The Science of Sleep

Unknowingly, serendipitously timed for National Sleep Awareness Week, March 6-13 (which I literally learned about in publishing this post today, and coming across Dr. Darley’s Twitter). 

Two weeks ago, I attended an hour-long workshop exclusively on the topic of “Sleep Health,” hosted by Naturopathic Sleep Medicine Specialist, Dr. Catherine Darley, as a human resource development resource at my workplace from Wellspring EAP. I took 7 pages of notes. It was one of the most impactful hours I’ve spent in my life.

Did you know? REM sleep impacts your emotional stability, growth hormones and physical repair, and memory consolidation. Scientists still are stumped with what happens during 75% of our sleep (Sleep Stage 2). Wonder and mystery are built into the human experience.

In the weeks since, I’ve changed my approach to sleep and have been loving the results.



  • Stronger attentiveness to detail and personal-professional proficiency
  • Better eye contact and conversational exchange with colleagues and clients
  • Eating less, and craving healthier foods

Here are some of the common sleep myths that Dr. Darley debunked during the workshop session. 

IMG_0253Myth #1: Sleep time diminishes with age.
A dominant cultural myth is that adults need less sleep as they age. All adults of every age need 8-9 hours every night. Most adults get 6.8 hours on work nights. Continue reading for the effects of getting less than 8-9 hours of sleep nightly.  Sleep cycles and their quality do change across the lifespan, yes–but we still need to get enough of it. It’s a myth that sleep needs change drastically.

Myth #2: Sleep deprivation only has mild effects.
Sleep quality affects our holistic health and our relationships dramatically. First of all, a 2010 study revealed that just 1-2 hours less of sleep can cause us to miss social cues. If you sleep 7 hours or less, you can’t tell by glancing at someone if they are happy or angry. On top of that, because of less sleep, you don’t care as much that you can’t read their emotional cues. Imagine how that might impact both personal and professional relationships over time. Read about this study linking sleep and human emotion recognition, here. When it comes to your weight, if you are a mere 1-2 hours sleep deprived, your appetite is increased–averaging an added 300 calorie intake per day, which equals out to 30+ pounds of weight gain annually. Again, most adults get 6.8 hours on work nights, so that’s a consistent 2 hours of sleep deprivation. Other daily health impacts include: inflammation, reddish complexion, arthritis and hypertension, heart health impact, blood sugar control issues and diabetes, low to diagnosable depression and anxiety, and cognitive and physical performance (touched on more below). Sleep deprivation by 2 hours has the same impact on driving performance as drinking 2-3 beers. Read about driving drowsy research released from the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety, here.

Myth #3: Bedtime is most important.
Humans are wired for routine and consistency. Keeping a set bedtime is important, but it’s not the only piece to consider with your sleep health. Wake time is just as critical. Human beings have a Circadian rhythm–a natural, internal clock that helps us function. The minute we wake, our body’s clock is set and we’re programmed for 14-15 hour day following that moment in time. Thirty minutes of bright light upon waking helps the body’s Circadian rhythm, as does 10 minutes of bright light throughout the day.

Myth #4: High performers can sleep less.
Sleep affects all people the same. Four years ago, research was released that proved sleep is central to performance. Companies lose an average of $2,000 per employee per year due to sleep issues–especially calling-in sick or presentee-ism (being at work, but being unproductive or less productive). Sleep impacts the human ability to engage both simple and complex problem-solving. Ethical and moral reasoning is impaired, and one’s cognitive decision-making becomes more self-centered. It’s scary to consider that some of the most lethal decisions made by leaders of corporations could have been made in part due to sleep deprivation. (Refer also to myth #2 for how that interplays with our relationships and recognizing social cues.) In the last 30 years, there’s been a cultural shift where the workday begins earlier and earlier. Much of that shift is due to our increasingly global economy. However, the impact of that work schedule has significant impact on human health and connectivity (See myths #2, 3, and 10). A study on insomnia and work performance, here. US Army Recruits were tested and shown to have better performance with increased sleep in a study reported on here and also another here. Another longitudinal study, hereA great article with research throughout on stress, performance and sleep, here.

Myth #5: People can sleep too much.
You can never sleep too much. You will continue to receive benefits from sleep. That said, yes–there are other issues like clinical depression and nutritional deficiency that can cause exhaustion and fatigue, leading to extra sleep. Dr. Darley recommends “Nutritional Medicine,” by Alan Gaby for those wanting to learn more about nutrient deficiencies. Licensed psychiatrists, mental health therapists or counselors can assist in navigating depression and its symptoms.

Myth #6: You can go to bed as early as you need.
The human body is not ready for sleep until it’s ready for sleep (see myth #3 about the body’s Circadian rhythm, and myth #9 about teenagers’ sleep readiness). Zero to 30 minutes is a normal period that the body takes to go from a rest state to a sleep state. For people suffering from acute and chronic stress, the body’s cortisol–a stress hormone in the body, increases in the morning and night. That hormonal impact can make getting to sleep challenging. Spending ten minutes journaling, making a to-do list, problem-solving, brainstorming, or having free-thinking time an hour or two before bed can help. Yoga and stretching are great for stress reduction and bedtime readiness too.

Myth #7: All naps are created equal.
We cycle through sleep stages every 1.5-2 hours. If you can’t get a 1.5-2 hour nap in, then take one for 30 minutes or less.

Myth #8: Women sleep worse than men.
Women sleep better than men, but complain about their sleep more often. The perception is that they have worse sleep patterns, though the opposite is true. However, men get a bad rep for having more cases of sleep apnea. Women after menopause have sleep apnea rates that are equal to that of men.

Myth #9: Teenagers are lazy.
Teenagers are no more lazy than anyone else; they are quite simply the most sleep deprived age group. The reality is that their bodies are not prepared for sleep until around 11:00pm. One of the more jarring statistics is that 9% of high school seniors get the amount of sleep they need. There are many nationwide movements to change school start-times to better accommodate student health and educational success.

Myth #10: I need to catch up on my sleep this weekend!
Sorry, you can’t make up for lost sleep during the week by sleeping more hours each weekend. Consistency is key (see myth #3). Naps aren’t the complete solution, as their benefits only impact the 4 hours following the nap. The adverse effects of sleep deprivation persist if you’re not getting your 8-9 hours consistently. Solution: get up at the same time on the weekend as during the week, and then take a nap in the afternoon!

IMG_0255Real talk: it’s never “the right time” to make a change. I had lunch with my colleague Angie Jenkins (pictured left) the day after the sleep workshop. Our conversation circled through the themes of change that are top of mind for both of us. It’s always going to be uncomfortable to expand your comfort zone. It’s always inconvenient to try something outside of rut and routine. No life stage or situation is free of habit, expectation or limited time. We’re all in this together! Let’s make the changes we need for holistic health individually and organizationally.

Next Steps
Check out links throughout this post, especially the book recommendations and articles online.

Make an action plan for yourself and your family as to how you can increase your sleep health.

If you are a leader of a team or an organization, consider how you can create practices, policies and procedures that better protect the sleep health of employees.

Reflect on your workplace culture when it comes to sleep and rest. How are you contributing to a healthy work environment and culture?

Another recommended resource from Dr. Darley:

If you’re interested in Dr. Darley’s work or in her services:
Catherine Darley, ND
The Institute of Naturopathic Sleep Medicine
1904 3rd Ae, Suite 614 / Seattle WA 98101
(206) 624-9950

2 Comments Add yours

  1. Renee Kern says:

    Thank you for sharing your summary! Super helpful! Personal Goal: Go to bed at the same time every night during National Sleep Awareness week!

    Liked by 1 person

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