Sleep, Your Brain and Leadership

Dec 18, 2021 | Leadership, Stress

I don’t know about you, but I’ve been feeling pretty tired lately.

It is the holidays, so we’re juggling more than usual. And it is still a pandemic…

Being busy and stressed can also affect our sleep.

Have you been skimping on sleep, or not sleeping through the night?

If so, have you noticed any changes in your mood, thinking or performance?

Sleep, your brain and leadership

Most of us know that lack of sleep can affect our physical health. But did you know it can also affect your brain and cognitive capacities?

I like to say that sleep is like the spin cycle for brain.

While the body is inactive, the brain is not. When we’re asleep, the brain sifts through information and cleans out what’s not needed in the memory banks (helping declutter the hippocampus). It also works to wash out metabolic waste.

Research from UCLA and Tel Aviv University found that lack of sleep had a similar effect on the brain as drinking too much alcohol.

Lack of sleep disrupts the brain cells’ ability to communicate with each other and affects our memory and processing of visual stimuli. So the brain can’t recall facts as well and can’t interpret what we are seeing with as much speed and accuracy as normal.

Also, do you ever notice that when you’re tired, it’s harder to control your behavior? You might be more reactive and less thoughtful. You might make quick but not smart decisions.

Not surprisingly, self-regulation and decision-making require cognitive control and energy. And if we are limited in our energy, why would the brain, which is in charge of how to use our energy, want to use that energy on cognitive control when it needs energy for our automatic functions and survival?

Sufficient sleep is not a luxury. It supports our cognitive capacities, self-regulation and our mindful leadership.

3 myths & facts about sleep

MYTH #1: The brain is idle during sleep.

FACT #1: The brain is actively performing critical processes that support its proper functioning during sleep.

MYTH #2: We can adapt to less sleep.

FACT #2: Experts agree we need between 7-9 hours of sleep a night. While the right amount will differ among people, the rare person functions well on 6 or fewer hours a night.  Also, although sleep patterns can change as we age, sleep needs do not.

MYTH #3: Alcohol helps you sleep.

FACT #3: Alcohol may help you fall asleep, but it keeps you in lighter stages of sleep, so wake up without feeling fully rested.

7 tips for better sleep

(1) Set a schedule. Experts say we can support better sleep by going to bed and waking up at the same time each day.

(2) Exercise 20 to 30 minutes a day but no later than a few hours before going to bed.

(3) Avoid caffeine and nicotine late in the day and alcoholic drinks before bed.

(4) Establish a relaxing bedtime routine before bed (e.g. a warm bath, herbal tea, soothing music, reading, etc). Avoid emotionally charged conversations before bed.

(5) Create a room for sleep. Avoid bright lights and loud sounds, keep the room at a comfortable temperature (60-67F ideal), and don’t watch TV or have a computer in your bedroom.

(6) Avoid screen time before bed. The light that emits from our devices keeps the brain alert, so it’s harder to fall asleep.

(7) Try a mindful body scan when you go to bed, or if you wake up and can’t fall back asleep. Guiding your attention through parts of the body can relax physical tension and calm the mind. Here’s a link to a 10-minute body scan I made at the beginning of the pandemic.

Holiday reset

I hope you’re taking some time off over the holidays.

As I like to say, self-care is brain care.  And that includes sleep.

Remember that your brain needs to rest, rinse and recover.

And notice how your sleep – or lack of – affects you. And let me know!

Photo by Hernan Sanchez on Unsplash and


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Jen Riggs Blog

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Jennifer is the creator of Pathways to Change, a framework for mindful leadership development that integrates coaching, neuroscience, mindfulness and mind-body principles.

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