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Beauty Sleep and Optimal Performance

written by Marie-Josée Shaar 24 June 2009

Marie-Josée (MJ) Salvas Shaar, MAPP '07, CPT, has studied, tested, coached, and taught smart health habits for over 13 years. Combining positive psychology with fitness and nutrition, she created a coaching method that builds better sleep, food, mood, and exercise habits, as described in her book, Smarts and Stamina: The Busy Person's Guide to Optimal Health and Performance, which includes 50 practical health-building activities. Today MJ gives keynotes for corporate wellness programs and offers continuing education for wellness professionals, who can license her Smarts and Stamina Online program. Full bio. MJ's articles are here.

Are you a victim of sleep debt?  If changing just one of your daily habits was enough to make you more alert, efficient, energetic, productive and motivated, would you implement that change?   The negative impact of sleep debt is summarized here .  Here’s what you can do about it:

Easy Steps for Sleep Debtors

If you are sleep deprived, I know that any effortful lifestyle change has next to no chance of being successfully implemented. So I’ll keep my recommendations simple and achievable:

Tough Guy Flexing

1- Rethink your relationship to sleep. Recognize that sufficient shut-eye time is part of the solution. Playing “tough guy” is unproductive. Don’t fool yourself into thinking that you can get away with 6 hours of sleep – unless you are an anomaly, you can’t. (As I wrote here,in a 2-week study, getting under 7 hours of sleep each day made people three times more likely to get sick after exposure to a cold virus).

2- Go to bed and get up at regular hours. Your body will get used to the regularity of your routine and will make it easier for you to fall asleep and awaken. If you are working shifts, adopt a very organized bedtime regimen. Your brain will pick up the clues and by the time you are opening the bed sheets, sleepiness will start settling in.

3- Cut back on the caffeine. Caffeine is a stimulant, and therefore impedes sleep. It takes up to 7 hours before your cup of java has completely left your bloodstream. Start by reducing your afternoon and night-time caffeine intake and keep cutting back until you are happy with one or two morning cups.

4- Be enlightened – or not! Your brain interprets light as a signal guiding your biological clock. The more light exposure you get at night, the more you are delaying the onset of sleepiness. The flickering light of your TV is included here too. And by the way, plenty of research shows that TV watching is associated with slightly depressive states, overeating, obesity, chronic sleep debt and lack of physical and sexual activity – viewers, be warned!

5- Get comfy! In order to fall asleep, your brain needs to successfully block out all sensory input. Choosing comfortable pillows, comforters, mattress, bedtime attire and minimizing noise will help you do that. This may sound like obvious advice, but if you are in awe at how comfortable a certain hotel bed was during your last trip, your set-up at home might need revision.

6- Learn how your body functions. Keep a sleep diary for a few days or weeks. What precedes your insomnia? When do you wake up too early and can’t pass back out? When are you most rested? After a few days you’ll see patterns emerge, which will help you maintain good sleep hygiene.

Making the Most of Your Biological Clock

Peaceful Sleeper Once your sleep patterns are back on track, try to organize your schedule such that moments of sleepiness and alertness are maximized. For example, I used to try to get all the quick and easy things out of my way so I could focus on more substantial pieces afterwards. After paying attention to how my rhythm of alertness works, I realized that I usually feel most alert between 10 and 12 in the morning, so I reserve that time for what demands the most concentration. I usually hit a drop of energy around 3 or 4, so I now use this time to return emails, run to the post office or do other things that require minimal effort. The result? My productivity has increased – and so did my work satisfaction.

I hope to have convinced you that the idea to frequently stay up late “to get more done” is deceiving and that sleep time is actually productive time. When it comes to beauty sleep, the real beauty isn’t related to the absence of wrinkles and dark circles, but to the splendor of optimal human performance.


Purchased for the purpose of this article.


Baumeister, R. F., Zell, A. L., & Tice, D. M. (2007). How emotions facilitate and impair self-regulation. In J. J. Gross, (Ed.) Handbook of Emotion Regulation, (pp. 408-426). New York: Guilford Press.

Dement, W. (2000). The Promise of Sleep: A Pioneer in Sleep Medicine Explores the Vital Connection Between Health, Happiness, and a Good Night’s Sleep . New York: Random House. Quote above from p. 231.

