If some of the most successful people can get by on only four hours of sleep per night, what does that say about the rest of us? Are we wasting our time sleeping? While experts say some people don't need the standard hours of sleep that most do—typically six to eight hours—only five out of the 100 people who think they can get by on five to six hours a night actually can.
This means the rest of us are sleep deprived—a very dangerous condition that can easily be overlooked in today's constantly churning economy. According to Dr. Robert Oexman, director of the Sleep to Live Institute, not getting enough sleep can result in a lower pain threshold, decreased alertness, higher anxiety levels and increased risk of heart disease, diabetes and cancer, just to name a few.
For those at the top with demanding schedules and intense pressure, sleep schedules are often neglected and pushed aside. (Lack of sleep and exhaustion were the reasons Arianna Huffington collapsed in 2007 in her office.) While we can't be sure of the health effects these sleeping regimens had—or will have—on the people below, their odd habits are definitely worth noting.
When you think of workaholics, you can't not think of Yahoo's CEO, who reportedly used to clock 130 hours per week while working at Google. This left very little time for her to sleep, so Mayer had to spend her time wisely, which included sleeping at her desk and taking "strategic" showers.
Mayer reportedly took week-long vacations every four months to catch up on some much-needed downtime. When she was appointed chief executive of Yahoo, things didn't slow down for the then-37 year old who was also six-months pregnant. Mayer told Fortune that she would be working through her pregnancy: "I like to stay in the rhythm of things. My maternity leave will be a few weeks long and I'll work throughout it."
The famous former British prime minister kept an extremely irregular schedule. He was said to have taken two-hour naps often, which he believed allowed him to work for 1.5 days every 24 hours, as recorded by Mason Currey in the book Daily Rituals: How Artists Work. Churchill's schedule was so irregular and lasted so late into the night that he would often hold War Cabinet meetings while taking his bath.
While this seemed to work for "the British Bulldog," Oexman of the Sleep to Live Institute says a Churchill-like sleep schedule just doesn't make sense in today's typical work world.
"The idea that we can sleep in two periods—biphasic sleeping—or multiple periods—multiphasic sleeping—has a small popular following," he says. "It is much better to get your sleep all at one time. I am not certain as to whether biphasic or multiphasic sleeping is even possible for people that work. It is never a good idea to do this on weekends only because it will cause disruption in one’s circadian rhythms."
Stewart didn't become a household name without putting in some major hours. She's known to only sleep about four hours a night and admits to neglecting her sleep: "It's an exhausting lifestyle, and I always say sleep can go," she told WebMD. "It's not important to me right now. I never stay in bed late—I can't! In my house, the first people arrive at about 6:30, and I have to be up well before that."
As the only woman to be Britain's prime minister, Thatcher had a lot to prove. She excelled tremendously, but maybe at the cost of adequate sleep. "She slept four hours a night on weekdays," Sir Bernard Ingham, who was Thatcher's press secretary, told the BBC. "I wasn't with her at weekends. I guess she got a bit more then."
Edison was one of those people who believe sleep is a waste of time. He only slept for three hours a night, although he did sometimes sneak in a power nap here and there. Edison would reportedly sometimes work for 72 hours straight—a harmful strategy that led to the invention of the phonograph, alkaline battery, light bulb and around 1,093 patents.
Take Control of Your Sleep Habits
While it's true that some people may require less sleep, Oexman says it's very rare that anyone could continue to do this without some serious health consequences. "This is the same concept as eating poorly for years ... you may still be alive and functioning, but you will eventually have to face the health consequences," he says. "Since many people are unaware of the negative impact that poor sleep habits have on health, they mistakenly associate the symptoms they are having with some other cause, such as aging, stress or not enough exercise."
Oexman says that while it can be difficult to change your sleep habits, it's not impossible. "It can be changed in about two weeks or less," he says.
However, this change would require not only changing your bedtime change, but your lifestyle as well, meaning you can't watch that late-night show anymore during the hours you should be sleeping. If you have a tough time falling asleep, below are some strategies that can help:
1. Keep a regular bedtime routine all week long. Going to bed at a regular schedule every day—even on weekends—maintains your body's internal clock and helps regulate your sleep cycle.
2. Keep the bedroom at 65 to 68 degrees. "When you go to sleep, your set point for body temperature—the temperature your brain is trying to achieve—goes down," according to H. Craig Heller, PhD and professor of biology at Stanford University. “Think of it as the internal thermostat."
The temperature level of your bedroom affects the quality of your sleep because if it's too hot or cold, your body struggles to achieve the comfortable set point it needs to have a restful sleep.
3. Make sure you have no noise in the bedroom or use a “white noise machine.” The consistent noise that emits from a white noise machine creates a masking effect, which blocks out any sudden change in noise that would normally wake up light sleepers.
4. Make sure you invest in a mattress and pillow that fits your body type and sleeping position. "People often overlook the importance of investing in a quality mattress that will ensure that you’re sleeping at your best capacity," says Oexman. "There are mattresses out there today that utilize groundbreaking technology that can literally read your body’s every movement throughout the night and adjust depending on your specific sleep needs."
5. If you cannot eliminate all noise in the environment, use an eye mask. Using a sleep mask to keep incoming light away from your eyes signals to your body that it's time to produce melatonin, the hormone for sleep.
6. Avoid caffeine—which can be hidden in drinks, food and medications—after lunch, and avoid alcohol. Certain foods are known to disrupt sleep and leaves you with sleep fragmentation. While alcohol can initially make you sleepy, research shows that alcohol-induced sleep leads people to feel unrested the following day.
7. Prepare for bed for at least 30 minutes in a dimly lit environment. This practice helps prepare your body for bed by putting you in the right mindset and signaling to your body that it's time to produce more melatonin, which won't happen with the lights on.
8. Take a hot bath before bed. When you take a hot bath, your body temperature rises. The rapid drop in temperature when you get out of the tub relaxes you.
9. Eliminate all electronics—TV, computers, cell phones—from the bedroom. Your bedroom should be devoted to sleep and sex, meaning you should eliminate all electronics from this room. If electronics are nearby, they can disrupt your sleep and you will start thinking of your bedroom as a place where you can surf the Web or watch television instead of being preserved solely for nighttime matters.
Everyone is different when it comes to how much sleep they need, but the key here is to understand that you need to be the one in control of your sleep patterns. Whatever your schedule is, it's important to know how sleep affects you and how much of it you need, and to adopt a regular sleep routine.
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