Why Prioritizing Sleep May Be Your Smartest Work Move Yet
Imagine you had a coworker who never quite seemed to have it together. They spaced out during meetings, maybe showed up late more than they should have, and made little (or not so little) mistakes. One day, you catch them taking a quick nip from a bottle in their bag, and everything comes together––they've been drinking on the job!
If you knew that a co-worker was showing up to work drunk, of course you'd consider it a problem. And yet, over 50% of employees in the U.S. are operating under a comparable handicap: sleep deprivation.
Sound dramatic? Consider this: even moderate levels of sleep deprivation produce similar impairments in your brain and motor function as being too drunk to drive.1
While many in the Western world have viewed getting by on not enough sleep as a badge of honor over the past couple of decades, sleep deprivation has huge effects on the economy, your health, and possibly, your very own career.
Costs of Sleep Deprivation
More than half of employees in the U.S. regularly sleep too little––and those who do get the hours in often have poor quality sleep.2 The results show up in all kinds of ways. For instance, Rand Europe estimates that developed world economies have lost $680 billion in cumulative economic output due to poor sleep, while researchers from Harvard suggest that sleep problems among American workers cause U.S. companies to lose $63.2 billion a year.3,4
Besides the effects of lack of sleep on the economy, poor sleep also has a devastating impact on your health. Not getting enough sleep can play a role in everything from holding onto weight and insulin issues to changes in mood and impairments in the way your brain cells function. Sleep issues can also lower your immunity, make it harder for your body to regulate your blood pressure, and speed up your skin's’ aging process.
What's more, once you become sleep deprived, you tend to lose your perspective on how much sleep you actually need, perpetuating the cycle of sleep deprivation and leaving you unaware of just how seriously the issue is affecting you as you try to "power through."
Sleep and Your Career
As tempting as it might be to think that you can make it through the day on willpower alone, the physical, mental, and emotional changes that occur with sleep deprivation can have serious effects on your career. While some companies are getting on board with the need for sleep and supporting their employees as they prioritize rest, many still aren't.
For every employer out there that supports employee wellness, there are many companies that still promote burning the candle at both ends. If you're working in one of them (or you've bought into the idea that you can go through life running on determination and caffeine), here are five great reasons to prioritize sleep in your life.
5 Reasons to Prioritize Sleep
1. Increase your efficiency, creativity, and problem-solving ability. No surprises here: you already know from experience that you can't fire on all cylinders when you're tired. But did you know why? It turns out that a lack of sleep causes your brain cells to fire differently.5 When you're sleep deprived, the neurons in the areas of the brain associated with memory, reasoning, and emotion aren't as excitable (meaning electricity can't pass through them as easily). Think of it like trying to send electricity through a frayed, old wire. You can get some through, but that lamp isn't going to shine as brightly or consistently as it would if you had a new, undamaged wire.
And just in case you get the idea that these negative effects on the brain only occur after long-term sleep deprivation, think again. People who don’t sleep enough even on a short-term basis show significant increases in rigid thinking, a much greater tendency to keep doing things that either don't pay off or create bad results, and much less ability to use new information to make decisions or modify a task.6
2. Stay motivated. OK, so you may never love every single thing you have to do at your job. But if you're not getting enough sleep, you're probably going to feel really terrible about a lot of things at work––and you might start finding that you just can't be bothered to do them anymore, even if you know that completing those tasks will support your career.
Sleep plays a big role in regulating your moods and emotions thanks to its effects on the amygdala (the part of your brain that handles a lot of emotional processing), and it also helps you increase your self-control. While you may think that self-control is all mental, it turns out that it's closely related to your glucose levels. Changes in your circadian rhythm can affect the way your body metabolizes glucose, and when your glucose levels are too low or your body is unable to access the glucose in your blood properly, you're more likely to experience failures in self-control. What's more, during sleep, the body restores the parts of the brain related to "self-regulatory resources" (research-speak for the energy, attention, and emotional regulation needed to maintain motivation).7
Translation: the more sleep you get, the better you feel about what you're doing while you're at work, and the easier you'll find it to stay motivated, which can pay off big time when it comes to advancing your career.
3. Stay well enough to work. We've talked a lot about how sleep affects the brain so far––but did you know it also plays a crucial role in immunity? To produce cytokines (an important type of immune cell), your body needs to have low levels of cortisol and high levels of growth hormone and prolactin.
And since your hormone levels and your circadian rhythm are closely connected––balanced hormone levels support a healthy circadian rhythm, and vice versa––getting enough sleep is key for maintaining the correct levels of these substances. When you're sleeping well, your circadian rhythm signals the body to produce lower levels of cortisol and higher levels of growth hormone and prolactin at night.8
But when you throw your circadian rhythm off by not sleeping appropriately, your hormone levels get out of whack too, which means that your body can't produce immune cells the way it needs to. The result? You start catching every little bug that goes around the office, which puts you out of commission way too often.
