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The One Thing Navy SEALs Are Told To NEVER Do: A Doctor Explains

Kirk Parsley, M.D.
Sleep Medicine Expert By Kirk Parsley, M.D.

If you wake up most days exhausted and have to drag yourself through your daily routine, you may think it's normal.

But while this is certainly common, let me tell you: It’s not normal.

If we take a serious look at how well the human body can function when circadian rhythms and the power of a good night's sleep are allowed to work the way they are supposed to, there’s only one conclusion: The fact that many Americans are suffering the ill effects of chronic sleep deprivation is abnormal. It's linked to type 2 diabetes, obesity, and depression. And I consider it to be the number-one health problem in the country.

Don’t buy into the myth that cutting sleep is a secret of high performers. It’s not.

I first started beating the sleep drum to the Navy SEALs in 2009, when I was a physician in the U.S. Navy. I had also served as a SEAL, so I could empathize with the severe demands, both in training and combat situations, and how challenging it could be to get enough sleep. It's a fact that hits especially hard when SEAL trainees are subjected to nearly six days without sleep during “Hell Week."

But it's not just Navy SEALs who don't get decent sleep. In the United States, badge-of-honor status is accorded to those who claim they get by on six or fewer hours of sleep per night. Through this lens, sleep is considered optional — and viewed as some sort of timing-sucking weakness to be eliminated through drive and willpower.

The main thing I want to impart to you is this: Don’t buy into the myth that cutting sleep is a secret of high performers. It’s not.

In my career as a doctor and health optimization expert, I work with some of the most successful people in the country: top athletes, sports teams, powerful CEOs and entrepreneurs, and the Navy SEALs. You know what they all have in common? They all perform better with better sleep.

You know what else they have in common? When we first meet, none of them consider their routine lack of sleep to be a problem. But after we've worked together, 100 percent of them realize that lack of sleep was affecting their performance.

Now is a good time to set the record straight: I was once as sleep-deprived as anyone. I went through medical school at the same time my wife and I had an infant and two toddlers. I long ago lost count of how many 36-plus-hour hospital shifts I’ve logged. I've been a Navy SEAL, doctor, serial entrepreneur, consultant, father, and athlete. I went 10 consecutive years averaging about five hours of sleep per night.

And so I had to learn what I know now the hard way. After hitting rock bottom, I had to question assumptions, dig into the research, and work extensively with my clients to find answers about sleep that unfortunately are not part of the standard medical school curriculum.

Let me give you a short rundown of what happens when you chronically deprive your body a good night’s sleep:

  1. Hormonal dysregulation
  2. Depression, various mood disorders, and possibly a number of mental illnesses
  3. Chronic inflammation
  4. Weight gain
  5. Muscle loss
  6. Memory loss
  7. Poor cognitive performance

The upshot is that many Americans have a significant opportunity to make measurable improvements. And the result? Feeling better, working better, performing better, and enjoying better health while decreasing the chances of sickness and disease.

And so I'd like to present a simple challenge: If you’re one of the many Americans who aren’t getting enough quality sleep per night, make sleep your top priority for a single week. Try to get as much (drug-free) sleep as you can — and then see how you feel and perform as a result.

For more on how to sleep better, check out:

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