with greg layton

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In this episode of The Inner Chief podcast, I speak to Dr Michael Breus, and we’re going to talk about how to fix your sleep, achieving maximum performance outcomes, and the four chronotypes.

Dr Michael is a double board-certified Clinical Psychologist and Clinical Sleep Specialist. 

He is the author of four books and an expert resource for most major publications, doing more than 400 interviews per year (Oprah, Dr. Oz, The Doctors, NY Times, Wall Street Journal, etc.).

He has been in private practice for more than 2 decades and recently relocated to Los Angeles, where he was named the Top Sleep Doctor in the city by Readers Digest.

In this episode we talk about:

  • How to fix your sleep through understanding your chronotype
  • Why executives need to sleep optimally, but how all their staff can too
  • The do’s and don’ts of sleep readiness and waking up in the middle of the night, and
  • The science behind dreams, sleep therapy and power naps.

Thanks to James Whittaker of Win The Day for introducing us to Michael.

Connecting with Dr Michael Breus

You can connect with Michael via LinkedIn and his website.

Books and resources


“You can change somebody's sleep and you will change every single area of their life.”


On why we sleep and why it’s important

  • Nobody really has a complete understanding of why we sleep. Obviously, it's restorative in nature. We get a physical restoration, we get a mental restoration from it. And we need to look at it as this multifactorial process.
  • If you go without sleep for too long, bad shit happens. You can hallucinate, you can become quite paranoid. Your systems start to shut down. Especially if you have any level of physical problems, if you have high blood pressure, if you have diabetes, all of these different things. All of every single system, every organ system in every disease state is affected by sleep. Literally everything you do, you do better with a good night's sleep.
  • I would argue, as important as breathing and as important as hydration. I would also argue it's more important than food, and it's more important than exercise.
  • There are some people out there that only need about four hours of sleep. They're called short sleepers. It's genetic. I can look at your 23andMe or your ancestry.com, or do a swab. And I can tell you right out of the gate, “Hey, you're a four-hour sleeper.” This is incredibly rare, I would say maybe one in 100,000.

On how sleep works

  • A sleep cycle goes from awake, to stage one, to stage two, down into stage three, four, back to stage two, and then on into REM (Rapid Eye Movement) sleep. Every cycle is somewhere between 80 and 120 minutes, usually around 90. But they're not evenly distributed.
  • Stage three and four sleep is usually in the first third of the night. And then stage REM is usually in the last third of the night. And so it gets bigger towards the end. So you have a very small amount in the first cycle, a whole lot more in the fifth cycle. A lot of stage three, four in the first cycle, very little in the fifth cycle. 
  • REM sleep in the last cycle is where all of your cognitive awareness really comes from.
  • So if you go to bed at 11pm and you wake up at 5am, you get 6 hours of sleep but you've only had four cycles. And what that means is that last cycle of REM that you've gotten, if you waited another 90 minutes and got seven and a half hours, you'd have gotten probably twice the amount of that REM sleep.
  • There's a lot of individual variation here as the metric we're using is a 90-minute cycle length but yours might be 80 or 75. We can look at your genetics and figure that out pretty quickly. But more importantly is the consistency of the sleep itself.

On why leaders need sleep

  • There's lots of data on CEOs now looking at things like morale, looking at decision making, looking at leadership and the bottom line is a well slept leader is a better leader, bar none. If you haven't gotten enough sleep and the sleep that’s right for you, you're just not going to do well with your employee base or your productivity.
  • And interestingly enough, help your employees identify what's the right sleep for them, because that's a whole nother aspect to this that a lot of people don't think about. We now know that roughly US$2,300 is what you lose per employee when they are not well slept. If you've got 10 employees, that's $23,000. If you've got 100 employees, that's almost a quarter of a million dollars. If you've got 1,000 employees, you're losing $2.3 million on presenteeism (people that are there but are not really there, safety concerns, making mistakes, messing things up).

On what chronotypes are

  • I did not invent chronotypes. I want to be super clear about that. Back in the '70s, some great researchers came about and they discovered that there was this idea of morningness and eveningness. So you would have actually heard of the concept. If you've ever been called an early bird or a night owl, those are the chronotypes we're talking about.
  • If you know and understand your chronotypical swim lane – meaning the time that your genetics say you should go to bed and you should wake up – believe it or not, your sleep begins to consolidate.
  • The reason that we think people originally thought that people needed eight hours is because what you end up with is about six and a half hours of quality sleep, and then there's this hour and a half of crap. And so that's because people start outside of their chronotype.
  • There are a lot of things that can push you, even if you know your lane can push you in and out of your lane. One of them is alcohol, the other's caffeine. So knowing when to have these becomes a very critical component into this formula of how much sleep you need, and thereby, what your performance is going to look like.
  • I went in to look at chronotypes from a genetic perspective, and it turns out they're in a very specific spot. Now, if you want to look at all the science, there's probably north of 30 different areas on the human genome where we can find issues with chronotypes. 
  • But there's one area called the PER3 genetic region. And what these researchers discovered is that when certain genes got flip-flopped, you were a night owl. When it got flip-flopped the other way, you were an early bird. Then there was one that was all mixed up.

