At a barbeque to celebrate Australia Day this week I was struck by how many of my friends seemed totally exhausted. Whether it was because they are the parents of young kids, had been partying over the holiday season, or are hard at work climbing the corporate ladder, there was a common bond of fatigue uniting us all. For some of my friends, a minimum 50-hour workweek is not only the norm; it’s the expectation if they want to be successful. Other friends sit in traffic for at least three hours a day during their daily commute. This lifestyle isn’t leaving much room for rest and relaxation. In fact, the first thing most of us sacrifice in our efforts to keep up with the pace of modern life is sleep.


Over the last few decades researchers have established that the average adult needs somewhere between seven and nine hours sleep each night. But many of us aren’t even getting close. The US National Health Interview Survey of more than 250,000 people found almost 30 percent of men and women were sleeping less than six hours each night. According to the UK Mental Health Foundation, over 30 percent of the population suffers from insomnia. An Australian study found that kids around the world are being affected too and are losing on average 37 minutes each night of recommended sleep.

And yet, as the latest research is demonstrating, sleep is the one thing we should be prioritising if we want good health and wellbeing. Research continually links getting less than seven hours of sleep each night to wide ranging negative effects on the cardiovascular, endocrine, immune, and nervous systems. Sleep deprivation has been linked to obesity, diabetes, heart disease, anxiety and depression. Getting six hours of sleep or less a night makes you four times more likely to get a cold compared to those who sleep more than seven hours a night.


But there’s another side of sleep deprivation that you may not have considered. Despite what famous luminaries like Thomas Edison, Margaret Thatcher and Benjamin Franklin would have you believe, foregoing sleep does not make you more productive or more successful.


You may have heard of the 10, 000 hour rule, made famous by author Malcolm Gladwell in his book Outliers. The idea is that it takes roughly 10, 000 hours of practice to achieve mastery in a field. The concept has its basis on study conducted in the early 1990s by K. Anders Ericsson, a Professor of Psychology at Florida State University who looked at the practice habits of violin prodigies and found that by age 20, the most elite performers had averaged more than 10,000 hours of practice in their lifetime, while the less able performers had only clocked 4,000 hours of practice. This study is often used to make the case for practice over innate talent as the underpinnings of greatness.


But there is one thing that is often overlooked in the results of the seminal research. Ericsson also found that sleep was a major factor in influencing peak performance.  The top performers were those who slept on average eight hours and 36 minutes a night, about an hour more than the ones who didn’t quite make it to the top.  The virtuosos were also more likely to take a nap during the day, especially before public performances.


Ericsson’s research is made all the more compelling when you consider the results of new studies being done at the Stanford Sleep Disorders Clinic and Research Laboratory. In 2004, they demonstrated that they could improve the brain function of Stanford undergraduate students by getting them to sleep more. They followed up in 2011 and had elite basketball athletes progress from sleeping an average of 6.5 hours to 8.5 hours each night. When they looked at the player’s on court performance measures, the results were staggering. They had improved their free throw shooting by 11.4 percent and their three-point shooting by 13.7 percent. Every player on the team was also quicker than before the study, improving their sprint drills by an average of 0.7 seconds. The players also reported feeling less fatigue, more energy and mood improvements. In just a few months, the players had seen performance improvements that can only be replicated after years of training or with artificial drugs.


All this compounds when you consider that research also shows that after just one night of bad sleep your ability to sustain attention and maintain vigilance is reduced; your reaction times slow and you’re more likely to make mistakes; your working memory, memory consolidation, mental arithmetic, reasoning, innovative thinking, strategic planning, creative thinking, decision making, and language skills are all impaired. And the longer you stay awake, the worse it gets.


I think it’s time we challenge the old adage of you snooze you loose. I confess that I used to be just like my ambitious friends who sacrificed sleep in hopes of getting ahead in the world. I would wear the number of days I worked straight without time off as a badge of honor. It was my way of telling the world I was going somewhere and making something of my life. But after falling ill with an autoimmune disease, and the more I research the latest science in mind body medicine, the more I realise the folly of this approach. It’s not just about good health for me, it’s now about performing at my best too; and sleep is up there among my top priorities.


I’m currently doing a deep dive into the mind-body-sleep connection for the book I’m writing and promise to bring you more fascinating research soon on this blog, but in the meantime you might like to read this post I wrote about How I Learned To Get A Good Night’s Sleep.

  • Duilio Farina

    As always thank you very much, very interesting post. We are waiting your book even in Italy :)
    A big hug

  • Shannon

    Thanks for the encouragement all the way across the oceans. Nice to think of a reader so far away and yet made close by the wonder of technology.

  • Angela Seghesio

    Many thanks for the info – is it also important that we are in bed before 10 pm as our adrenals start to deplete if later? ?? I read this a while ago. Angela :)

  • marzipan

    As a species it's bizarre that we are still working out our diet, and rely upon peers for decisions on the amount of sleep, or exercise we need. Connect with your body, and you'll work it out.

  • Shannon

    Hi Angela, I've spent the last month researching the new science of sleep, especially focusing on what the ideal time to sleep is. I haven't yet come across anything specific about adrenals and 10pm bedtime. It is interesting though that we all have different circadian clocks and that aside from light exposure, our sleep time is also influenced by genetics. We all know people who are extreme larks (and rise happily in the early morning) and others who are extreme owls (and head to bed well past midnight). Most of us sit somewhere in the middle. I'll write more about this in the future. But in the meantime, this is the closest review paper I've come across on the topic of metabolism and sleep, which may hint at what you're referring to. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3781773/

  • Shannon

    Indeed. In all the research I'm doing, more often than not, my conclusion is 'use your common sense.'

  • Angela Seghesio

    Hi Shannon

    So much thanks for your reply and the information. Am looking forward to reading the link. Thanks for taking the time. Angela :)

  • marzipan

    In fnmyalgia.com/2015/11/14 (after a reflection on the UK's PACE trial) I examined the hot topic amongst fibromites of 'napping'. Unless employed in charge of a vehicle, it seems to be perfectly sensible.

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About the author: Shannon Harvey

Shannon Harvey is a journalist and producer who was diagnosed with an autoimmune disease when she was 24 years old. Although doctors meant well, none could offer her a cause or a cure. Since then Shannon has been researching the latest scientific research linking her mind and body to health outcomes. Nearly 10 years have passed since her diagnosis and today Shannon is well and not taking medication. Shannon has worked as a television, radio and online journalist and producer and has a Master’s degree in Communications. She worked for the ABC and Fairfax before starting her own production company, Elemental Media. Shannon is the director of the feature film The Connection.



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The Connection is a feature documentary and blog about integrating the latest science in mind body medicine into our everyday lives.


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