Sleep may be just one of the most underrated things in leadership. Last fall, I began an experimental neuroscience intensive, with 8 other coaches around the country led by Ann Betz, the Research Director of BeAbove Leadership, an organization that has spent the past 15 years researching and teaching the intersectionality of neuroscience, consciousness and coaching. We come together a few times a month to discuss scientific research, popular articles, scientific lectures and talks on neuroscience to better understand and enhance our work as coaches. We spent a month on the topic of neuroplasticity, which, simply put, is the ability of the brain to rewire itself. Sleep is one of the pillars of neuroplasticity, without which it is very difficult to make and maintain neuroplastic changes in the brain. Just think about trying to exercise and build new muscles without eating any protein—it would be very difficult to do. As protein is essential for building and maintaining muscle, sleep is essential for building neuroplasticity. Here are some interesting things that fascinated me about sleep that I’d like to share with you!
Sleep Flushes out Brain Toxins
Between the 7th and 9th hour of sleep, our brain releases cerebrospinal fluid, a clear liquid surrounding the brain and spinal cord that cleans out toxins from the brain, and sorts through memories that are deemed important. This is one of the reasons I recommend my clients get at least 7 hours of sleep every night, to get the cleaning in to create an optimal environment for brain rewiring via neuroplasticity. Think about it—what happens when you withhold yourself from going to the bathroom? Not great for your intestines at all. When you are not sleeping well, you may be doing that same thing to your brain.
Sleep Helps the Brain Replenish Neurotransmitters
According to James B. Maas, PhD, and author of “Power Sleep,” the brain replenishes neurotransmitters during REM sleep. Neurotransmitters are simply chemical messengers that enable neuron-to-neuron communication. He says these neurotransmitters are essential for remembering, learning, performance and problem solving. Remember, REM sleep happens in the 6th–8th hour of sleep, so yet another case for getting 7 hours of sleep a night. Think about it: do you want a filthy brain with rusty neurotransmitters that aren’t able to communicate well? Likely NOT going to help you in your leadership very much.
Sleep Helps Store Memories
When we sleep, the brain stores information in long-term memory through sleep spindles. These are short bursts of brain waves of strong frequencies that occur during REM sleep. REM takes place toward the end of the night, between the 6th–8th hour of sleep, when people are more likely to dream. During REM sleep, Maas says “the brain transfers short-term memories in the motor cortex to the temporal lobe to become long-term memories”.2 He goes on to say that this process can be particularly helpful for storing information related to motor tasks so that these tasks become automatic. So if you are keen on improving your gold swing, get a good night’s sleep.
Sleep Deprivation Exacerbates our Fight-or-Flight “Animal” Brain
When we don’t get enough sleep, the body interprets this as stress. As a result, our sympathetic nervous system gets activated and induces a metabolic reaction of the body to stress. When this system is activated, norepinephrine and cortisol are released in the body and there is increased amygdala activity. This contributes to sleep disruption, which leads to more sympathetic nervous system activation and more sleep loss.
Sleep Deprivation Contributes to Negative Moods
Published studies on sleep deprivation date back to 1896. Since then, there have been numerous studies on the effects of sleep deprivation on human performance, feelings and cognition. What the science has found is that all kinds of sleep deprivation—whether long-term or partial—result in negative moods. The most common feelings are of fatigue, loss of vigor, sleepiness and confusion.
So, What are My Recommended Best Practices for Sleep?
When we sleep, the brain solves problems. So, an effective strategy for sleeping better at night may be to prime yourself for relaxation. Don’t focus on thinking about a problem or something to solve before you go to sleep, as your brain will try to work on that during the night. Instead, try reading poetry, getting lost in a romance novel, listening to soothing music or even doing art. Do something where you are not trying to problem- solve.
Focus on getting at least 7 hours of sleep each night. Given that cerebrospinal fluid is released in the brain during REM sleep, it is important to get enough sleep to activate your brain’s natural cleansing system. If you are one of those people who can function on very limited sleep, it may be possible that you enter into REM sleep sooner, and thus feel more rested.
I remember after surfing one of the most powerful (and scariest) waves I had ever been on in Indonesia. It was difficult for me to sleep for that night, likely due to the chemicals coursing through my body and my sympathetic nervous system being turned on. My dopamine levels I’m sure were off the charts. If you are a thrill seeker by day, try listening to soothing music or an audio meditation to calm your system. A Yin, or slow-moving yoga practice at night can also calm your nervous system making it more ready for calm and rest. Meditation and focused breathing also help reduce amygdala activity.
In short, making sure you get a healthy amount of sleep each night should help with negative moods, reduce amygdala activation (less fight-or-flight), help you store long-term memories and organize networks in your brain that are essential for problem-solving, learning and performance.
Where have you struggled with sleep? What strategies have you used to improve your quality of sleep?
Note: Thank you to my Neuroscience Intensive coaching colleagues for their time and work compiling and sharing research on neuroplasticity, and in particular to Ursula Pottinga of BeAbove Leadership for her compilation of research on neuroscience and sleep used to help write this post.
 NIH Research Matters, How Sleep Clears the Brain. October 28, 2013. https://www.nih.gov/news-events/nih-research-matters/how-sleep-clears-brain
 “Strengthen Your Brain by Resting It.” American Psychological Association, Mark Greer, July/August 2004, Vol 35, No. 7.
 “Can a Lack of Sleep Cause Psychiatric Disorders?” Scientific American, Nikhil Swaminathan, October 23, 2007. https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/can-a-lack-of-sleep-cause/
 “Sleep Deprivation: Impact on Cognitive Performance.” Paula Alhola, and Päivi Polo-Kantola. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2656292/
 Neurocognitive Consequences of Sleep Deprivation, Jeffrey S. Durmer, M.D., Ph.D., and David F. Dinges, Ph.D.