Book Talk: The Sleep Revolution

by Erica Moody

Arianna Huffington aims to change the way we think about sleep. 


Photo of Arianna Huffington by Peter Yang

In 2014, people around the world spent a staggering $58 billion on sleep-aid products, a figure projected to rise to $76.7 billion by 2019, author Arianna Huffington says. Not only do many Americans not get enough sleep; when they do try to sleep, an increasing number are relying on pills to get there. When Huffington herself collapsed from “sleep deprivation, exhaustion and burnout” in 2007, she decided to do something about the issue. Her fascinating, accessible and necessary book “The Sleep Revolution” (Harmony Books) delves into the current crisis, the history of how we got there, the science of sleep and how we can begin to change the role of sleep in our lives.

Washington Life: In the book you quote Bill Clinton saying sleep deprivation has a lot to do with the “edginess of Washington.” How does it affect a city when so many of its residents are chronically sleep deprived?
Arianna Huffington:
A culture of sleep deprivation absolutely affects a city, and in the case of D.C., the result is amplified: elected officials – ostensibly role models for the country – perpetuating the collective delusion that burnout is the necessary price we must pay for accomplishment and success. “No politician would smoke in front of a camera,” says Till Roenneberg, a professor at Ludwig-Maximilians University in Munich, “but all politicians clearly declare— and show it in their faces— how little they have slept.”

WL: The number of people who take sleeping pills like Ambien and the extreme side effects (like sleep driving) are truly shocking. They are probably more damaging than alcohol abuse, but we rarely hear about them. Why are sleeping pills more socially acceptable than binge drinking?
AH: We have a sleeping pill epidemic in this country. More than 55 million prescriptions for sleeping pills were written just in 2014, with sales topping $1 billion. And for an illustration of how we’ve failed to make sleeping pills a public health priority, just look at colleges. In recent years, there’s been a lot of attention given to the problems of binge drinking and drug use among high school and college students. But a 2014 study by the University of St. Thomas in Minnesota showed that the effect of sleep deprivation on grades is roughly equivalent to that of binge drinking and drug use.

WL: The hardest people to convince about the benefits of sleep might be college students, who suffer from FOMO (Fear of Missing Out), brag about library all-nighters and are easily burning out by the end of college. How does this affect grads entering the workforce and what can we do to change the way college students approach sleep?
AH: “Sleep, grades, social life: pick two” is a motto that can be heard on college campuses across the country. It’s yet more evidence, as if we needed any, that college students today feel as if they’re in a no-win situation, forced to choose between sleep and life. That’s a choice nobody should ever have to make. Colleges have become burnout zones where we teach the worst habits of a culture fueled by burnout and sleep deprivation. Students learn an unforgiving definition of success, where going without sleep is considered a badge of honor. It’s why we launched the HuffPost Sleep Revolution College Tour at more than 300 colleges across the country, drawing on the latest science to raise awareness and spark a national conversation about the importance of sleep and the dangers of sleep deprivation. It’s had an incredible response.

WL: What part does technology have to play in the sleep crisis? Has sleep changed drastically since smartphones came along?
AH: Technology is absolutely one of the main reasons our relationship to sleep has become so compromised. Technology has allowed a growing number of us to carry our work with us — in our pockets and purses in the form of our phones — wherever we go. Our houses, our bedrooms and even our beds are littered with beeping, vibrating, flashing screens. Even when we’re not actually connecting digitally, we’re in a constant state of heightened anticipation. And always being in this state doesn’t exactly put us in the right frame of mind to wind down when it’s time to sleep. Though we don’t give much thought to how we put ourselves to bed, we have little resting places and refueling shrines all over our houses, like little doll beds, where our technology can recharge, even if we can’t.

WL: What can those of us, myself included, do to prioritize sleep when we have such an attachment to our devices and fear of being unplugged?
AH: My advice is to create a healthy transition to sleep that begins before you even step into your bedroom, and have a specific time at night when you regularly turn off your devices. I treat my own transition to sleep as a sacrosanct ritual. First, I turn off all my electronic devices and gently escort them out of my bedroom. Then, I take a hot bath with epsom salts and a candle flickering nearby — a bath that I prolong if I’m feeling anxious or worried about something. I don’t sleep in my workout clothes as I used to (think of the mixed message that sends to our brains) but have pajamas, nightdresses, even T-shirts dedicated to sleep. Sometimes I have a cup of chamomile or lavender tea if I want something warm and comforting before going to bed. This attachment and fear are real – I speak from experience – but I’m also living proof that when we change our minds, we can change our habits.

WL: Any tips you recommend for those who have trouble falling asleep? What do you do when you have trouble falling asleep?
AH: 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. Just by reframing it from a problem to a blessing that allows me to go deeper without a deadline or any distractions, I find that I both have some of my deepest meditation experiences and, inevitably, drift off to sleep at some point. And if you don’t meditate, there are many great guided meditation recordings, as well as some soothing music and other relaxing audio guides.

WL: How has your life changed since you changed your sleeping habits?
AH: My life has improved in pretty much every way. These days, 95 percent of the time I get eight hours of sleep a night. Now, instead of waking up to the sense that I have to trudge through activities, I wake up feeling joyful about the day’s possibilities. And I’m also better able to recognize red flags and rebound from setbacks. It’s like being dialed into a different channel that has less static.

Read this interview and an excerpt from “The Sleep Revolution” in the June 2016 issue of Washington Life.

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