Everyone benefits from a good night’s sleep, including presidential candidates. Yet according to a video series published by the New York Times in June 2019, many of the 2020 Democratic presidential candidates admitted to not getting enough sleep in the campaign trail, or at least less than the recommended amount for American adults.
According to the Academy of Sleep Medicine and Natural Sleep Foundation, American adults should aim for a minimum of seven hours in a 24-hour period. Just 16 minutes of sleep deprivation can lead to cognitive interference, distracting thoughts, and inhibit judgment. (Then there’s the potential health consequences like obesity, heart disease, and diabetes.)
What do the candidates’ sleep habits mean when it comes to their cognitive capacity, physical health, and decision-making abilities? We reached out to a sleep expert to find out.
Sleeping less than seven hours nightly
When the New York Times asked a number of presidential candidates how much sleep they get per night, Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders answered “not enough.” Andrew Yang, Mayor Pete Buttigieg, and New Jersey Senator Cory Booker said that it depends on the night, although Booker admitted that he was getting “very little” in this presidential campaign.
Minnesota Senator Amy Klobuchar and Hawaii Congresswoman Tulsi Gabbard said that an average night for them is about six hours. Only Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren reported getting more than the recommended seven hours. She told the New York Times that she typically sleeps as much as eight hours per night.
The optimal amount of sleep is different for each individual, but only about 3% of the population fall into the “short-sleeper” category. For most people, sleeping less than seven hours regularly can lead to serious issues. Dr. Michael Jaffee, vice chair of neurology at University of Florida, says that “Sleep deprivation can be associated with decreased attention and increased memory difficulty and executive functions such as multi-tasking and self-regulation.”
In older individuals, says Jaffee, “recent evidence has shown that . . . sleep is necessary to help clear away toxic proteins that can accumulate during the day to include abnormal variants of a protein called amyloid. These harmful proteins are removed from our brain by a process known as the glymphatic system, which relies on deep slow wave sleep to perform this clearance. Increased amyloid in our brains has been associated with cognitive impairment and Alzheimer’s dementia.”
Prioritizing sufficient sleep, however, can bring about physical health benefits. As Jaffee said, “a number of studies done on collegiate athletes that have demonstrated increased sleep, called sleep extension, actually increased measurements of sports performance.”
Not having a regular sleep schedule
Irregular sleeping hours maybe a typical part of a presidential campaign (hence Yang, Buttigieg, and Booker’s response), but not having a consistent sleeping routine and regular bedtime can wreck havoc on the body. As Lisa Evans previously reported for Fast Company, inconsistent sleep routine affects one’s circadian rhythm, which causes that “jet lag” feeling upon waking up.
But Jaffee says that there are hacks that presidential candidates may want to adopt to make up for their lack of sleep or inconsistent sleep schedule. For starters, he recommends a short nap of no more than 20 minutes. Presidents John F. Kennedy, Ronald Reagan, and George W. Bush have all reportedly used afternoon naps during their tenure, says Jaffee.
Caffeine can also be a temporary solution, especially when combined with a quick nap. “Caffeine competes with adenosine from binding to parts of our brain. The more adenosine that is bound, the greater our sleep drive, so the caffeine can temporarily block some adenosine from binding,” says Jaffee. “Drinking a cup of coffee quickly and then sleeping for no more than 20 minutes helps to clear adenosine from the nap, and [you’ll] have more receptors available to the caffeine, which takes 15-20 minutes to be absorbed.”
Consuming high doses of caffeine
Speaking of caffeine, Booker has been very open about his abundant coffee habits. As The Guardian summarized in a March 2019 article, the New Jersey senator and former Mayor of Newark has been tweeting jokes around “breaking up with sleep” and “dating coffee” for the past 10 years.
While Jaffee acknowledges the temporary powers of caffeine, he says that excessive consumption, particularly combined with sleep deprivation, can have negative effects. Sleep deprivation, says Jaffee, “can cause an increase in activity of our sympathetic nervous system (‘fight or flight’ response). Caffeine can further stimulate the sympathetic system and have effects on our cardiovascular system, causing hypertension, palpitations, and jitteriness and further interfere with sleep due to this stimulation.”
On building better sleep habits
An ideal sleep schedule for presidential candidates, according to Jaffee, should involve a minimum of seven hours of shut-eye a night.
While the demands of a presidential campaign is unique, the struggle for work-life balance and getting sufficient sleep is one that many professionals face. While certain professions like commercial drivers, physicians in training, and pilots are subject to sleep regulations as a safety measure, others continue to operate with a 24/7 and “always-on” expectation.
To improve quality of sleep, Jaffee recommends that one should stick to paper-based work two hours before bedtime. “Blue light often found in electronics such as computers and smart phones can diminish the brain’s natural release of melatonin, which helps signal the body that it is time for sleep,” says Jaffee.
For presidential candidates, he also stresses the importance of having a “strong support staff” and “organizational aids to maintain cognitive reserve.” As he wrote in a previous article for The Conversation, “A senior executive often has a staff that helps organize the myriad functions and communications necessary for regular operations as well as managing problems or crises as they emerge. This speaks to the importance of having a large enough capable staff (some of whom are not sleep-deprived) who can help serve as an “organizing brain. . . . Maybe that is how the candidates survive, too.”