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Arianna Huffington’s Mission to Get People to Sleep

If there’s one thing you should never do around Arianna Huffington it’s brag how little sleep you get.

The president and editor-in-chief of The Huffington Post Media Group, who knows a thing or two about having a very busy schedule, has taken on the role of sleep evangelist after realizing the lack of proper rest is taking a toll on peoples’ health, job performance, relationships and overall happiness. Huffington calls it a sleep deprivation crisis that she only woke up to after exhaustion sent her to the hospital.

Marriott Traveler caught up with Huffington, a frequent traveler, to discuss her new book, The Sleep Revolution: Transforming Your Life, One Night at a Time, available April 5, and the importance of getting a good night’s rest.

What made you want to write The Sleep Revolution? Was there a specific life event or person that inspired the book?

It started with my own painful wakeup call. On the morning of April 6, 2007, I was lying on the floor of my home office in a pool of blood. On my way down, my head had hit the corner of my desk, cutting my eye and breaking my cheekbone. I had collapsed from exhaustion and lack of sleep. In the wake of my collapse, I found myself going from doctor to doctor, from brain MRI to CAT scan to echocardiogram, to find out if there was any underlying medical problem beyond exhaustion. There wasn’t, but doctors’ waiting rooms, it turns out, were good places for me to ask myself a lot of questions about the kind of life I was living.

I wrote about my wakeup call in my last book, Thrive, and as I went around the world talking about the book I found that the subject people wanted to discuss most—by far—was sleep: how difficult it is to get enough, how there are simply not enough hours in the day, how tough it is to wind down, how hard it is to fall asleep and stay asleep, even when we set aside enough time. And since my own transformation into a sleep evangelist, everywhere I go, someone will pull me aside and, often in hushed and conspiratorial tones, confess, “I’m just not getting enough sleep. I’m exhausted all the time.” Or, as one young woman told me after a talk in San Francisco, “I don’t remember the last time I wasn’t tired.” By the end of an evening, no matter where I am in the world or what the theme of the event is, I’ll have had that same conversation with any number of people in the room. And what everyone wants to know is, “What should I do to get more and better sleep?”

So I decided I wanted to take a fuller look at the subject because it’s clear that if we’re going to truly thrive, we must begin with sleep. It’s the gateway through which a life of well-being must travel. From the moment we’re born until the moment we die, we’re in a relationship with sleep. I wrote The Sleep Revolution to examine this ancient, essential, and mysterious phenomenon from all angles, and to explore the ways we can use sleep to help regain control over our out-of-kilter lives.

What is something that really surprised you about sleep while researching and writing the book?

There are so many. One study that put the effects of sleep deprivation into dramatic perspective found that after being awake for seventeen to nineteen hours, which is a normal day for many of us, we can experience the same levels of cognitive impairment equal to having a blood alcohol level of .05 percent–just under the limit for being declared legally drunk in many US states. And if we’re awake just a few hours more, we’re up to the equivalent of .1 percent—over the legally drunk threshold. And yet, that’s how many of us, including a lot of our leaders and politicians, are operating every day. But no one would try to get a promotion, or try to get someone to vote for them, by bragging about how they’re effectively drunk all the time.

Another surprising thing was finding just how intimately our technology is woven into our lives and our brains. One study showed that, when they gave people a choice of being alone in a room without anything — without any devices, no paper, nothing, no phones — or getting electric shock, 67% of men chose the electric shock. I’m very happy to say only 25% of women chose electric shock. I’m not sure what accounts for the gender difference, but women have issues, too. One survey found that almost 70% of women sleep with their phones in their bedrooms and 25% actually sleep with their smart phones cuddled up in bed with them.

Healthwise, I knew going in that sleep is very important, but recent research around the extent of its impact on our brain function surprised me. For centuries people thought that sleep was a time of inactivity, that the brain was resting. But the opposite is true—the brain is in a state of intense activity during sleep, performing all sorts of vital functions, including clearing out toxic waste proteins (the kind associated with Alzheimer’s). A sleep scientist described it this way: “It’s like a dishwasher. The brain only has limited energy at its disposal, and it appears that it must choose between two different functional states—awake and aware or asleep and cleaning up. You can think of it like having a house party. You can either entertain the guests or clean up the house, but you can’t really do both at the same time.” This is an incredible discovery, given that now 1 in 3 seniors die with Alzheimer’s or dementia.

