The most important aspect of sleep is to establish sleep consistency: going to sleep and waking up at the same time each day, even on the weekends. Setting a consistent sleep schedule improves your body’s circadian rhythm and optimizes its repair processes while you sleep. I’ve worked diligently to keep my sleep consistent, but of course, sometimes life happens.
Getting a good night’s sleep has so many physical, emotional, and mental benefits. Yet with all of the distractions that demand our attention, going to sleep on time and getting enough rest has become extremely elusive to many of us. Why is sleep so important and how can we make it a priority?
In this interview series called “Sleep: Why You Should Make Getting A Good Night’s Sleep A Major Priority In Your Life, And How You Can Make That Happen” we are talking to medical and wellness professionals, sleep specialists, and business leaders who sell sleep accessories to share insights from their knowledge and experience about how to make getting a good night’s sleep a priority in your life.
As part of this interview series, we had the pleasure to interview Dr. Gil Blander.
Dr. Gil Blander is internationally recognized for his research in the basic biology of aging and for translating his discoveries into new ways of detecting and preventing age-related conditions. He received a PhD in biology from the Weizmann Institute of Science and completed his postdoctoral fellowship at MIT. He’s been featured in CNN Money, The New York Times, Forbes, The Financial Times, and The Boston Globe.
At InsideTracker, Dr. Blander leads a team of experts in biology, computer science, and nutrition and exercise physiology. He founded the company in 2009, alongside top scientists from acclaimed universities in the fields of aging, genetics, and biometrics. InsideTracker’s mission is to help people realize their potential for long, healthy, productive lives by optimizing their bodies from the inside out. InsideTracker’s proprietary algorithm analyzes its users’ biomarker and physiomarker data to provide a clear picture of what’s going on inside them. Based on this analysis, InsideTracker offers its users ultra-personalized, science-based recommendations for positive changes to their nutrition, supplementation, exercise, and lifestyle, along with a plan of action to track their progress toward their goals.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we dig in, our readers would like to ‘get to know you’. Can you tell us a bit about your background and your backstory?
Great, thank you for having me! My life’s passion is aging research. From a young age, I wanted to help people live a longer, better life. I did some research and learned that caloric restriction allows people to live longer and better, and I thought to myself, “what if we can not only restrict calories but choose the right foods for the right person to help them live a longer and healthier life.”
I earned my Ph.D. in biology from the Weizmann Institute of Science and completed my postdoctoral fellowship at MIT, where I studied aging for five years. While working in Cambridge, Massachusetts, the innovation of biotechnology companies inspired me. I soon realized that to make real change in the population’s health, I needed to start a company.
I’m fascinated by the fact that over 8,000 different foods are available today, yet the average American only consumes around 20 different foods per week. We have a tremendous amount of building blocks but are only using a few of them. I wanted to build a product that would tell each person which building blocks they should use to optimize their health.
Can you share a story with us about what brought you to this particular career path?
From the age of 12, I wanted to live forever. My scientific journey started at the age of 12 when one of my closest relatives passed away. This was the first time it clicked that I’m not immortal, and inspired me to find a way to slow down the clock. This inspired a thirst to understand how our bodies age. This pushed me to become a scientist, particularly in aging research.
Our bodies are machines. If we don’t take care of the machine and it breaks down, we have to go to the physician. But what if we can prevent the machine from breaking down in the first place? Just like we get an oil change for our car every 5,000 miles, we need to perform routine maintenance on our bodies. Similar to how regular oil changes increase the average mileage of our cars from 100,000 miles to 120,000 miles, prioritizing maintenance on our bodies can increase their lifespan.
Can you share with our readers a bit about why you are an authority in the sleep and wellness fields? In your opinion, what is your unique contribution to the world of wellness?
InsideTracker is helping people to live longer, healthier lives. Many companies right now do an excellent job tracking your sleep and displaying sleep data. What they don’t tell you is what you need to do to improve your sleep. At InsideTracker, customers can connect their activity trackers to our mobile app and receive ultra-personalized recommendations to improve their sleep. These recommendations take your sleep, blood, and DNA results into account for ultra-personalization.
For example, it’s not enough to tell someone that they didn’t get enough deep sleep last night. We tell them that because of their deep sleep score, their blood biomarker levels, and their genetic predisposition, the most impactful way to improve their sleep is this specific action. In short, InsideTracker’s unique contribution to the wellness field is that we can integrate multiple inputs, allowing us to paint a complete picture of what’s happening inside each individual’s body and how to improve it.
Is there a particular book that made a significant impact on you? Can you share a story or explain why it resonated with you so much?
David Sinclair’s book, “Lifespan,” largely impacted me and my career. “Lifespan” talks about what we’ve learned from research on aging and the groundwork for future research. My life is to live a longer, healthier life and inspire others to do the same. This book instructs us on how we can do these very things.
