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04/12/2016 11:10 am ET

Arianna On The One Thing That Will Make Your Health, Sex Life And Career Better

Arianna Huffington is on a crusade to make sure everyone gets more rest. Oprah tracked her down to find out why.
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If someone told you that you could reboot your health, your sex life and your career by doing just one thing, wouldn't you do it in a heartbeat? According to Arianna Huffington, that thing is sleep -- something most of us are chronically short on. You might not imagine Arianna as a relaxed woman. After all, she's written 15 books, raised two daughters, and run the always-on-deadline website The Huffington Post for more than a decade. But Arianna knows firsthand the life-saving importance of sufficient sleep. In 2007, she collapsed in her office, hit her head, and broke her cheekbone -- all thanks to utter exhaustion. Since then, she's become a passionate sleep advocate -- so passionate that she's just written a book on the subject: The Sleep Revolution. I spoke to her about how her life improved when she started getting eight hours of shut-eye each night, how pajamas can spark a healthy habit, and why changing the way we sleep could change the world.

OPRAH: So you're saying we need to rethink sleep -- a true revolution; that's why you wrote the book?

Arianna Huffington: Exactly. It feels like we have two threads running through our lives: one pulling us into the world to achieve, the other pulling us back to replenish us. These threads can seem at odds, but really they enforce each other. It's not a trade-off between success and sleep. Science shows that sleep is a performance-enhancement tool.

OW: What do we lose when we lose out on sleep?

AH: It starts with the brain. We become cognitively impaired. The data show that if you've been up for 17 to 19 hours -- which is pretty normal for a lot of us; it certainly used to be for me -- you have the cognitive impairment equivalent of a 0.05 percent blood alcohol level. That's just under being legally drunk, and the impairment increases the longer you're awake. Creativity and performance are affected by sleep deprivation, too. No wonder Charlie Rose is such a fan of naps. In the book, I quote him saying that if he could prep for an interview for another half hour or taking a nap, he'd take a nap. I so identify with that.

OW: You describe sleep deprivation as the new smoking. Is it really that bad?

AH: Absolutely. In fact, I've talked to every major sleep scientist, and one from UCLA sent me some old smoking ads in which a doctor said, "More doctors smoke Camels than any other cigarette!" I think in a few years, we'll all look back at our dismissive attitudes about sleep in the same way.

OW: You say you were sleepwalking through your own life. What do you think is the first step to taking back control?

AH: You have to acknowledge that something is missing. After I gave a speech in San Francisco, a young woman came up to me and said, "I don't remember the last time I wasn't tired." So many of us aren't in touch with the feeling of waking up and being fully present in our lives.

OW: I know what that's like. You become numb. You become zombielike. And then you give less of yourself to everything because there just isn't enough to give.

AH: Plus, when you're tired, you're more likely to doubt yourself, feel anxious, feel depressed. And of course there's the health impact. The statistics are unbelievable. People who average fewer than six hours of sleep per night are four times likelier than those who get more than seven hours to come down with a cold. Also, the stress hormone cortisone increases when you're sleep deprived, which can affect weight.

OW: Oh, I fully understand that. I used to be so worn out, I didn't know if I was hungry or tired or what. I would eat to make myself feel better, but really what I needed was a nap.

AH: I used to stay up, stupidly, to work, and I'd just eat to keep my eyes open. I wasn't even hungry -- it was just a way to power through.

OW: I love that you include a chapter on dreams.

AH: I've always been fascinated by dreams -- mine are so vivid. I went through a period in my 20s when I wrote down my dreams every morning. Then life intervened, and I stopped doing it. In ancient cultures, sleep was actually seen as a gateway to another world. There's something sacred in all of us that we need to protect, and sleep is a way to connect with it, nourish it and make it more present in our lives.

Chris Greenberg/Bllokberg via Getty Images

OW: Talk about the day you hit your head. What was your life like then?

AH: I was two years into building The Huffington Post, and I had the delusion every start-up entrepreneur has: that I had to handle everything. Also I had two teenage daughters. One was dealing with anorexia, and I was going with the other on a college tour. I had agreed that there would be no BlackBerrys on the trip; my daughter said, “Mom, you're going to be fully here with me.” So I was fully there during the day -- although not really, because I was so exhausted. Then she would go to sleep in whatever hotel we were in, and I would start working. I had booked myself to do a television show the morning I got home to L.A. -- which, in hindsight, was insane. But I did that show and came back. I sat at my desk. I felt cold. I went to get a sweater, and I collapsed. On the way down, I hit my head on the corner of my desk. I broke my cheekbone. I'm lucky I didn't lose an eye. And the doctors didn't know what the problem was. For a couple of weeks I went from echocardiogram to CT scan to every test you can imagine to establish what had happened, only to be told, basically, that I had modern civilization's disease: burnout. There was no medical solution; I had to change the way I lived. That was the beginning of my journey. It wasn't an instant transformation. It was getting 30 minutes more sleep a night; it was saying no more often. It took some time, but then I reached the point where rest became a magnet. I don't like my life when I haven't recharged, and I love it when I have. If I have an early morning, it's now easier to say no to dinner the night before. We all have a lot more discretionary time than we think. You know, you don't have to watch House of Cards. These things are optional.