4. Make good choices. We've all been there: it's 4PM, and you're tired. You know that grabbing whatever happens to be lying around the office isn't a great idea...but those cupcakes Jill from accounting brought in are looking really good. Besides, you could use the boost! Or maybe sugar isn't your thing, but you're pretty sure your blood is about 90% coffee by the end of the day.
When you don't get enough sleep, it's tempting to fall back on crutches like caffeine and sugar to get through the day, but at best, this gives you a temporary rush that leaves you even more exhausted later. By giving your body the rest it needs, you won't feel the need to keep yourself going with unhealthy dietary choices, which means that you can be energetic and focused, rather than jittery.
Plus, you'll be in a better frame of mind without all those chemicals rushing through your body––sugar wreaks havoc on your microbiome, which has a big influence on your moods; and caffeine leads to energy crashes. Steering clear of them will help put you in the right mental space to make good decisions when it comes to work and your career.9
5. Stay safe! Remember when we talked about how sleep deprivation leaves you in a cognitive state similar to being drunk? As you might imagine, this doesn't make you the safest person to work around. The thing is, your body is going to sleep one way or another, and when you don't give it the opportunity to sleep normally, it compensates by "micro-sleeps" in which you briefly fall asleep without knowing it. These periods of sleep, as short as they are, can be extremely dangerous to you and the people around you.10
In fact, sleep-related issues have played a role in a range of disasters, including the Three Mile Island Nuclear Meltdown, Chernobyl, and the Exxon Valdez oil spill.11 While you're probably not in charge of a nuclear plant or an oil tanker, you can still unintentionally do a lot of damage if you're working with equipment, providing medical or child care, or simply driving a car. It's not worth the risk, especially when the fix is so simple.
The 6 Foundations of Good Sleep
A lot of people think that getting good sleep is all about having enough time to rest, but actually, quality matters even more than quantity. So how can you make sure you're getting the best possible sleep? Everyone's routine is going to vary, but as long as you're getting in the six foundations of good sleep hygiene, you should be good to go:
1. Watch What You're Eating (and When You're Eating It)
Digestion takes a lot of energy, which is why you may not sleep well if you eat and then go straight to bed. (In fact, many of the body's systems are meant to shut down almost entirely during sleep, and digestion is one of them.) Eating close to bedtime, especially if you're eating heavy meals (particularly if they're spicy, or made with fatty foods), can leave you feeling uncomfortable and unable to sleep.
2. Move Around During the Day
While exercising might be the last thing you feel like doing if you've already got a busy work schedule, it's well worth it. The National Sleep Foundation found that as little as 10 minutes of aerobic exercise a day can improve sleep quality, which makes sense, given the huge impact exercise has on your hormone levels, which in turn affect your circadian rhythm.11
3. Try to Get Some Exposure to Natural Light
If you spend a lot of time indoors away from windows, your body might not be getting the signals it needs to properly release melatonin, the hormone associated with feeling sleepy.13 Try your best to spend at least a few minutes outside each day––you'll be able to enjoy the benefits of being in nature, plus you’ll give your body the signals it needs to help you sleep.
4. Sleep in a Cool Room
About an hour or so before you fall asleep, your body temperature starts to lower. It continues to drop throughout the night, reaching about 96 degrees in the early hours of the morning before heating back up again when you wake up.14 By keeping your room cool, you can kickstart this process of cooling down, which serves as yet another signal to your body that it's time for sleep.
5. Create a Bedtime Ritual
Our bodies do well with routine, so the more you can get into the habit of going to bed at a certain time, the better. Try creating a bedtime ritual that you follow to mentally prepare yourself for sleep. It can be anything, as long as it's relaxing to you and as long as it doesn't include the use of screens. Just like natural light, the blue light from screens influences the production of melatonin, which can trick your brain into thinking it's still light out, leading to sleepless nights.
6. Focus on Your Gut
Your gut microbiome plays a key role in keeping your zzz's on schedule. As it goes through its own circadian rhythm throughout the day, it works with the body to help support everything from sunny moods and low stress levels to the production of hormones that help you keep enjoying high quality, regular sleep.
For instance, 90% of serotonin––a hormone that helps you sleep deeply––is produced in the gut. The helpful bacteria in your microbiome also help support healthy levels of tryptophan (a precursor for melatonin) in your blood. Finally, your good guys help support the production of cortisol (a hormone associated with feeling stressed or anxious) and GABA (which helps your body regulate stress), leaving you calm and contented instead of tired but wired at bedtime.
And this is a two-way street: just as a balanced gut microbiome helps support restorative sleep, your quality of sleep impacts the balance of your microbiome. (Remember, your gut microbiome needs to have a balance of about 85% beneficial bacteria to 15% not-so-beneficial bacteria to really thrive.) When this gets thrown off, your microbes can't be as effective at encouraging the body processes that help you sleep, which is yet another reason why it's so important to prioritize rest––you don't want one bad night to turn into a period of sleeping poorly.