On the 4 chronotypes

  • Lions are kind of like the COO of a company. These are the operators. These are the people that wake up at 4:30, 5:00, they go for a run, they send out 10 emails, they make a list every day, and they go from step one, to step two, to step three, to step four right now. 
  • Bears are more what I call solar sleepers. Nine to five works perfect for a bear, because they wake up at 7:30, they go to bed around 10:30. It kind of works out well for them. These people, sometimes they're extroverts. Sometimes they're introverts. They do the stuff that needs to get done. They're kind of the glue that sticks society together.
  • Wolves are very nocturnal creatures. These are my CEOs oftentimes. These are my creatives. These are my artists, my actors, my authors, my musicians, the people who create the big idea type of folks. If they make a list, which half of them don't do, they go from step one, to step 27, to step 42. And it makes perfect sense to them, but it doesn't make sense to anybody else. And they're the people who show up at 11:00 to the party, but they stay till 1:30 and they help you clean up. They're good loyal friends, good people to have around.
  • Dolphins are the insomniacs because dolphins sleep unihemispherically ie. half of their brain is asleep, while the other half is awake and looking for predators. And I was like, “That kind of reminds me of people with insomnia who never quite fall asleep.”
  • So we created this quiz. It's 30 questions online. And you take the quiz, it takes two minutes, and you fall into one of these four categories. Once you learn what your category is, everything gets so much easier, because you know what time of day you're going to be more focused, you know what time of day you're going to have more ideas.
  • And so knowing the types of people that you want to gather and the times at which they're going to have that skillset makes it infinitely easier to run a company. Plus, they're happier people.
  • So you actually go through all the chronotypes throughout your lifetime. When you're a baby, you're a lion as you go to bed early and wake up early. Then when the kids are in middle school, they're bears. When you have adolescents, guess what? They're wolves. Then it kind of sets itself by the time you're about 20, 25, and then it stays constant for about 30 years. And then from that point forward, you hit about 55. We call that chronolongevity. So everybody goes through all of the chronotypes. It just depends upon which one you have during your adulthood that kind of sticks with you.

On nightmares

  • When you've got somebody who's had a traumatic event and they continue to have nightmares about it, somebody with PTSD, somebody who's had a rape, an assault, a natural disaster, things of that nature, what happens is with the nightmare, when you wake up from the nightmare, you stop your emotional processing.
  • The second biggest thing that goes on in REM sleep is emotional processing. And so when you wake up out of a dream, it's like pushing the pause button on your emotional processing. And when you go back to sleep, you’ve got to start from the beginning of the cycle to get back to the dream. And so then they wake up from the dream again.

On sleep fads and naps

  • The people who make up the fads are almost never sleep doctors, almost never. Have you noticed that? It's some idiot who comes out and says, “This is what I do,” and they're like an N of one. They ran the experiment on themselves, and it worked.
  • The reason my theories work well is because I was able to identify literally four categories that the entire population fits into at least one.
  • I'm a big fan of power naps, but you got to be thinking about them for a second. And so when you think about the idea of a power nap, number one, you really shouldn't need a power nap.
  • If you have something going on physically that makes you sleepy during the day, if you have a sleep disorder, or if you're sleep-deprived, then a power nap is not a bad idea. Generally speaking, you want your naps to either be 25 minutes or less, or 90 minutes. 90 minutes would be a full sleep cycle for most people.
  • But here's the problem is if you have a nap between 25 and 90 minutes, it feels like crap when you try to wake up. And that's because you get into the stage three, four sleep, and you have this thing called sleep inertia. And that just keeps you wanting to sleep more and more.
  • NASA did a great study with astronauts. They found that a seven to 12 minute nap can give you almost like what you would get from a cup of coffee.

On ‘landing the plane’

  • Sleep is not an on off switch. It's more like slowly pulling your foot off the gas and slowly putting your foot on the brake. You need runway to land the plane. You've got to give yourself the time for your body to slow down and do something to relieve the stress that's been building up throughout the daytime.
  • I'm probably the only sleep doctor in the universe that says it's okay to fall asleep with the television on. Why? Because you're not thinking about the stressful things. You're just kind of letting the content sort of flow over you.
  • When you finish dinner, go get yourself ready for bed if you're not going out that night. Brush your teeth, wash your face, do all the things you want to do, then whatever it is that you do. And then again, allow yourself the time to relax before bed. You'll be surprised at how easy some of these things can be.

