Full transcript of former Navy SEAL and inventor of Sleep Remedy, Kirk Parsley’s TEDx Talk: America’s Biggest Problem at TEDxReno Conference.
Listen to the MP3 Audio: America’s biggest problem by Kirk Parsley at TEDxReno
I’d like to talk to you all about an enormous problem that we all share, and most of us aren’t aware of it. And this problem, it’s wrecking our health, our finances, our happiness, and even our relationships.
But don’t worry too much; we share this problem with over 100 million other Americans. So at least we’re all in the same boat, right?
Now, as the saying goes, I have some good news, and I have some bad news. The good news is, there’s a natural solution to this problem. It’s 100 percent effective, it’s easy to use, and it’s free. Even better, this solution feels good. In fact, it can feel wonderful. And it improves our brains, and our bodies, and here’s the best part, it even improves our sex lives. Sound pretty good?
So what’s the bad news? Well, the bad news is that we actually have two problems. And our second problem is that we don’t believe we have the first. How do I know that? Because I didn’t believe it. And nor do the vast majority of my patients, initially.
So I’d like to ask you all a favor. I would like to ask that everybody put aside anything you may have heard about this problem just for the next 10 minutes, OK? And let’s look at this with new eyes. Do we have a deal?
Okay. So what are these mysterious problems? Well, our first problem is that we, as a nation, are chronically sleep deprived. And our second problem is that we, as individuals, don’t believe it’s affecting us. And when I say “we,” I’m including myself because I’ve chosen two professions that have taught me to push through sleep deprivation. First as a Navy SEAL, and now, as a physician. But we’ve all been taught this to various degrees.
We’ve all been taught to admire the hard charging, uber successful, super high-achieving executives who claim to sleep only four to five hours per night. And we’re pretty sure they’re telling the truth because they always seem to e-mail us at 3 a.m., right? You know the guy, OK. You have the same friend as me.
We live in a culture that makes sleeping less seem heroic. But it’s that very belief that prevents us from analyzing the data. It prevents us from seeing the price we are paying, and worse yet, it prevents us from even wanting to solve that first problem. And it’s not just SEALs; it’s not just doctors; it’s everybody. It’s school teachers, business people, cops, firefighters, moms, dads, and sadly, even our children. Again, we’re all in the same boat.
America is sleep deprived, and most of us don’t realize it. Today, the average American sleeps six-and-a-half hours per night. That is 20% less than we slept just 30 years ago. And we think we’re fine. We think we’re getting away with it. But we’re not.
And we think we take care of ourselves, in general, right? But for some reason, sleep seems to be the exception to this rule. And you can hear this conflict in our daily language. We say things like, “Listen to your body” but “Sleep is for the weak.” We say, “Health is everything,” but “I’ll sleep when I’m dead.” In other words we say, “Be really healthy!” And “Go kill yourself!” Right?
Remember, we’ve agreed to put that orthodoxy on hold, keep our minds open, and question the conventional wisdom. And let me give you an interesting way to do that.
I would like you all to imagine that you’re in the hospital. You are moments away from urgent, life-saving surgery. Justifiably, you are terrified. Now your surgeon is reputed to be one of the best in the world. And he comes over to your bed to answer any last questions, and have you sign consent forms.
Now while you’re looking over the consent forms, he reaches into his white coat and he pulls out a shot glass and a bottle of whiskey. And then he pours a shot; tosses it back.
Now, seeing this shocked look on your face that you all have, he immediately explains, “Don’t worry; I only have one shot every two hours. And for a man my size, that will never result in a blood alcohol level above 0.05 which is well below the legal limit for intoxication.”
So what do you say? “Okay, you’re the doc; let’s get this show on the road.” Right? Of course not. We would never accept that rationale. Nor would we accept it from a pilot, or a policeman, or any other professional. Yet, as a society, we seem perfectly willing to accept sleep deprivation even though research has repeatedly shown that being awake for 18 hours results in a performance on par with a blood alcohol level of 0.05, the same as our hypothetical surgeon.
Worse yet, pulling an all-nighter results in a performance on par with a 0.08 to 0.1. But it’s not just the heroic all-nighters, right? It’s the insidious, night after night of losing one hour here, two hours there, that’s destroying our health.
And let me tell you a story about a guy who learned this the hard way. When I met him, he was in college full-time. He was working. He was married. He had kids. And he was trying to get into graduate school. And he tried to make all this work by skimping on sleep. And he continued that way throughout graduate school.
Well, while in graduate school, for the first time in his life, he became fat. And he developed anxiety, and depression, hypertension, and was even diagnosed with ADD. And even though he was working with a very experienced physician, sleep deprivation was never discussed.