OW: Yes. We all have more options than we realize. Now, I love where you talk about the idea of family sleep and why people besides Angelina and Brad would want to do it.

AH: Well, I did it. I loved sleeping with my children. I loved the family bed. Being Greek, it's part of my culture. I loved that coziness. I nursed one of my daughters in bed -- one of them until she was 2, and when the second one was born, I nursed both of them. I have some very funny pictures of one on each breast.

OW: Oh my.

AH: But many parents want their children to be in their own bed. I think what is important about sleeping with your children or even with your partner is just making sure your rest isn't affected. Let's say you have a partner who snores, and you have an early appointment the next day. There's nothing wrong with sleeping in another bedroom, if you have one. The idea that that's a sign of a problem in the relationship is a delusion of our culture. Not getting enough sleep is more likely to lead to problems.

OW: Having more sex helps you sleep better, obviously, but getting more sleep helps you have more sex, right?

AH: Absolutely. For women, getting an extra hour of sleep increases the chances of having sex by 14 percent. Nothing makes you less interested in sex than being sleep deprived.

OW: [Laughs] “Oh baby, I'm so tired.” So let's get to the how-to. You recommend starting with just 30 extra minutes?

AH: Yes. Everybody can find 30 minutes. You also need to create a transition to sleep. So many of us are on our devices until the very last moment before we turn off the light. But think of the way we put our babies to sleep -- we don't just plunk them in bed. We give them a bath, put them in their pj's, sing them a lullaby. We need a ritual for ourselves.

OW: You say not to charge your phone next to the bed, either. Because if it's right there charging—

AH: You're going to reach for it when you wake in the night. So I turn off my devices and gently escort them out of my bedroom. I have a hot bath -- I love a hot bath.

OW: You and me both. [Laughs] That's our ritual.

George Burns/Harpo

AH: And then I get into sleep clothes. For years I used to sleep in my gym clothes. I would literally put on a T-shirt and whatever pants I would wear to the gym, which sends a very confusing message to your brain: Are we going to the gym, or are we going to sleep? So now I wear sleep clothes. Personally, I love silk lingerie, but everybody's different. Some people like to meditate before bed, others like a little music. Whatever works for you! The other part of getting a good night's sleep actually happens when you wake up in the morning: You have to set your intention for the day.

OW: Yes, you have to make your own choices about your day. Even if you're not in full control of your schedule, you can examine your life to see how many deadlines you've given yourself. I've caught myself saying, “I've got to get this done and this done and this done.” Who said that? Oh, I did. And now I'm making myself crazy trying to meet a deadline that I set.

AH: You told me once that when you were starting your show, you were sometimes so exhausted that you'd fall asleep in your clothes. That's a story I tell when I give speeches. I say, “Does anybody here believe that's why Oprah is Oprah?” We all know it's not because you worked yourself to the bone, but because of who you are. In our own unique way, that applies to each of us.

OW: I have to tell you, though, that on the show, we did create a culture where not getting enough sleep was a badge of honor. “I've been here 24 hours” was something to brag about. Now there are companies that don't allow people to stay overnight.

AH: That's right. Even Goldman Sachs interns.

OW: You also write that the presidential-campaign season is a good time to look at the effects of sleep deprivation. Tell me more about why you think sleep is so important to this public discourse and the future of decision-making in our country.

AH: Well, first of all, look at Bill Clinton. He once said, "Every important mistake I've made in my life, I made because I was too tired." He didn't specify which mistakes, but I think we can all identify with that. The most important hiring mistakes I've made were when I was tired, when I just wanted to cross one more thing off my to-do list, when I ignored my intuition. I remember giving a speech in my sleep-deprived days and feeling at a loss for information that I actually knew well.

OW: The older I get, the more I realize that the real joy in achieving anything is the level of vibrancy and aliveness you can bring to it. You don't want to miss out on life.

AH: That's why in the book I included the story of how, during World War II, when President Roosevelt was under pressure from Great Britain to help fund the war and from the U.S. to stay out, he decided to take time out and go off on a navy ship to think. Eleanor wrote him in a letter that she hoped he was sleeping and “getting a rest from the world.” And he came back with a solution! I love that: If you're facing a problem, you may need to go to a deeper part of yourself to solve it. Larry Page came up with the beginnings of Google in a dream. We all have wisdom and strength and deeper knowledge that we can access through sleep. We just need to give ourselves the chance.

OW: You are at the forefront of bringing this message to us all, and I'm so grateful to you for having the courage to lead this.

AH: Thank you. In April, we're teaming up with Uber to launch a campaign against drowsy driving. We've been very effective against drunk driving -- we've halved death rates because of the designated-driver campaign and changing attitudes toward drinking and driving. But the numbers around drowsy driving are frightening. It may now causes as many as 1.2 million accidents and 8,000 deaths a year. We're doing this campaign to help people realize the dangers.

OW: Do you feel that your voice -- added to the voices of scientists -- begins a revolution?

AH: Right now there is this moment in our culture of greater awareness around sleep, greater historical knowledge of why we began to devalue sleep and a greater understanding of the dangers of being overly connected to technology. So the revolution is already happening. What I'm hoping to do is accelerate it.

Want to learn to decrease stress and burnout? Join Arianna’s OCourse for tips on making small daily changes that will transform your life. Register now!

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Arianna Huffington's Guide To Thriving
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