Fredrickson, B. (2009). Positivity: Groundbreaking Research Reveals How to Embrace the Hidden Strength of Positive Emotions, Overcome Negativity, and Thrive. New York: Crown.

Imeri, L., Opp, M. (2009). How and why the immune system makes us sleep. Nature Reviews Neuroscience.

Loehr, J. & Schwartz, T. (2003). The Power of Full Engagement: Managing Energy, Not Time, Is the Key to High Performance and Personal Renewal. New York: Free Press.

Roizen, M. F. & Oz, M. C. (2005). YOU: The Owner’s Manual, Updated and Expanded Edition: An Insider’s Guide to the Body that Will Make You Healthier and Younger. New York: HarperCollins.

Wagner, K. (2009, June 10). Study shows a bidirectional relationship between chronic stress and sleep problems. Paper presented at the 23rd Annual Meeting of the Associated Professional Sleep Societies. Abstract retrieved June 11, 2009, from http://www.eurekalert.org/pub_releases/2009-06/aaos-ssa060209.php.

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WJ 24 June 2009 - 3:51 pm

Marie-Jo – I’d add one more tip. If you are lying in bed and can’t sleep because your mind is racing/worrying then try practicing some mindfulness.

I teach my clients to repeat a mantra in time to their breath.

When my thoughts start to wander to “I need to get to sleep” I reframe the thought that “its good to be using this time constructively by practicing mindfulness”

Its important to have no expectation that mindfulness will help you sleep – howvever as soon as you remove this expecation you will quickly go to sleep.

Margaret Greenberg 24 June 2009 - 4:47 pm

MJ – thank you for the practical tips on how to make a good night’s sleep a healthy habit. I’m passing along your article to several of my clients (I LOVE my sleep time and regularly get 8 hours, preferably 9). Great to connect with you at the IPPA conference last week. MG

Marie-Josee Salvas 24 June 2009 - 6:24 pm

Wayne – thank you for mentioning this extra tip! I agree, it should have been on my list! Another very similar strategy would be to think of one thing you are grateful for and then just basque in the feeling as you deep breathe. It works well too! (And I’m hoping it helps reap the benefits of gratitude at the same time, but this hypothesis would need to be tested – any MAPPster in search for a thesis anywhere?!)

While I have your attention – thank you for sending me additional sleep sources! I really appreciated the support (and it was supposed to be mentioned as author’s note at the bottom of the article, but somehow didn’t appear – it’s a new software, so maybe I didn’t quite figure it all out yet!)


Marie-Josee Salvas 24 June 2009 - 6:28 pm

Margaret – thank you for passing my article along! I’m always happy for my suggestions to be shared! I’m a fan of your energy and am glad to see that you are a good sleeper – it confirms my arguments of the previous article (Does Sleep Really Matter?).

Dave Shearon 24 June 2009 - 7:23 pm

Thanks for these articles, Marie-Josee! There are three suggestions for well-being that I am still trying to find a better way to introduce — exercise, sleep, and meditation/mindfulness.

Exercise and sleep are tough because they can so easily come off as seeming to be just more of the same “common sense” advice that we’ve all heard all our lives. My counter to that tendency to brush off these points is research, and I’ll pull from your work to improve mine! Meditation/mindfulness is tough because of the religious and mind-over-matter connotations, but again the research is what I try to work on.

It’s possible that some of these communication challenges are different in the workshop teaching environment than in coaching. What do you think? Any resistance from folks when you cover these topics? How do you help folks establish some forward motion?

Marie-Josee Salvas 25 June 2009 - 10:10 am

Dave – good question. I think that if we strictly speak about sleep OR exercise, then yes, it can sound like common sense. (But then again some people still think that they are OK sleeping 6 hours because it’s mind over matter. There can be exceptions, but most likely they are wrong and need to revise their thinking.)

What I think is more interesting is to discuss the interaction across topics. For example, as I explained in the article “Does Sleep Really Matter”, helping people understand that sleep can impede their immune function or their ability to self-regulate is already more value-added.

Here’s another tidbit of info that I did not write about yet: in a series of psychomotor finger-tapping tests, results suggested that subjects’ motivation to respond – more than their capacity to do so – was impaired. If people can’t find the motivation to perform a simple finger-tapping task when sleep deprived, imagine how likely they are to pump iron and run on the treadmill! So you see, all the good research on exercise is worthless if you are talking to a group of sleep debtors who have not yet discovered the joy of physical activity (they don’t have the motivation NOR the self-regulation). These people need to hear about sleep first.