The good news is that it's very easy to start supporting your microbiome. Try supplementing with a premium probiotic like PRO-15, which contains a mix of strains to help maintain healthy gut balance, including three powerful sleep supporters: L. casei, B. longum, and L. reuteri.15,16
With the costs of sleep deprivation being so high and the benefits so clear, it's time for all of us to get on board with giving our bodies the sleep they need. From the economy right down to your career, there's simply too much at stake. So join us in making sleep a priority in your career––and let's put the old myth of less sleep meaning more work to bed for good!
1. Williamson, A., Feyer, A. (2000). Moderate Sleep Deprivation Produces Impairments in Cognitive and Motor Performance Equivalent to Legally Prescribed Levels of Alcohol Intoxication. Occupational and Environmental Medicine 57(10). doi: 10.1136/oem.57.10.649
2. SWAN. (2014). Sleep in American Business: SWAN Sleep Survey.
3. Hafner, M., Stepanek, M., Jirka Taylor, J., Troxel, W.M., van Stolk, C. (2016). Why Sleep Matters — the Economic Costs of Insufficient Sleep: A Cross-Country Comparative Analysis. The RAND Corporation, Santa Monica.
4. Kessler, R., Berglund, P., Coulouvrat, C., Hajak, G., Roth, T., Shahly, V., . . . J.K., W. (2011). Insomnia and the Performance of US workers: Results from the America Insomnia Survey. Sleep 1161(71). doi: 10.5665/SLEEP.1230.
5. Alhola, P. and Polo-Kantola, P. (2007). Sleep Deprivation: Impact on Cognitive Performance. Neuropsychiatric Disease and Treatment 3(5).
6. Harrison, Y., Horne, J.A. (1999). One Night of Sleep Loss Impairs Innovative Thinking and Flexible Decision Making. Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes 78(2). doi: 10.1006/obhd.1999.2827
7. Pilcher, J.J., Morris, D.M., Donnelly, J., Feigl, H.B. (2015). Interactions between Sleep Habits and Self-control. Frontiers in Human Neuroscience v(9). doi: 10.3389/fnhum.2015.00284
8. Lange, T. Dimitrov, S., Born, J. (2010). Effects of Sleep and Circadian Rhythm on the Human Immune System. Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences 113. doi: 10.1111/j.1749-6632.2009.05300.x
9. Jaquet M., Rochat, I., Moulin, J., Cavin, C., Bibiloni, R. (2009). Impact of Coffee Consumption on the Gut Microbiota: a Human Volunteer Study. International Journal of Food Microbiology 130(2). doi: 10.1016/j.ijfoodmicro.2009.01.011
10. Sallinen, M., Härmä, M., Akila, R., Holm, A., Luukkonen, R. . . . Virkkala, J. (2004). The Effects of Sleep Debt and Monotonous Work on Sleepiness and Performance During a 12-h Dayshift. Journal of Sleep Research 13(4). doi: 10.1111/j.1365-2869.2004.00425.x
11. Mitler, M.M., Carskadon, M.A., Czeisler, C.A., Dement, W.C., . . . Graeber, R.C. (2008). Sleep 11(1).
12. National Sleep Foundation. (2013). Sleep in America Poll: Exercise and Sleep. Arlington, VA.
13. Lewy, A.J., Wehr, T.A. Goodwin, F.K., Newsome, D.A., Markey, S.P. (1980). Light Suppresses Melatonin Secretion in Humans. Science 12(210). doi: 10.1126/science.7434030
14. Glotzbach, S.F., Heller, H.C. (1976). Central Nervous Regulation of Body Temperature During Sleep. Science 194(4264). doi: 10.1126/science.973138
15. Kato-Kataoka, A., Nishida, K., Takada, M., Suda, K., Kawai, M., Shimizu, K., . . . Rokutan, K. (2016). Fermented milk containing Lactobacillus casei strain Shirota prevents the onset of physical symptoms in medical students under academic examination stress. Beneficial Microbes 7(2), 153-156.
16. Mairesse, J., Garcia Rodenas, C.L., Silletti, V., Cassano, T.Bergonzelli, G.E., Maccari, S. (2011). Lactobacillus Reuteri DSM 17938 and Bifidobacterium Longum ATCC BAA-999 Normalize Sleep Patterns in Prenatal Stress Rats. Pediatric Research 70. doi: 10.1038/pr.2011.1022
Rachel Allen is a writer at Hyperbiotics who's absolutely obsessed with learning about how our bodies work. She's fascinated by the latest research on bacteria and the role they play in health, and loves to help others learn about how probiotics can help the body get back in balance. For more ideas on how you can benefit from the power of probiotics and live healthier days, be sure to subscribe to our newsletter. To learn more about how a healthy microbiome can enrich your life, subscribe to our newsletter.