Wake Up to The Facts: Understanding Sleep’s Correlation to Your Mental Energy

When I was a little girl, as part of my bedtime ritual, my father would ask me a few questions to guide me through my day in review. By holding up fingers, I could keep track of how many good things happened that day vs bad things. It was remarkable how the good always outnumbered the bad, and in looking back as an adult, it became clear that Dad always rigged the process.

In nurturing our relationship one last time each day, Dad was helping me more than he may have realized. For me, drifting off toward slumber with positive feelings of a day well-spent meant gaining a supreme sleeping experience. And that good night’s sleep translated to much more than waking up refreshed. It was contributing to my resilience.

As I had mentioned in my recent article about sleep and energy, the best gift you can give to yourself, as a professional or otherwise, is a dedication to at least 7 hours of sleep per night. As Arianna Huffington’s book The Sleep Revolution illustrates, sleep is the key to our resilience, in both the realms of physical energy and mental energy. Today, I’ll expand a bit on the latter, demonstrating how measures, like the one Dad used, contribute directly to our excellence in the brain skills that we, as knowledge workers, are sought for.

Losing Control

The backbone of resilience is tenacity. But experience shows us that when we’re exhausted due to lack of sleep, that tenacity flies out the window and we capitulate more easily. This applies not only to physical feats, but to the mental ones as well. The indication is that the quality of our sleep (not to mention our diet and fitness) is directly related to our professional capabilities. Huffington writes, “When we’re tired, [our] energy reserves run low, and our self-control suffers.” This could mean giving in to compulsive desires like cigarettes or Mallomars, or more aptly, getting lost in your web browser or social media. Talk about a self-imposed draw on your resilience.

The Productivity Paradox

Think seriously of the times when you haven’t gotten enough sleep. Did you notice how it impacted your productivity at work? Even if you detected no difference, it turns out you might be a statistic after all. Huffington highlights the fact that, “In the United States we lose $63 billion of productivity every year due to sleep deprivation.” And this doesn’t just refer to absenteeism; this output shortage is also due to a sneaky little predicament called presenteeism. We might think we’re adding to our productivity by spending less hours in bed and more at the office. But the evil irony in this outlook is that those extra hours are spent in a state of minimum focus. As Professor Ronald C Kessler of Harvard Medical School reminds us, “Americans are not missing work because of insomnia….They are still going to their jobs, but they’re accomplishing less because they’re tired.”

The Resistance of Memory

Besides impeding your productivity, sleep deprivation also puts a damper on another important trait of a competent knowledge worker: your memory. In this department, Huffington cites a UC Berkeley study which found a “circular” relationship between lousy sleep and a recollection deficit. She quotes lead neuroscientist Matthew Walker regarding the presence of a protein thought to be the cause of Alzheimer’s disease: “The more beta-amyloid you have in certain parts of your brain, the less deep sleep you get and, consequently, the worse your memory.” This dilemma then circles back around to fuel itself further, since that same lack of sleep renders your brain less capable of ridding itself of the offending protein.

To add insult to injury, prolonged sleep deprivation actually creates brain shrinkage! We’ve all heard the rumor that we can “catch up” on the sleep that we missed. But as Huffington indicated after researching a study conducted by the University of Pennsylvania and Peking University, “Lack of sleep over time can lead to an irreversible loss of brain cells—yet another debunking of the myth that sleep can be made up (for).” The less cells there are, the less brain there is, which ultimately decreases our alertness, cognition and attention spans. So much for advancing in our careers by cutting out those Z’s.

The Sober Facts

Even if you aren’t downright cranky or short-tempered after cutting your snoozes short, science says that your general attention span is still being taxed and your tolerance, muted. Huffington even includes an unbelievable finding that equates an under-rested you with a 0.1% BAC state of drunkenness. It all adds up to a lose/lose situation for professionals like you and me when we fall victim to the personal and societal pressures that suggest we carve away at our precious slumber in the name of productivity. No matter how you slice it, such a blow to our mental energy will cause our resilience to come up short, time and time again.

Keep tuned-in for my follow-up article, which will look at ways to help you sleep better, starting with the best way to get serious about increasing your physical energy: exercise.