What are your best tips for getting rest?

When we walk through the door of our bedroom, it should be a symbolic moment that marks leaving the day, with all of its problems and unfinished business, behind us. When we wake up in the morning, there will be plenty of time for us to pick up our projects and deal with our challenges, refreshed and recharged. I treat my transition to sleep as a sacrosanct ritual. Before bed, I take a hot bath with epsom salts and a candle flickering nearby—a bath that I prolong if I’m feeling anxious or worried about something. I don’t sleep in my workout clothes as I used to (think of the mixed message that sends to our brains) but have pajamas, nightdresses, even T-shirts dedicated to sleep. Sometimes I have a cup of chamomile or lavender tea if I want something warm and comforting before going to bed.

Think of each stage of your bedtime ritual as designed to help you shed more of your stubborn daytime worries.

What are your rituals? Avoid emails? Certain foods?

I have a specific time at night when I regularly turn off my devices — and gently escort them out of my bedroom. I also love a cup of hot decaf tea before bed, and when I feel too wired to sleep, my panacea is a hot bath with my favorite bath salts.

And a big part of my morning ritual is about what I don’t do: when I wake up, I don’t start the day by looking at my smartphone. Instead, once I’m awake, I take a minute to breathe deeply, be grateful, and set my intention for the day. Then, 20 to 30 minutes of meditation. I also practice yoga most mornings. And I breathe! The connection that conscious breathing gives me is something I can return to hundreds of times during the day in an instant. A conscious focus on breathing helps me introduce pauses into my daily life, brings me back in the moment, and helps me transcend upsets and setbacks.

What kind of sleeper are you?

Well, like everybody else in the modern world, I’m a challenged sleeper. But since my wakeup call, I’ve made a lot of changes to my life. Now I try to get seven and a half to eight hours of sleep every night. There are times, of course, when I can’t, but in those instances I try to take a nap to make up for it. Mostly, what I’ve done is simply make sleep a priority in my life–once you do that, gradually making the changes you need to becomes easier.

Do you like your room to be hot or cold?

I like a slightly crisp room, which, as I found out doing the book, is in line with the science. According to a study, the ideal sleeping temperature is 60 to 66 degrees Fahrenheit. The National Sleep Foundation recommends 65 degrees and says that sleep is actually disrupted when the temperature rises above 75 degrees or falls below 54 degrees. So I try to stand in that range.

Hard or soft mattress?

Hard.

What kind of pillow?

Big and fluffy.

You have embraced sleep at The Huffington Post with your sleep pods and rooms. Why offer that as part of the culture of your company?

At The Huffington Post, since the news is nonstop, there is definitely the temptation for editors, reporters, and engineers to try to match the twenty-four-hour news cycle. But we do a lot to prevent burnout.

We have two nap rooms in our newsroom, which are now full most of the time, even though they were met with skepticism and reluctance when we installed them in the spring of 2011. In our New York offices we host meditation, breathing, and yoga classes throughout the week, while our new D.C. offices have dedicated meditation, yoga, and nap rooms.

Was it difficult to get people to use the sleep rooms?

We’ve also always made it very clear that no one is expected to check work email and respond after hours, over the weekend, or while they’re on vacation. But in spite of this, as we all know, it’s very common for people to go on vacation and put up an out-of-office message, but still respond to incoming emails – often seconds after the sender receives an out-of-office email! Why? Because we are addicted, and because once we see an email, we feel obligated to answer it.

So, inspired by a German auto company, we decided to create a tech solution that would eliminate the temptation. With our new vacation email tool, all emails sent to you during your time off will be automatically deleted (or archived, if you prefer). The sender gets an auto response asking them to resend their message when you’re back or to contact someone you designate if it is urgent.

