Catnap, forty winks, shut-eye, snooze, catching some Zs, hitting the sack, sleeping… A dear child has many names, yet we tend to neglect it anyway! Dan Gartenberg is a professor and entrepreneur. He has spent more than 10 years developing apps that help us sleep better. He is currently conducting grant-funded research. This consists of developing sound environments to diagnose and treat sleep disorders, improve sleep quality, and optimize daytime alertness. In our interview for The Wellness Starter Pack, Dan shares his expertise on the importance of sleep, topped with some of his best tips for how to make the most of your sleep.
Why is sleep so important?
When you look at the science of why we sleep, one of the fascinating things is that every single organism on the planet sleeps. What we recently found out is that sleep isn’t just for preserving energy. It’s literally how we construct our realities. Sleeping is how we take in all that information from the day and make meaning out of it into our lives. This is a pretty big deal.
Now that you put it that way, it sounds like sleep deserves some respect!
Indeed. We have this “I’ll sleep when I’m dead” culture, especially in the United States. Well, death could literally happen, because research shows that sleep is related to basically every chronic health disease. There are really strong links with hypertension, cardiovascular disease, Alzheimer’s disease, and cancer.
Why do you think sleep is something that we often neglect?
Honestly, a lot of this is a cultural thing. We live in a super capitalist society and our economic model was built around excessive work. Big business wants you to work all the time. What I think they’re starting to realize is that sleep is essential for creativity and thinking divergently. Humans are not meant to work continuously for 8 hours. We’re meant to take breaks. If you’re stuck in a train of thinking, you use sleep to actually integrate what you’re thinking about. Then you can see the forest instead of the trees and maybe come up with a different approach to things. Both Einstein and Edison knew that you sleep in order to ideate.
What are the common mistakes people make that are getting in the way of a good night’s sleep?
I do coaching services and we have our software Sonic Sleep Coach that tries to personalize suggestions to people. One of the things that makes it really hard to solve this problem is that what might work for one person is very different from what might work for someone else. For example, if you’re an insomniac, I would never suggest you take a nap. Whereas if you’re an optimizer, someone that doesn’t have problems falling asleep, then sometimes it’s best to do a little power nap during your circadian dip, which is around three o’clock in the afternoon.
The National Academy of Sleep Medicine has a consensus report amongst the top researchers in the field that humans need 7 hours of sleep on a regular basis. But it can actually fluctuate anywhere from 7 hours to 9 hours. Another thing to also keep in mind is that everyone has their unique circadian rhythm, which is a 24-hour cycle. That dictates when you ought to be alert and when you ought to be tired.
Is there something we can do to identify if we’re night owls or morning larks?
A lot of it is your subjective sense of things. But also keep in mind that being a night owl or a morning lark is shiftable. And that going to bed and waking up at the same time every day can entrench this rhythm. Once you start doing those things, you’ll start falling into a pattern. That being said, there are genes for whether you are a morning person or an evening person. You can even get this evaluated using 23andMe because we have genes indicative of this. But these genes get expressed based on environmental cues that can activate or inhibit these genes.
It’s a continuum, but about 30% of the population are larks, 30% are night owls, and 40% are more shiftable. Older people shift into their early bird special mode and as young people, it’s easier for us to go to bed later. Some evolutionary biologists claim that this serves a competitive advantage – where by ensuring there is always someone awake in your tribe, you can, therefore, protect it more vigilantly.
How much sleep do we need?
A lot of people ask this question. The short answer is that basically, you shouldn’t feel tired during the day. If you’re chronically tired throughout the day, that might be a bad sign. For example, apnea is one of the most prevalent sleep disorders and it affects 10% of the population. They have this horrible quality rest and wake up as many as a hundred times per hour, while they have no conscious awareness of this at all. So if you feel tired all day, you should seek out a medical doctor.
If you are someone who’s struggling with chronic sleep deprivation or insomnia, what are the short and long-term effects if it does go untreated?
In addition to being grumpy and mean? Personally, that is one of the main reasons why I take my sleep so seriously. It just makes me a nicer person. [laughs] I don’t have the stats but I’d be really curious to see how many violent crimes in some way correlate to people not healing themselves with sleep. But as I said before, it literally impacts every single organ of the body. We think that sleep is probably more important than what a lot of people think is the foundation of health, like diet and exercise. Because when you sleep well, you eat better and have a better workout. High performers have known this for a long time, bodybuilders are famous for doing 12-hour sleeping sessions. Some famous athletes have previously reported that sleep is their secret weapon for performance.
If sleep is so important, why isn’t getting good sleep simpler?
It’s a really complicated problem. The recommended treatment for sleeping disorders is actually cognitive behavioral therapy. That’s a six-week therapy session with a trained behavioral sleep medicine expert. No one does that because it’s costly and there are minimal people trained in it. Instead, many people get a drug prescribed which is most often anti-anxiety medication. Insomnia can be related to anxiety, to the circadian rhythm, hormone changes, or even to your work schedule.
