The Science of Sleep & Performance

by | Jul 29, 2019

The science of sleep and performance: how can you find the optimal balance?


My legal heros all have two things in common. Firstly, they are imaginary (Suits & Silk being particular favourites), and secondly, they don’t sleep much. On TV, the ah-ha moments would come in the depths of pulling an all-nighter, with legal documents stacked to the ceiling.


This portrayal of productivity and legal prowess is not only inaccurate, but supremely unhelpful when it comes to a promoting a healthy working culture. I am very grateful to Adam and the team at Vario for the chance to put the record straight on behalf of sleep.


Far from being a time for slacking off, sleep is an incredibly active period for the brain and body. If you put electrodes on the skull and measure the activity pulsating below while you sleep, you can be in no doubt that there is a lot going on. These electrical traces have revealed that we sleep in 90-110 minute cycles. Each cycle involves 3 stages of progressively deeper sleep (imaginatively called Stage 1, Stage 2 and Stage 3), followed by REM or Rapid Eye Movement sleep, often followed by a brief awakening, before the whole thing starts again.


Stage 3 sleep is the deepest stage of sleep, and most physically restorative. Growth hormone repairs damaged cells, and recharges the immune system. The gaps between brain cells widen, allowing toxic proteins like beta-amyloid to get flushed out of the brain, helping to protect us against Alzheimer’s disease. We have more deep sleep in the first third of the night, which is why it’s rare to wake up soon after falling asleep.


All stages of sleep play a role in learning and memory, but my bet is that to come up with the unorthodox solutions that Mike Ross became famous for in Suits, he’d have to have had plenty of REM sleep. Dreams are thought to be part of the brain’s creative problem-solving process: replaying real and imagined memories to find novel linkages which elude us during conscious hours. REM sleep is also involved in emotional rebalancing; enabling us to empathise and relate to others. Skimp on sleep in the early hours, and you’re most likely to miss out on REM.


The modern dilemma of course, is how to find the time for all the sleep we need. Varios value flexibility, but I suspect that this usually means cramming more things into the day, rather than making the day shorter! The essence of my talk for the team, was that sleep enables you to be the best version of yourself, more of the time.


Stress and deliberate late nights have the same unhelpful effect on sleep. The brain has evolved to interpret lack of sleep to mean that we’re facing a threat to our survival. We respond by switching on the stress cascade, flooding the body with stress hormones, increasing heart rate, blood pressure and blood glucose, ready for ‘fight or flight’. We can’t sleep, because we’re on high alert; we’re tired, but wired.


So what can you do if you’re struggling to protect the recommended 7-9 hours of nightly sleep?


  1. P = Plan. Allow a 7-9 hour sleep window every night, without fail. Even if you’re not sleeping, give yourself the chance to rest.
  2. O = Get Outdoors. Our body clocks are coordinated by light. Sunlight is thousands of times more intense than office lighting – get plenty of exposure to natural light during the day to keep your body clocks acting in synchrony.
  3. W = Wind down. Separate day from night with a 1 hour digital detox before bed. Set an alarm to switch your phone off, and avoid bright light in the evening.
  4. E = Energize strategically. Do you really need caffeine? It masks the body’s sleep drive, and interferes with sleep quality. Switch to decaf unless you need it, and take a brisk walk or a nap to pep up your energy levels.
  5. R = Relaxation. Practice relaxation techniques to switch off the stress response and dial down hyperarousal. Progressive muscle relaxation is a good place to start.


Sleep habits are often highly entrenched, so give yourself the best chance, and just choose one behaviour to change at a time. Make a commitment – and tell someone what you’re going to try, to help hold you to account. Keep a sleep diary to track your progress, and allow two weeks and see whether you feel the difference… Good luck and please let me know how you get on!


For a more detailed blueprint for unlocking the power of sleep, you can read more at or please ask me a question on Twitter @DrSophieBostock


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