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Zzz to the Top!

Zzz to the Top!

Back in September 2012, I experienced two major transformations in my life. The first and most joyous one was that I became a dad – diapers, nappy cream and sterilization became the order of the day. The second one, which carried with it a great deal of stress, was the professional switch that I’d just made – moving from the audit practice to industry, as Head of International Operations in a Russian company. Both big roles, one in a personal context, the other in professional terms, with even bigger demands and responsibilities attached to them. And both taken up simultaneously. 

The result? A sleep debt that was growing by the hour and, with it, an accumulated tiredness that kept piling up. It surely wasn’t an easy ride, going into the office each morning on 2-3 hours of sleep, struggling to build my learning curve on the new job, then in the evening drawing baths, feeding and taking turns at singing our baby prince to sleep. Sleep deprivation was eating up a big chunk of the experience of being a parent. It was also preventing me from performing to the best of my ability in my new job. I was running on fumes the whole time, salivating at the mere thought of fitting an extra hour of precious sleep into my day, like a droopy Pavlov’s dog.
Something surely had to give.

But then, all of a sudden, the most magical thing happened. Our little boy somehow managed to distinguish day from night. He would sleep through the night, peacefully and almost continuously, waking up only to binge on the occasional midnight milk snack. Needless to say, after three or four months of surviving on limited sleep, my wife and I seized the opportunity and dived into the sack headfirst. They say that to truly appreciate something, you must first be deprived of it for a certain period of time. Well, in the case of sleep, boy, did we appreciate getting back our beloved Zzzs when the little master of the house allowed us to do so!

You don’t need to personally undergo the same painful experience in order to understand just how important adequate sleep is – there is plenty of available research on the subject. StayWell, a health solutions company based in the United States, carried out the largest study of its kind in investigating the sleep habits of nearly 600,000 employees in 66 companies. Their findings, which were published in the American Journal of Health Promotion, showed that insufficient sleep is to be blamed for impaired workplace productivity. Those that do not sleep well cannot perform their duties well, no matter what their line of business may be. Period. Another 2010 study published in the Journal of Occupational and Environmental Medicine concluded that, people who have a bad night’s sleep have significantly worse productivity, performance, and safety outcome in their workplace, compared to those who sleep for the recommended seven to nine hours per night.

So getting your Zzzs is as important as eating food – both are energy-inducing and vital for survival. But make no mistake, the hours you sleep mean nothing if they are not of great quality, the kind that triggers the sweetest dreams. Sleep should be deep and uninterrupted, if the fruits of its (sluggish) work are to be reaped in the morning, resulting in you feeling pumped and eager to take on the world, one man-hour at a time. Quality and quantity are equally important, and both must be secured when it comes to hitting the sack. Hoping that you are meeting your sleep hours quota, here are five strategies for improving the quality of your Zzzs:

1.Stay away from the (blue) light
A Harvard study, which investigated the effects that blue light (the light emitted from smartphones, tablets, laptops and the sort) taken in at bedtime has on sleep quality, found that it interferes considerably with a person's circadian rhythm and the secretion of the sleep hormone, melatonin. This basically means that, while you may be fast asleep, chopping wood like a true lumberjack, your sleep cycles are malfunctioning, leading to a poor-quality rest and a feeling of grogginess upon waking up. Refrain from taking any devices with you into the bedroom by designating the latter a technology-free zone. Usage of such devices should also be avoided in the hours leading up to bedtime. 

2.Opt for conventional bedtime reading rather than digital
The Sleep Council, a UK organisation that promotes quality sleep and its associated benefits, says that, “39% of people who are in the habit of reading before they go to sleep, sleep very well”. By “reading” they refer to printed books, rather than their digital counterparts. This bedtime habit is beneficial in two ways – first, you are setting your mind’s scene for a good night’s sleep and, second, you are practically ditching all screens before bed, thus achieving the goal stated in point 1 above. Just make sure to avoid anything by Dostoevsky and Faulkner, as their books are not exactly what you would consider light reading!

3.Shake up a sleep-inducing hormonal cocktail through exercise
It is well known that exercising on a regular basis triggers the secretion of a series of feel-good hormones in the body, such as endorphins, dopamine and serotonin. What is probably lesser known is that exercise also plays a major role in improving sleep quality through that very same hormone secretion. There is a catch, though – it must be done early in the day, if its benefits are to be reaped at bedtime, otherwise the hormonal cocktails shaken up through all those endless burpees and jumping jacks will keep you up rather than wind you down. Exercising at a moderate pace early in the morning, improves sleep rhythms and commands the body to produce melatonin promptly in the evening, thus setting the scene for a good night’s sleep.

4.Think positive thoughts just before getting some shut-eye
We are a product of our thoughts and, on a daily basis, the average brain makes up to 50,000 thoughts, with 70% of them being negative. This is just how the human brain is wired: a cerebral predisposition dating back to when a person’s shelter came in the form a cave, his food on a stick, and the roles of hunter and hunted could be alternated with the same speed as that employed by the four-legged food that tried to elude its hungry captor. Things are not as bad as they seem for the old grey matter, though. While in the past it was widely believed that the adult human brain is hard-wired and, thus, cannot be reprogrammed to achieve certain mindsets, recent studies have found that the brain is actually elastic and, with enough training, can be rewired to any state that its owner desires. Switching the percentages around, converting that 70% from negative to positive, or even making the latter a solid 100% (OK, maybe I am taking a turn for utopianism here!) is just a matter of focused and persistent repetition. And, when enough positive thoughts are packed into a person’s day, these also make their way into the night, eventually infiltrating his/her sleep and ensuring that all is good on the Zzz front!

5.Put on your bedtime milk moustache
According to WebMD, milk has been shown to be sleep-inducing as it contains L-tryptophan, an amino acid which helps people go to sleep. Make a warm cup of it, add honey to taste, and prepare yourself for some sweet dreams!

Time has a tendency to fly by. Years pass so swiftly, one after another, that, at times, it feels like life has been put on fast forward. For my wife and me, it feels like only yesterday that our first prince made his entrance into this world and, since then, we have had a second prince join our family. He brought with him a whole lot of joy and a reset of our sleep counters, so sleep for us became, once again, a luxurious commodity. This time, though, the effects of sleep deprivation did not hit us so hard. A lot of prior experience, coupled with the above (and other) best practices for increasing sleep quality, helped us do more with less (sleep), until we reached that sweet spot when both boys slept through the night in one continuous stretch, granting us the gift of both quantity and quality when it came to sleep.
Losing some precious sleep when you become a parent is inevitable (I am told that you lose even more sleep when they grow up, but that, I guess, is material for another article!). When parenthood coincides with a professional juncture in one’s life that calls for giving everything in his/her chosen line of business to build a successful career, managing the most important energy driver is absolutely critical. Sleep must be safeguarded by all means necessary, and across all stages of life, if it is to pay back energy dividends. Going about work and life on eight solid hours of quality sleep is the best energy pill you can supplement your daily routine with. Try it, and see the results for yourselves!


Info: Spyros Yiassemides BA MSc ACA is a Partner in Yiassemides & Co, a professional storyteller, and a natural-born cinephile. His PhD in Film Studies is just around the corner.


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