book, The Sleep Revolution, about it.

Huffington’s book is pitched squarely at people whose sleep deprivation is largely of their own making.

Medical sleep disorders like apnoea, insomnia, circadian rhythm disorders and Restless Legs Syndrome, which affect up to 20 per cent of people, according to various New Zealand studies, get a scant eight pages of coverage (one of which is a recounting of comedian Amy Poehler’s childhood slumber party experiences). The far sexier topic of dreams, by comparison, gets 36 pages.

Given how much modern sleep deprivation is caused by overwork, binge-watching Netflix and staying out late, the effects we’re inflicting on ourselves, as reported in The Sleep Revolution, are alarming.

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Among other things, sleep deprivation raises levels of cortisol (the “stress hormone”) the next day, as well as the activity of genes related to inflammation, decreases our self-control and ability to recall facts, increases incidence of false memories, speeds brain ageing, increases susceptibility to colds, and raises our risk of obesity and diabetes.

Perhaps the most concerning statistic — for who among us hasn’t pulled an all-nighter to study, party, finish a big work project or stay up with a sick child? — is that 24 hours without sleep reduces your cognitive capabilities to a degree that’s equivalent to having a blood alcohol level of 0.1.

That’s twice our legal driving limit. Next time you’re on your commute or school run, think about how many of your fellow drivers may have worked or played too hard the night before.

Huffington herself once took the “I’ll sleep when I’m dead” approach to life, squeezing 3-5 hours a night in between running a fast-growing business, speaking engagements, parenting teenagers as a single mother, and plane-hopping.

It all came to a sudden halt in 2007, when she passed out from exhaustion in her office, waking up in a pool of blood with a broken cheekbone. Her book recounts several stories of other over-committed executives literally hitting the tiles in the same way.

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These days she’s become a “sleep evangelist”, one of a host of new sleep-related jobs, which include sleep coaches, hotel sleep concierges, restorative yoga teachers, high-tech sleep-aid developers, and baby sleep-whisperers.

She installed nap rooms in her company offices (other big players such as, Nike, Ben & Jerry’s, Hubspot and Hootsuite have followed suit) and coining the hashtag #sleeprevolution, which has been widely picked up as an aggregator of sleep-related articles as other executives and wellness bloggers jump on the goodnight bandwagon.

If you’re looking for help with getting a better night’s sleep, today’s sleep-aid portfolio goes well beyond sedatives.

As with most modern markers of wellbeing, however, you can’t just purchase the perfect sleep; you have to put some effort into achieving it. A great sleep is a pleasure but if you add discipline and expense, it transforms into a braggable virtue, like a colourful breakfast bowl of exotic fruits, seeds and coconut yoghurt, only less Instagrammable.

Never before has doing so little required so much effort. (At least — until an innovation lab brainstorming session comes up with a better way to blink and someone designs a product portfolio to help us achieve it.) To the novice sleep aspirant, the advice can be bewildering. If you’re determined to sleep like the stars, however, here is the ultimate cut-down for you.

First, create an ideally calibrated sleep environment. The bed is the centrepiece, the place where you’ll now be spending a third of your life. Treat it like an investment — why would you spend less on your bed than on your car?

Line it with high thread-count Egyptian cotton or linen sheets, and hypoallergenic, lavender-infused duvet and pillows. Add silk pillowcases to keep your hair and face smooth while you slumber.

Next, air quality. Lifestyle website Goop recommends the Dyson Pure Cool Link Tower ($899) to rid your sleep space of mold spores and animal allergens. (A collection of peace lilies may do a similar job for a tenth of the price.)

Light control — blackout curtains or a silk eye-mask are necessities, to prevent neighbourhood lights or even an over-bright moon from messing with your circadian rhythm. Electronic devices that emit blue light (phones, tablets, TVs) should be banished before 9pm for the same reason (or if you truly can’t bring yourself to break the habit, use Apple’s Night Shift mode, or Samsung’s Blue Light Filter to decrease the effects).

Next comes a pre-bed wind-down ritual that may include lighting scented candles, sipping herbal tea, thanking your feet for the work they’ve done in the day, gratitude journalling, a little light foam rolling or yoga, taking a warm bath with magnesium salts, applying face and hair masks (hey, something has to do some work while you sleep), and perhaps Bach Flower Remedy under the tongue.

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Finally, you can settle into bed, assuming the optimal on-your-back position to avoid decolletage wrinkling or exacerbating your laptop hunch, before putting in headphones and firing up your favourite sleep-assisting white-noise app or album to drift off to — Max Richter’s eight-hour Sleep opus, or perhaps some brain-soothing binaural beats overlaid with the night whispers of a Nordic pine forest.

And if all that doesn’t make you feel tired, nothing will.

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New Zealand Herald

New Zealand Herald

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