The Science of Sleep and the Art of Productivity: Dr. Matthew Carter (Transcript)

Sleep scientists have made so many great discoveries over the past 10 years, and I’m surprised that more people don’t know about them.

So here’s just a couple examples, and you’ll have to excuse me because I’m a biology professor. So when you’re sleeping, your pituitary gland, which is right below your brain, surges its production of growth hormone.

Growth hormone is released much more when you’re sleeping than when you’re awake, and growth hormone essentially causes three effects: muscle growth, bone growth and fat metabolism.

How many people would take a pill that caused muscle growth, bone growth and fat metabolism? If there was a company that sold this pill, they’d make billions of dollars, and I imagine most consumers would pay a lot for this. And yet, we get it for free when we’re sleeping.

And it’s always odd to me when I see people working out at the gym, and they spend hours a day at the gym and then they say they don’t get enough sleep at night. It’s kind of a funny thing to me: you know your muscles aren’t actually growing when you’re working out, or you’re not losing weight. That all happens when you’re sleeping, and I don’t think most people know that.

Here’s another example: the cells and the biochemistry — the biochemicals that make up your immune system and circulate through your blood stream, they actually change when you’re sleeping compared to when you’re awake.

And when you’re sleeping, they’re particularly good at seeking out viruses, bacteria and other microorganisms to stop infection and disease. And this is why, when you don’t get enough sleep, you’re much more prone to getting sick. And that’s why, when you’re sick, the best thing you can do is to get a good night’s sleep.

And so, in addition to these health benefits of sleep, people who don’t get enough sleep are at a higher risk for high blood pressure, heart disease, diabetes, obesity.

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Psychologically, people are at a much higher risk for anxiety and depression. We all know that when you are sleep-deprived, you lose focus, you lose the ability to pay attention. And it’s been estimated by the National Sleep Foundation that over $60 billion is lost in the United States annually just due to unproductive workers, because they’re so sleep-deprived.

And all of this is really important, but I think it also ignores something that we all know, everybody in this room knows to be true, which is that it really sucks to be sleep-deprived, right?

It feels so awful to be sleep-deprived and try to keep your eyelids open. They’re all of a sudden so heavy. You do things, like, when you’re a speaker at an event like this, where you do that head-bob thing, you’re trying to keep your head awake and fall asleep for a second, and some distant part of your brain is like, “Not now! Not now!” You’re trying to keep yourself awake.

And I know this just as well as anyone else. This is the worst picture of me ever taken. It’s also the most ironic picture of me ever taken, because I was so tired I fell asleep in the middle of the day because I had spent the entire night working on a talk about the benefits of sleep.

So… I did not do that last night.

So, I know this just as well as everybody else, and it’s just really awful to be sleep-deprived, but here’s where there’s good news. Because the good news is that the opposite is also true.

The opposite being that people who are chronically sleep-deprived, when they develop habits to get a regular amount of sleep every single day, they all of a sudden feel like years have been taken off their life. They’re suddenly alive, and awake, and have the energy of someone much younger, and they just feel great, and they wonder why they didn’t do it before.

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But there’s also a lot of sleep science to back this up. One of my colleagues ran lots of studies on varsity athletes at Stanford University. And she recruited varsity athletes for sleep studies in which they were essentially forced to get a good night’s sleep over several weeks.

And what she found was that compared to players who didn’t take part in this sleep study, everything about these athletes who slept in improved: their speed improved, their strength improved, the number of mistakes and errors they made went way down, their chances of getting a concussion went way down, and they were generally much better at the sport.

The same thing happens in the classroom. When students were recruited for sleep studies where they get much more sleep, their creativity increases, their problem-solving increases, their test scores increase and their grades increase.

And so, it just seems that everything gets much better once someone declares themselves that they’re going to get a good night of sleep every single night, very consistently.

And the greatest paradox in this, I think, is that the people who don’t get enough sleep because they’d like to accomplish more during the day actually find that they’re more productive when they get more sleep, and not less productive, because even though they’re not awake as long, they’re much more productive when they’ve gotten enough sleep.

There’s lots of measured studies on this, that you’re actually able to get more done when you get a good night’s sleep, not less.

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