What is your advice for people who push off sleeping because they feel overwhelmed at work or have too many projects?

Our cultural assumption that overwork and burnout are the price we must pay in order to succeed is at the heart of our sleep crisis. The method (or cheat code) we use isn’t a mystery: feeling that there aren’t enough hours in the day, we look for something to cut. And sleep is an easy target. In fact, up against this unforgiving definition of success, sleep doesn’t stand a chance. Indeed, in much of our culture, especially in the workplace, going without sleep is considered a badge of honor.

So my advice is to remember that when you get enough sleep is actually the ultimate performance enhancer. As a sleep scientist noted to me, sleep deprivation takes a toll on our mental abilities. “Your cognitive performance is reduced greatly,” he said. “Memory capacity is reduced. Social competence is reduced. Your entire performance is going to suffer. The way you make decisions is changed.”

How about for parents?

My philosophy was to hold my babies when they cried, and as they grew older to read them bedtime stories. But as I found out, this actually isn’t so simple if the parent reading the bedtime story is chronically sleep deprived. My daughters often laugh as they remember me reading books to them to put them to sleep— through the years graduating from Dr. Seuss to Harry Potter— and falling asleep in midsentence (“One fish, two fish, red fish . . . zzzzzzzz”).

Where does Arianna like to escape to?

My beloved Greek islands, when possible. And my annual Christmas trip to Hawaii with my ex-husband and my two daughters. I love any opportunity to stop being constantly connected and just be with the people I love, immersed in things happening right now.

What was that place you recently visited that really impressed you?

I’m still in awe of my visit to Japan when we launched HuffPost Japan. Japan is a place that puts great emphasis on balance and harmony, and the tools to help the Japanese find a new harmony and equilibrium in these very unharmonious times are all around them. There are shrines and temples and gardens everywhere. It is common to see monks meditating and even to join them in meditation (which I did at 8 a.m. on a Sunday at the Nanzenji temple in Kyoto). And even an ordinary meal can have an extraordinary power to it, with each place setting positioned in a certain way, each course presented with ceremonial beauty.

What’s your favorite travel memory?

Years ago I visited the monastery of Tharri on the island of Rhodes with my children. There, as in all of Greece, abbots are addressed by everyone as “Geronda,” which means “old man.” Abbesses are called “Gerondissa.” Not exactly terms of endearment in my adopted home. The idea of honoring old age, indeed identifying it with wisdom and closeness to God, is in startling contrast to the way we treat aging in America. The geronda at the Tharri monastery was not even old — he was probably in his late fifties. But “old man” and “old woman” are titles bestowed on older people because of the respect they inspire.

Where is a place everyone should visit at least once?

India, a country that has always held a deeply personal significance to me. When I was 17, I studied comparative religion at Calcutta’s Visva-Bharati University, founded by the writer and artist Rabindranath Tagore. In between studies, I traveled across the country, falling in love with it–a love affair that has continued to this day.

How does travel influence who you are and what you do?

I love my habits and routines, but I also love being set free from them, temporarily leaving them behind in order to wander, discover, and see the world with new eyes. And I know of no better way to achieve this than by traveling. I’m always amazed how traveling allows me to connect with incredible people, learn from them and hear their stories.

What are your favorite places in New York City?

Too many to name. I love the Pratima spa on Greene Street for massages, unplugging and recharging. ABC Kitchen. The Highline.

What are your favorite restaurants in the city? What should you order?

I love the Lure Fishbar in Soho, for the grilled salmon or branzino. And I’m inordinately fond of the pistachio ice cream at Café Cluny.

What are the things that inspire you when you travel?

Real books, my sleep mask, earplugs, and my iPod loaded up with country music (yes, really!). My iPod is full of the likes of Lucinda Williams, Emmylou Harris and Lyle Lovett.


The Sleep Revolution, by Arianna Huffington will be available April 2016 everywhere books are sold. Pre-order your copy today to receive bonus gifts and start transforming your life tonight. Learn more at AriannaHuffington.com.