Now some of you may have guessed, this fat, anxious, depressed, over-stressed train wreck, was me, during medical school. And unfortunately, it would be many years before I suspected sleep as being the root of my problem. But once I suspected it, I had to test it. And so I made some sacrifices to my schedule, and I slept more. And here’s the surprising part; I actually got more done, and I had fun doing it. But more importantly, I’m no longer fat, or anxious, or depressed, or hypertensive, and I no longer even have ADD.
Now, was this an easy change for me to make? Of course not. It required me to challenge years of social programming that had taught me to sleep less in order to achieve more. In short, it required me to take a leap of faith.
Now, as a physician, I’ve worked with hundreds of SEALS with similar problems. And this surprises most people. I mean, come on, these are Navy SEALs. These are the toughest guys alive. Surely, they are not suffering from lack of sleep. And if you know much about SEAL training, you may already know that we go for an entire week without sleep. So you would think we should have selected out for anyone who couldn’t handle a little sleep deprivation, right?
But I see young, healthy, fit, athletic-looking Navy SEALs all the time, with the blood chemistry of fat, broken, old men, because even Navy SEALs break down after years of poor sleep. We know that sleep deprivation has a profound effect on all of us. Besides the blood alcohol comparison I’ve already given, we know that sleep-restricting young, healthy, athletic college students for just four days results in blood glucose and insulin levels consistent with obesity and diabetes.
We know that chronic sleep deprivation increases our risk for almost every disease: cancer, heart attacks, strokes, depression, obesity, diabetes. It increases our risk for accidents, and even increases our risk for suicide. And the financial cost to the business sector is estimated at being over $200 billion per year just in absenteeism and reduced productivity.
But remember problem number two? We don’t want to hear this. We don’t believe that we are being personally affected. We feel fine. Maybe a little tired, but fine.
But many cardiac patients feel fine too — right up until that first heart attack. Sleep deprivation is the same kind of silent killer. In fact, the most unnerving finding is that when we do research and we sleep restrict people for only three to four days, they report feeling fine. The problem is, they’re not fine. It’s like the guy in the bar who thinks he’s fine after three to four drinks. Our self-awareness is equally impaired with sleep deprivation.
But, you say, “Kirk, if I feel fine, and I’m getting through my days, what exactly am I missing?” A lot; a lot, actually.
When we sleep, our brains flush harmful neurotoxins, we consolidate memories, we reinforce learning, we repair our bodies, we fight off infection and disease, we replenish hormones and neurotransmitters, and in general, we put our body in a physiological state to be able to thrive the next day. And we also dream. Sometimes amazing technicolor fantasy adventures. And many psychologists believe that we actually work through our cognitive and emotional struggles with dreams. Does this kind of sound like the perfect drug?
So why aren’t we addicted to this drug called “sleep”?
Well, here’s one theory: We know that as early as 200 years ago, humans generally slept in two blocks, about four to five hours each, with an hour or two of wakefulness in between. So about 10 to 12 hours total time in bed.
But with the industrial revolution and the invention of the lightbulb, things changed. Time became money. And we began treating our bodies like machines. And so we formed this assembly line-like operation to consolidate that time in bed down to about eight hours at best, thus allowing us to be productive for 16 consecutive hours. And now we want to make those 16 into 18, or even 20. But we’re not machines.
Our cells have embedded clocks in them that refuse to adapt to our desire to push through our need for sleep. In fact, the principles of evolution reinforce our need for sleep. Consider how vulnerable a sleeping human was 20,000 years ago. If we could have evolved to sleep less, natural selection would have favored that. But here we are, 20,000 years evolved, denying that we need sleep. Denying the unpalatable truth that we are not machines, and we can’t work around the clock. Not if you’re a doctor, or a CEO, or a teacher, and not even if you’re a Navy SEAL.
So, what’s it going to take to collectively wake us up, to shift our awareness or values? What is it going to take to end our denial? It’s going to require that all of us accept personal responsibility for our part in the shift of social priorities. It’s going to require that we all take a leap of faith. And I say, let’s do that right now.
We can’t change the world overnight. But we can change our world every night. And when it gets to be too tough, too tempting, we can remember our surgeon and his shot glass. If we want the highest quality of life, if we want to perform our best, be the best parent, be the best partner, if we want to live the longest, healthiest, happiest life possible, we have a simple and readily available solution: better sleep.
50 years ago, Martin Luther King, Jr. electrified the nation, and inspired a movement with four simple words: “I have a dream.” We, today, have that same right to dream. But in order to dream, we have got to give our bodies and our minds their due rest.
When we make it acceptable for America to sleep again, we will make it possible to truly dream again.