If you’re an artist and you’re doing these late-night gigs, you’re basically a shift worker. Research shows that night shift work actually produces carcinogens. Even though the answer oftentimes is drugs, many drugs make your sleep quality worse and can exacerbate the problem. Everyone wants the easy way out. Where Western medicine has really failed us is the science of behavior change. We’re really good at identifying a broken bone with MRI and fixing it with surgery. But when it comes to actually changing your behaviors, and sleep is about that, we’re really bad.
You mentioned musicians being shift workers, that’s a really interesting way of putting it. What can musicians do when it comes to getting poor sleep because they’re doing late-night gigs or late night sessions?
For example, there’s something called delayed sleep phase syndrome. There are certain days of the week when you wake up really early. Like Monday to Friday you wake up at 6, and then you go out late on the weekends. This throws off your circadian rhythm and you start having a really hard time sleeping. If you’re a musician with late-night gigs, you can’t control that. One thing that you could try to do is that if you know you will have a late night on Friday and need to wake up early on Monday, make Friday the later night. Try to make Saturday a little bit earlier, and don’t sleep in too much on Sunday. Possibly take a little power nap.
If you’ve had a late-night gig performing for a bunch of people, you’re pretty hyped up when you come home. Don’t expect to fall asleep right away. In sleep science, we say that sleep happens half an hour before sleep. So having some kind of ritual that maybe doesn’t focus on alcohol so much could be useful. I have a red light in my apartment, which is shown to be good for promoting sleep. When I say “Hey Siri, I’m going to bed!”, everything turns red. Then I do this little gratitude meditation which seamlessly transitions into ocean waves. And then pink noise to block out noise pollution. If I know I’m particularly wound up from the day, I might also take a bath. And take a relaxation concoction like Dream Light, which has a very small dosage of melatonin (.25 mg – 3 mg).
There is this idea that if I have a beer or a glass of wine, I’ll sleep better. Is that the case? And if it’s not, why not?
It’s 100% not the case! While a single glass isn’t a huge deal, if you fall asleep, you’re perceiving that you’re sleeping better. But it’s due to the fact that alcohol is knocking you out. You’re not getting deep quality sleep that’s regenerative. The thing that we study is not only the quantity but the quality. What you want is more REM and more deep sleep, which helps us recover. Recovery and dreaming is how we integrate all the information that we take in during the day and regenerate our cells.
What happens when you drink alcohol is that you reduce your REM, which is not good. Cannabis does this too, but maybe not to such a horrible degree, CBD is okay. If I were to smoke weed, personally, I would know that I would need like half an hour more sleep that night. Because it affects the quality and I’m going to be getting less regeneration.
So it comes down to understanding how you work and operating within those parameters.
Yeah and that’s why it’s so hard to express this in the media. The media is always like “everyone should get 8 hours of sleep” and trying to make these sweeping generalizations. But it’s very specific to you and success relies on you understanding yourself. I don’t have strong opinions on what relaxes people. It could be weird ASRM things… I do ocean waves and a gratitude meditation, which I find really nice. Progressive muscle relaxation is a big one that they recommend in sleep science where you tense different muscles in your body. It’s nice because it has both a physical and a cognitive aspect to it.
We would love to hear more about what you and your team discovered. How do you manipulate brain waves to get more deep sleep?
I’ve been at this for 10 years now, trying to develop something that could accurately measure your sleep. It’s been discovered that you can play sounds that emulate the frequency of your brain waves in deep sleep. These are delta waves. If you play sounds at the same pulse rate when you’re in deep sleep, your whole brain oscillates at this frequency. We’ve shown that you can produce more of these deep sleep brain waves with sounds. This is what we’ve been exploring in our National Institute of Health-funded research. The NIH is interested in funding this research. Because as you get older, you produce less of these deep sleep brain waves. We’re trying to demonstrate that we can give you a better night of sleep using sound, light, and temperature, along with guidance from a trained expert, to optimize your sleep quality.
You mentioned the quality of sleep and that people obsess with the quantity. Is one more important than the other or are they both equally as important?
I would say focus on quantity first, then optimize for quality. They’re both really important. The main thing is to sleep until you’re not tired anymore. The quantity can vary from night to night. People don’t talk about this in society much, but even healthy people go through manic states sometimes, based on their environment. I’m an entrepreneur, and when I’m in a stressful period, I’ll get into a little manic mode, especially around the release of a product. During this stressful period, I’ll not sleep as much. Then I will have a recovery night when I sleep 10-11 hours. Just be conscious about how you’re feeling. Focus on your sleep environment to make the most out of your rest. It’s good to have a consistent schedule and to separate work from relaxation. But first and foremost sleep to effect and make sure you get enough sleep.
Could you give our readers some tips on how to get the healthiest sleep?
Dan Gartenberg is an Adjunct Assistant Professor at Penn State University and the founder of Sonic Sleep Coach, an app that aims to help its users to get more sleep. He’s an entrepreneur who has spent more than 10 years developing apps that track sleep quality and play sounds that can help us sleep better.
➞ Dan’s website