On the science of sleep

  • As you're about ready to fall asleep, your core body temperature rises, rises, rises till it hits a peak, and then it begins to fall. That fall is actually a signal to your brain to release melatonin.
  • Then the temperature continues to fall, fall, fall, fall, fall. But at some point, it's got to turn back up. Otherwise, you get into hypothermia and so your body naturally goes into a lighter stage of sleep and you wake up, but probably 90% of people roll over and fall back to sleep.
  • Where you get into trouble in this phase of sleep is that the very first thing some people do is they look at the clock. They instantly do the mental math, and they say, “Oh shit, it's 3:00 in the morning. I've got to get up at six. Sleep, sleep, sleep.” And they try to force themselves to sleep.
  • And so one other thing that a lot of people do is they're like, “Well, maybe I have to pee,” so I'll get up and I'll pee. Don’t pee if you don’t have to! Also, in order to enter into a state of unconsciousness, you need a heart rate of 60 or below. So when you go from a lying position, to a seated position, to a standing position, and you walk across the room, guess what? You just jacked your heart rate well above 60 and you just told your brain it's morning, melatonin shuts off almost immediately.
  • So if you do wake up in the middle of the night and don’t need to pee, simply close your eyes and relax for a few minutes. The goal here is to get your heart rate below 60. My favourite way is to use a very particular breathing technique that was developed by Dr. Andrew Weil, and it's called 4-7-8 breathing. It's very simple. You breathe in slowly for a count of four, you hold it for a count of seven, and you push out for a count of eight. What happens is you breathe in, you really fill your air with lungs. Then when you breathe out, you hold, so you use it all up, all the oxygen. Then when you expel for a count of eight, you dump all that extra carbon dioxide. What it does is it means your heart doesn't have to work as hard because you've got plenty of oxygen now, and it actually lowers your heart rate. Seven to 10 cycles of it works really, really well. It slows your whole body down. Many times then, your anxiety has decreased, and allows the natural sleep process to take back over.
  • There's now data on something called non sleep deep rest. So this is lying in bed, in the dark, no noise, anything like that, and just lying there. Believe it or not, it's actually rejuvenative.
  • I believe that sleep falls into two main categories. One is discipline. The other is acceptance. Discipline is all the things we've been talking about – stop alcohol and caffeine at a certain time. Get runway to land the plane.
  • Acceptance is where it gets really, really interesting. You've got to trust your body. There's a reason that you're up. Maybe your body needs to think about something. Maybe you just need to lie there and chill out. Whatever it happens to be, you need to be able to say to yourself, “The world is not going to end if I don't fall back asleep right now.

On caffeine

  • So number one, figure out what your sensitivity to caffeine is. 
  • But number two, if you're looking for a general guideline, what I tell people all the time is, “Look, stop caffeine by 2:00 PM.” Most people go to bed around 10:00, 10:30. That gives you about eight hours. The half-life of caffeine is somewhere between six and eight hours. And so for folks who don't know what a half-life is, this is the amount of time it takes for half of the substance to get out of your system.
  • At the end of the day, caffeine has zero nutritional value whatsoever. It doesn't do you any good. In order to wake up out of a state of unconsciousness, you need two hormones. You need adrenaline and cortisol. Now, both have to be pretty high. So as that wakes you up in the morning, if you add caffeine to that, it does almost no good. But if you just wait 90 minutes after you open your eyes and then have your first cup, so if you wake up at 7:30, have your first cup at 9:00, you'll be shocked at how much more effective that first cup of coffee is.

On the best mattress

  • What I tell people all the time is, number one, do your research. Get online and start to research the different companies, and start to understand what it is you might need.
  • Whatever side you sleep on, if you're a side sleeper, back sleeper, stomach sleeper, there are different structural components to a mattress that will be identified that will help you out. 
  • But here's the thing. A mattress is supposed to do two things. It's supposed to support you, and it's supposed to be comfortable. 
  • So spinal alignment turns out to be important, because all the muscles that attach to the spine can't relax unless the spine is completely aligned. Once it is, all that musculature relaxes, which means nutrition can come to the muscles, help those muscles regenerate and work better. And so support is the product's ability to get your spine aligned. Comfort is the product's ability to keep you there for extended periods of time.

Final message of wisdom and hope for future leaders 

  • Joe Polish said two things to me that I thought were really important. He said, “Michael, if you can write a cheque, you don't have a problem.” And that was a really important thing for me to learn. He said, “Problems are things like cancer. But if you can write a cheque and solve whatever the issue is, you don't have a problem. You just have an obstacle that you need to figure out how to overcome.” And I thought that was really important thing for me to hear. You really have to understand what a true problem is.
  • And then the other thing that Joe said to me that I really liked is he said, “If you think money can't buy happiness, then you haven't given enough of it away.” And I really think that rings true as well, because the philanthropy and the importance of giving away money to causes and charities that are important and out there are something that I really value.
  • The thing that people have got to remember, is you can sleep better. If you think you're doomed to a life of insomnia, or apnea, or what have you, I promise you, promise you, promise you can sleep better.

Stay epic,