All that to say – each field on its own seems to repeat what our moms told us all our lives, I agree. But in the interaction across disciplines, we find unexpected solutions to make the lifestyle changes easier.

Hope that helps!

Margaret Greenberg 25 June 2009 - 11:57 am

Just one other thought: could anyone recommend any mindfulness tapes/programs that would appeal to business execs? Margaret

WJ 25 June 2009 - 8:02 pm

Margaret – I use HRV software to teach mindfulness to my corporate clients. It fast tracks the learning process for time poor executives. It also provide tangible feedback on their performance which fits in with the management paradigm that you can’t manage what you can’t measure.

Margaret Greenberg 26 June 2009 - 3:27 pm

WJ – thank you so much!!! I will google HRV and see what I can find. MG

WJ 26 June 2009 - 5:09 pm

Margaret – my website contains much of the latest research on HRV (see http://www.innate-intelligence.com.au/blog/?cat=18) and mindfulness (see http://www.innate-intelligence.com.au/blog/?cat=33)

Brittany S 15 November 2009 - 11:08 pm

Hello Marie-

I have a couple questions. I have always heard that getting a good work out helps a person sleep better, but do you know if it matters at what point of the day the work out is done in? And also, I have also heard that you should avoid doing things in your bed (watch tv, email, etc) because then your body can get used to the bed without actually sleeping making it harder to sleep when the time comes, is this true?

Thank you! Great column!
Brittany S

Marie-Josee Salvas Shaar 16 November 2009 - 12:20 pm

Hi Brittany!

Yes, you are correct. A good workout does help people sleep better, and there are 2 reasons for that. 1- exercise helps reduce stress, which is a sleep inhibitor. 2- exerting more energy during the day increases your body’s need for rest, and so your sleep becomes more efficient.

In regards to what point of the day you do your workout, I think first and foremost it’s important to fit it at whatever time you are most likely to get it done and enjoy it. To give you a personal example, I’m not a huge morning person, so I prefer my workouts in the late afternoon when my energy level is higher. That being said, it is generally recommended that people don’t go for a vigorous workout – anything that will make you sweat – within 2 hours of your bedtime. The reason for this guideline is that a vigorous workout is stimulating, and so you have to give yourself time to get back to a lower level of alertness before you can fall asleep.

About avoiding TV or emailing in your bed so you don’t get used to doing other things in bed than sleeping, it may or may not be a problem. Here’s why: on the one hand, your reasoning is correct. If your brain interprets that your bed as a place to do all kinds of activities, then it no longer sees it as a peaceful place to rest, which may make your sleep more difficult. At the same time, if your brain equates TV in bed with bedtime routine, then it can be a helpful habit. However, the light exposure from your TV or computer screen can also make your brain think that it needs to stay up longer, so you might benefit from activities that are not throwing so much light at you. Also, doing emails probably puts you in work mode, which you will need to get out of before you pass out, so it may delay the onset of sleep. Similarly, because TV shows are organized around short sequences, your brain needs to be alert to follow all the action. It being “wired” like that can also inhibit sleep. So all in all, what I’m saying is that although I agree that TV and email in bed may not be your best sleep-inducing alternatives, my reasoning behind it differs from yours.

Hope that helps!



Virginia Jones 18 November 2009 - 12:25 pm

I am a college student so I can relate to not getting enough sleep majority of the week. My problem is sleeping too much come the weekend. Do you have any tips for ways to combat my need to stay in the bed until the afternoon on Saturday??

Marie-Josee Salvas Shaar 18 November 2009 - 1:03 pm

Hi Virginia!

You’re asking a very common question and I can give you a very long or very short answer. The short answer is yes, I do have a very powerful way to not sleep in until noon on weekends: sleep more during the week! Now I’m pretty sure you’re not satisfied with this answer and want the long version, right?

This article was published in 2 parts. If you scroll up to the top of this article, you’ll find a link to the other part, and I recommend you take a peak you fully appreciate what happens when you are sleep deprived. In the comments of this other article, you’ll see that Kendra asked pretty much the same question as you are asking now, and so the long answer is there.

Hope you don’t mind me referring you to the other article rather than just answering your question – it just makes more sense that way.

My best to you and sleep tight tonight!



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