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Sleep on it!

Updated: Dec 6, 2023

The clocks in Ottawa changed this weekend. It happens twice a year in Canada to make it seem we have more daylight hours in summer. You can google “daylight savings time” if this seems like a curious practice. (An indigenous elder once said “they seem to think that cutting a piece off one end of a blanket and sewing it on the other makes a longer blanket.”)

The seasonal adjustment meant we lost an hour’s sleep. History says this leads to consequences ranging from a spike in heart attacks to more car accidents.

What about those of us who routinely lose much more than a single hour’s sleep because of work pressure or stress, sometimes many time zones from home?

I have lived it and I hear of it time and again when I talk with others. For my sake and yours I thought it worthwhile to reflect on sleep.


Why is it important?

We were cleverly designed to sleep for a portion of each day. As an organ our brain produces waste products as a by-product of its daily work. Sleep is a time when these toxins get flushed away. This may be one reason that research suggests that there is a higher risk of Alzheimer’s disease among those who chronically get too little sleep.

The cells in the rest of our body are constantly being replaced, and those that get damaged (for instance during exercise) need to be repaired and grow stronger. Those processes largely take place during sleep.

Immunity is compromised when we don’t get enough sleep. Less than seven hours a night is said to lead to three times more likelihood of getting a cold.

Sleep is a time when our brain processes information and memories. When we don’t get enough sleep it is harder to think clearly and creatively and to remain emotionally well. Research indicates that chronic short sleeps lead to increased levels of anxiety and depression.

We owe it to ourselves and our missions physically, emotionally and professionally to get enough sleep every night.


What messes it up?

A major factor on mission is the feeling that we need to keep working intensely and for long hours to support those we are helping. We arrive at the office early, sit at our screens all day with little physical movement and along with everyone else, we work into the evening before going home. Coffee or caffeinated tea are great aids.

When we get home we still carry the burdens of the day. HQ or colleagues may send us more requests or tasks to handle before morning. We feel the need to calm ourselves or regain some sense of control by talking through screens with friends or family or by watching news or entertainment. A drink of alcohol may help us relax and get to sleep. It is certainly too late to get any exercise.


How should it work?

One writer called sleep “the best life- and health-insurance you could ever wish for”. I might add “one of the most important tools in our professional kit.”

In a healthy world there are four stages in sleep. The first is the transition, the 5 minutes it may take us to get there. Over the next 10 to 60 minutes our heart rate and breathing slow. Then come 20 to 40 minutes of deep sleep followed by REM, or Rapid Eye Movement sleep, the time when dreams happen. These stages cycle through the night.

Deep and REM sleep are essential for our health.

Deep sleep is the physical house-keeping state, when toxins flush away, energy is directed towards cell repair and the clutter of information and memories is sorted.

REM is the time of dreaming and emotional processing. Memories are consolidated and new learning and new motor skills are programmed in. Without quality REM sleep we have problems concentrating the next day and are sleepy and forgetful.

Not getting enough quality sleep is worryingly common. The Centres for Disease Control estimate that 40% of the American population, for example, suffers from poor sleep and its consequences. I suspect that among those of us who work internationally the number is at least as high, with negative consequences for our mental and physical health, our professional effectiveness and our longevity in our careers.


How can you make it better?

Balance your day. Productivity drops off sharply in the late afternoon, especially if late work becomes routine. Lead by example. Encourage everyone to get more time for rest and productivity will increase for all.

Avoid giving or receiving overnight work tasks except in emergencies. They will be handled better after a restful night.

Don’t drink coffee, tea or eat chocolate after noon. (Sorry.) Caffeine has a “half-life” of 5 or 6 hours. Thus a quarter of the caffeine you ingest at 2PM will still be in your system at 11:00.

Move away from your desk regularly throughout the day. According to the Mayo Clinic those who sit for more than 8 hours a day with no physical activity have a risk of dying similar to that posed by obesity and smoking. Sitting at length leads to high blood pressure, high blood sugar, weight gain and unhealthy cholesterol levels. At least once an hour get away from your screen for a few minutes. Ideally, work in a bit of exercise by walking around the compound or up and down the stairs. More exercise and exposure to natural light during the day will lead to better sleep.

Turn away from screens at least an hour before bed time. The blue light from screens emulates the sun and tells your brain to produce “wake up” chemicals, making it harder to get to sleep. Read or listen to music instead. Write in a journal. A journal can help to strip away some of the thoughts that might otherwise try to run around your head all night.

While you are listening to music, do some gentle stretching. Chronic insomniacs were found to sleep better with stretching before bedtime.

Indulge yourself. Take a warm bath if you have the option.

Do not have an alcoholic night cap. I long believed it would help me to relax and fall asleep more quickly. That was true. However, alcohol is high-octane fuel and a few hours after going to sleep you will be wakened up again as your body revs in order to burn it off. The Sleep Foundation states that it is best to consume alcohol no later than 4 hours before bedtime in order for the liver to have time to metabolize it. Later than that and there is a 25% increase in the risk of sleep apnea and a drop in quality of sleep of between 10% and 40%

If you do wake up in the night, use a breathing exercise to break the cycles of thinking and calm your body. In another note we’ll write about the vagus nerve, a remarkable structure connecting the brain and the rest of the body. Breathing in slowly and again out slowly five or ten times is almost guaranteed to lead me back to sleep at 3AM. I usually argue “don’t bother – just sleep!” for a while then give into the breathing and find myself waking up again hours later. Trust me.


To learn more, google almost anything with the word “sleep” in it. It is an important issue for our times and there are lots of resources on line.


Sweet and healthy dreams!


- Randy Weekes

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