A Q&A With Arianna Huffington: All Things Sleep

Arianna Huffington is on a mission to solve the sleep deprivation crisis. Matteo Franceschetti, our CEO, had a chance to chat with Arianna about all things sleep: her habits, view on technology, and the ever-so crucial balance of work and sleep.

MF: Why do you feel personally passionate about sleep?

AH: It started with my own painful wakeup call. On the morning of April 6, 2007, I was lying on the floor of my home office in a pool of blood. On my way down, my head had hit the corner of my desk, cutting my eye and breaking my cheekbone. I had collapsed from exhaustion and lack of sleep. In the wake of my collapse, I found myself going from doctor to doctor, from brain MRI to CAT scan to echocardiogram, to find out if there was any underlying medical problem beyond exhaustion. There wasn’t, but doctors’ waiting rooms, it turns out, were good places for me to ask myself a lot of questions about the kind of life I was living.

MF: How many hours do you sleep on average each night?

AH: 95 percent of the time I get 7-8 hours of sleep.

MF: As a successful founder, what advice do you have for entrepreneurs – who are usually working long and unusual hours – for finding time for the elusive “good night’s sleep?” Is it possible to achieve this work/sleep balance?

AH: Our sense of being indispensable — familiar to most entrepreneurs — is central to the sleep crisis we’re facing – so we need to dispense with that as soon as possible! When I had my painful wakeup call, I’d just returned home after taking my daughter Christina, then a junior in high school, on a tour of prospective colleges. The ground rules we’d agreed on— or, more accurately, that my daughter demanded— were that during the days I would not be on my BlackBerry. But that didn’t mean I would stop working (sacrilege!). So each night we’d eat dinner late and get back to the hotel exhausted. Then, in some sort of role reversal, Christina would do the responsible thing and go to sleep while I acted the part of the sneaky teenager and stayed up late. After she’d fallen asleep, I’d fire up the computers and the BlackBerrys, responding to all the “urgent” emails and generally attempting to squeeze a full day’s work into what should have been my sleep time. This would go on until about 3 a.m., when I couldn’t keep my eyes open any longer. And after three or four hours of sleep, I’d be back up for the day shift. Work, after all, was much more important than sleep, at least to my 2007 self. Because, hey, I’m running a start-up— one that’s got my name on it. Clearly I’m indispensable, so I must work all night, responding to a hundred emails and then writing a long blog post, while being the perfect mother during the day. This way of working and living seemed to serve me well— until it didn’t.

The busier we are, the more important it is that we give sleep the respect it deserves. For example, I treat my transition to sleep as a sacrosanct ritual. I have a specific time at night when I regularly turn off my devices –and gently escort them out of my bedroom. We also need recharging times during the day, whether it’s simply a short break for a walk or a few minutes of meditation so that we don’t let stress build up and make it harder for us to slow down our minds.

“The busier we are, the more important it is that we give sleep the respect it deserves.”

MF: A lot of us are glued to our phones, laptops and TVs. Do you think innovations like Apple’s new Night Shift are a good thing or are these types of features enabling bad bedtime habits?

AH: 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.

MF: What data would you be the most curious to learn about your sleep habits (e.g. sleep interruptions, % of deep sleep, breathing rate, etc.)?

AH: In the course of my research I’ve become fascinated by the four stages of sleep, so I’d love to know more about my own – for example, the time of night when I’m experiencing REM sleep and do most of my dreaming.

MF: Why do you think sleep is becoming a more talked about pillar of health and wellness?

AH: In large part it’s because there are so many new scientific findings validating ancient wisdom about sleep’s importance. In fact, Boston Children’s Hospital’s Dr. Judith Owens says sleep is “just as important as good nutrition, physical activity, and wearing your seatbelt.” Dr. Michael Roizen of the Cleveland Clinic takes it a step further, noting that sleep “is our most underrated health habit.”

MF: How do you think sleep technology has evolved, and what do you think is the next evolution?

AH: Technology has given us an unprecedented ability to learn more about ourselves, and there is a widespread hunger to track how we sleep. According to a 2015 study by Sleep Number, 43 percent of respondents said they had tracked their workouts and 41 percent had tracked their diet. Only 16 percent had tracked their sleep, but look for that number to rise, since 58 percent wished they knew more about how to track and get better sleep. A big part of the next evolution will be the creation of new sleep devices to meet this growing demand.

“Technology has given us an unprecedented ability to learn more about ourselves, and there is a widespread hunger to track how we sleep.”

MF: What is the most recent dream you had? Most recent nightmare?

AH: In my twenties, fascinated by the work of Carl Jung, I started keeping a daily dream journal. The majority of my dreams were garbled, sometimes surreal versions of my daily life, but there were also flashes of genuine insight. As I recounted in Thrive, one particular dream was so clear and so powerful that it has stayed with me ever since— and with the passage of time has even become clearer and more significant. In the dream, I was on a train going home to God (bear with me!). It was a long journey, and everything happening in my life was scenery along the way. Some of it was beautiful; I wanted to linger over it awhile and perhaps hold on to it or even take it with me. Other parts of the journey were spent grinding through a barren, ugly countryside. Either way, the train moved on. And pain came whenever I would cling to the scenery, beautiful or ugly, rather than accept that it was all grist for the mill, containing some hidden purpose, a hidden blessing, or a bit of wisdom. Over the years, as I’ve revisited variations of this dream again and again, I’ve come to see it as a great lesson for living life as if— as the poet Rumi put it— everything is rigged in our favor.

MF: What was the most fascinating thing you learned about sleep while writing your book, The Sleep Revolution: Transforming Your Life, One Night at a Time?

AH: For me, one of the most fascinating recent findings is about sleep and brain maintenance – that sleep is essentially like bringing in the overnight cleaning crew to clear the toxic waste proteins that accumulate between brain cells during the day. Dr. Maiken Nedergaard, of the University of Rochester, has studied the mechanism underlying these cleaning functions. “It’s like a dishwasher,” she said. Just as we wouldn’t eat off dirty dishes, why should we settle for going through the day with anything less than the full power and potential of our brains?

“Why should we settle for going through the day with anything less than the full power and potential of our brains?”

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