POLITICS
07/11/2016 01:52 pm ET Updated Jul 11, 2016

Obama's Quiet Time May Be His Greatest Strength

The president isn’t perfect when it comes to getting enough rest, but he's doing several things right.
President Barack Obama told HuffPost last year that he's looking forward to getting more sleep after leaving the Oval Of
Jonathan Ernst / Reuters
President Barack Obama told HuffPost last year that he's looking forward to getting more sleep after leaving the Oval Office, saying he's hoping for a "post-administration glow."

President Barack Obama gets it when it comes to health, wellness and balance.

He works out daily (alternating weights and cardio). His favorite food is broccoli (he claims), but he’s totally fine with splurging on a burger with his best bud. He quit smoking (allegedly). And despite having one of the most high-stress jobs out there, he spends time with his family to keep priorities in check.

“I don’t get too high, don’t get too low,” Obama told The Huffington Post last year.

“When you have dinner with your daughters ― particularly teenage daughters ― they’ll keep you in your place, and they’ll teach you something about perspective,” he said.

His vice? Obama led HuffPost to believe that making time for family, eating healthy, exercising and the day job (you know, running the country) meant sleep was more of an afterthought.

When asked how much sleep he typically gets a night, his answer was vague: “Probably not enough.”

Despite filling his days with running the country and stumping with presumptive Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clint
Jonathan Ernst / Reuters
Despite filling his days with running the country and stumping with presumptive Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton, Obama is actually doing a lot of things to prime his body for good sleep.

But a recent New York Times report about Obama’s after-hours activities reveals the night owl’s habits aren’t quite as dismal as he’s let on.

“I’m kind of amazed,” Charles Czeisler, chief of the Division of Sleep and Circadian Disorders at Brigham and Women’s Hospital, told HuffPost. “He seems to maintain quite a regular schedule, which I think is quite exemplary.”

We thought Czeisler might fault the commander-in-chief for letting slip that he’s typically clocking six hours of sleep a night or less (definitely less than the seven to nine hours the National Sleep Foundation and other guidelines recommend for adults).

And while Czeisler by no means endorsed Obama’s short slumber, the sleep expert said the president is actually doing a lot of other things right when it comes to his pillow time. (It should also be noted that Obama himself doesn’t necessarily endorse his short sleep habits either. Last month, he told former New York Yankees star Derek Jeter that when he leaves the Oval Office, “I’m going to catch up on some sleep.”)

Here’s what Czeisler said Obama gets right.

1. Consistency

6:30 p.m. dinner with the family. Quiet time. Bed. Obama’s consistent evening routine is one of the main things aiding his sleep, Czeisler explained.

According the Times’ report, bedtime is typically between midnight and 2 a.m., and the president wakes up around 7 a.m.

Despite piling up about an hour or two of sleep debt each night, going to bed and waking at the same time actually teaches the body when to expect sleep.

The body learns and adapts somewhat to that schedule, Czeisler said. “Sleep adapts to some extent so that the most critical stages happen during the interval you’re asleep.”

That doesn’t mean your sleep will “learn” how to squeeze into an hour every night, but sleeping at consistent times is more ideal than bouncing between 10-hour nights and four-hour nights, Czeisler said. “Critical stages of sleep that would be happening in the seventh or eighth hour just don’t happen because your alarm wakes you up.”

The caveat, he added, is that we know the president travels a lot. That means jet lag could likely be interfering with his sleep, too ― not to mention nights out with the press or having friends over for dinner

Sometimes dinner plans interrupt evening routines, like when Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and his wife Sophie
Joshua Roberts / Reuters
Sometimes dinner plans interrupt evening routines, like when Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and his wife Sophie Gregoire-Trudeau came over for a state dinner at the White House.

2. A light bedtime snack

Late-night snacking has been linked to increased risk of weight gain and Type 2 diabetes ― and it could even mess with how we learn new things.

Even though the research is somewhat mixed on how various foods affect sleep, there is consensus that fatty, fried or spicy foods or big meals that can upset your stomach are also more likely to upset your sleep.

But the president’s nightly nosh ― seven lightly salted almonds, according to what Sam Kass, the Obama family’s former personal chef, told the Times ― is a positive choice for both sleep and health, Czeisler said.

Unsaturated fats make almonds a heart-healthy pick, plus the protein helps keep you full longer than lower-protein snacks.

Though nuts are a great choice, some might advocate adding a small piece of fruit, a few raisins or another source of carbohydrates to those seven almonds to make the president’s evening snack even more ideal for sleep. 

3. Skipping caffeine and alcohol

Avoiding caffeine and alcohol before bed is another pro-sleep habit the president gets right.
Phil Noble / Reuters
Avoiding caffeine and alcohol before bed is another pro-sleep habit the president gets right.

Kass also revealed that the president rarely drinks coffee or tea ― and he rehydrates with water more often than other beverages.

Not using caffeine to stay awake at night and not winding down with a nightcap are both high on the pro-sleep list, Czeisler said. 

Caffeine is a stimulant and can affect some people in as little 15 minutes, Czeisler added, but its effects can linger in the bloodstream for more than six hours and block the body from releasing the chemicals it needs to fall asleep.

And studies have suggested that even though a glass of wine before bed may cause you to fall asleep faster, your quality of sleep after drinking gets significantly altered and disrupted. 

4. Unwinding before hitting the pillow

“Everybody carves out their time to get their thoughts together,” Rahm Emmanuel, Obama’s first chief of staff, told the Times. Talking about the President’s nighttime retreat, he said: “There is no doubt that is his window.”

Czeisler notes that the president’s habit of taking time to get his thoughts together is another way he’s priming himself to sleep. “That is another thing the president is doing right,” he said.

Obama returns to the White House after a day trip to Iowa in January last year. The president's evening hours are the ones he
Kevin Lamarque / Reuters
Obama returns to the White House after a day trip to Iowa in January last year. The president's evening hours are the ones he uses to collect his thoughts, according to his first chief of staff, Rahm Emmanuel.

One caveat though ― even though the president’s solitary hours sometimes include reading novels, watching sports or playing games ― it’s also clear many of those hours are spent writing or rewriting speeches, reading briefing documents or catching up on other work. And if that work brings more stress, sleep may be the price

If any of that work is done on a smartphone, tablet or computer, studies have shown that the blue light from those screens not only make it harder to fall asleep, but also disrupt the quality of the sleep you get throughout the whole night and make you drowsier the next day.

The takeaway: Quiet time is good, but if the president is doing work on a screen, he’d be better off adjusting the intensity and the colors of his screen to reduce the amount of blue light he’s looking at, Czeisler said.

Sarah DiGiulio is The Huffington Post’s sleep reporter. You can contact her at sarah.digiulio@huffingtonpost.com. 

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