Forty winks for the win

If you snooze you lose, or not as the case may be. Sunil Nambiar delves into the dreamy world of sleep science to determine if your shuteye can really impact your chance of success

23rd November 2015

Snooze less, be more? The dazzling composer Mozart made do with 5 hours daily - as does Oprah Winfrey. Voltaire and Margaret Thatcher managed on 4 hours; Thomas Edison and Tom Ford on 3; Nikola Tesla and Da Vinci courted insanity with 2 hours a night. It’s an enduring trend that begs the question: are these sensationalised instances of self-imposed depravity, or does keeping awake pave the way for phenomenal success?

Invariably, our accomplishments in our waking hours are what count: it earns us money, it often satisfies us and is, essentially, our legacy. Martha Stewart attributes her lack of sleep to an early start to her schedule – she has guests arriving at 6.30am, while Donald Trump boasts that his 3-hour nights give him a competitive edge.

Yahoo’s CEO, Marissa Mayer once pulled weekly all-nighters, managed 19-hour days and presently functions on 4-hours of sleep. What makes her different from the “sleepless elite”, however, is Mayer’s compensation for her sleep dearth: week-long vacations every four months.

This is somewhat intriguing. The Division of Sleep Medicine at Harvard Medical School tells us that we should clock 7.5 to 8.5 hours of sleep per 24 hours, while our National Health Service advocates 6 to 9 hours. But can we, ambitious and young as we are, survive on a little less and make up for it afterward?

Can we do it all: attend our lectures, take on fantastic internships, ace our assignments, participate actively in societies, do the laundry, cook healthy meals, excel in sports, maintain a vibrant social life and throw flat parties while sleeping 4 hours nightly, safe in the knowledge that we can make up for this– over the weekend, over Christmas, over summer?

In a two-part series on the science of sleep, Forbes called this the ‘sleep debt theory’. It proposes that the first six nights of minimal sleep would be largely reversed by the last three nights of catch-up sleep. However, they quashed this theory citing a new study by the American Physiological Society. The conclusion is that even though it made up for daytime sleepiness, participants’ attention levels remained significantly impaired even after compensatory sleep.

For these findings to be true for all of us however, is as unlikely as Marissa Mayer being absent-minded or Thomas Edison lacking focus. A few of us are simply wired differently.

Speaking to the Scientific American, Professor Ying-Hui Fu of the University of California in San Francisco, explained that the amount of sleep we require boils down to genetics. In a study he co-authored, Professor Fu found that chance mutations in a protein involve in regulating a gene which affects our body’s 24 hour rhythm, can make one require much less – or much more – sleep.

Oscar-winner Halle Berry, the Dalai Lama and Amazon founder Jeff Bezos enjoy 8 hours of shut-eye daily, Albert Einstein: 10 hours, and Winston Churchill: 7 hours.  It is more likely than not that, amongst thousands of luminaries, a vast majority enjoy wholesome sleep routines.

In a piece titled ‘When Sleep Leaves You Tired’, the Wall Street Journal suggests while that some people may achieve the recommended hours in bed, a significant proportion may unwittingly undergo only superficial sleep, without progressing to the deep, restorative stages critical for memory and physical repair. Citing caffeine, alcohol and anxiety as triggers, continuous instances of sub-par sleep may blight our daytime alertness whilst raising our risk for depression, heart disease and obesity.

Enter Nick Littlehales, a ‘sleep coach’ who works with our national sports teams solely to improve the quality of their sleep. Warning against sleeping pills and self-medication, Littlehales advocates a cool bedroom with plain white bedsheets, a light duvet, a shallow pillow and complete darkness.

A healthy night, it seems, is a keen balance between self-discipline, simplicity and commitment; snooze right, be more.

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