Do you have a favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Do you have a story about how that was relevant in your life or your work?
A quote that I really like right now is, “add years to your life and life to your years.” This quote embodies my two life goals: to live a long life and to be physically able to do the things I love as long as I can. The idea here is that it’s not enough to live longer, let’s say to be 120 years old, with the last 40 years of life spent in a hospital bed or connected to machines. This quote adds the component of healthspan; you can live a longer life and be physically able to do the things you love, whether it be climbing mountains or spending time with loved ones. This quote ended up inspiring InsideTracker’s new podcast, Longevity by Design, where I interview aging scientists.
Ok, thank you for all that. Now let’s move to the main focus of our interview. Let’s start with the basics. How much sleep should an adult get? Is there a difference between people who are young, middle-aged, or elderly?
Optimal sleep duration is highly individualized, meaning it varies from person to person. At InsideTracker, we use data science to determine the optimal sleep duration and optimal time spent in each sleep phase for each person based on multiple factors, including age, as you mentioned. As a general rule of thumb, you should feel restored and energized when you wake up, and the number that helps you get there is important to consider. In terms of sleep duration, the sweet spot for sleep is 7–9 hours per night. But again, this number varies based on the individual.
Is the amount of hours the main criteria, or the time that you go to bed? For example, if there was a hypothetical choice between getting to bed at 10AM and getting up at 4AM, for a total of 6 hours, or going to bed at 2AM and getting up at 10AM for a total of 8 hours, is one a better choice for your health? Can you explain?
Across the board, the rule of thumb is maintaining sleep consistency: going to bed and waking up at the same time every night. Establishing a sleep routine helps your body get into the rhythm of sleep, and your body will optimize its time asleep much better. Whether sleeping from 10 AM to 4 AM or 2 AM to 10 AM, the best advice I can give you is to keep the times you go to sleep and wake up consistent each night.
As an expert, this might be obvious to you, but I think it would be instructive to articulate this for our readers. Let’s imagine a hypothetical 35 year old adult who was not getting enough sleep. After working diligently at it for 6 months he or she began to sleep well and got the requisite hours of sleep. How will this person’s life improve? Can you help articulate some of the benefits this person will see after starting to get enough sleep? Can you explain?
This person will likely see many improvements as sleep touches every aspect of health. To begin, they’ll notice an improvement in mood. Elevated cortisol (the “stress hormone”) levels can make it tough to fall asleep, and conversely, a good sleep routine results in low cortisol levels and improved overall well-being.
They will also see improvements in immune health and inflammation levels. Sleep deprivation can lead to chronic inflammation, reducing your body’s ability to fight off infections. Studies show that chronically getting less than five hours of sleep per night leaves you nearly 50% more vulnerable to a viral infection. Someone who has improved their sleep will notice improved hsCRP and white blood cell count levels, two important markers of immune function.
They will also see an improvement in hormones, particularly testosterone levels. The majority of testosterone production occurs during REM sleep. Optimal testosterone levels are essential for energy production and muscle development. Sleep also plays a role in your hunger hormones. Sleep helps regulate the hormones ghrelin, signaling that you’re hungry, and leptin, signaling that you’re full or satiated. Therefore, improving sleep helps your body’s response to the food it receives. These are just a few of the many examples that someone can start to see when improving their sleep.
Many things provide benefits but they aren’t necessarily a priority. Should we make getting a good night’s sleep a major priority in our life? Can you explain what you mean?
I can confidently say that getting a restful night’s sleep every night should be everyone’s top priority. Sleep is the ultimate, free performance enhancer. Whether you’re an athlete, student, or parent, prioritizing sleep will make you better in that role. Let’s put it this way. If you saw a commercial for a free product that promised to improve your immune system, heart health, athletic performance, mental health, and more, and all you had to do was dedicate 7–9 hours of your time daily, would you buy it? Of course, you would!
The truth is that most of us know that it’s important to get better sleep. But while we know it intellectually, it’s often difficult to put it into practice and make it a part of our daily habits. In your opinion what are the 3 main blockages that prevent us from taking the information that we all know, and integrating it into our lives? How should we remove those obstacles?
You raise an excellent point! It’s imperative to know how to get optimal sleep and remove the obstacles preventing us from doing so.
 The first major blockage preventing us from prioritizing sleep is a common perception, “I’ll sleep when I’m dead.” At times, society gives the impression it’s necessary to be high achieving at all costs, including our health. Instead of placing value on working all hours of the day, we should focus more on increasing productivity during the day and giving ourselves the time we need to sleep. In reality, improving sleep will make us more productive during the day, so really, it’s a win-win.
 Life happens. There are times when we simply don’t have a choice but to chip hours off of our sleep time to deal with life. Whether it’s work, children, or an early flight, things come up. Aim to get ahead of whatever it may be that interferes with your sleep schedule, and know that a nap is always an option.
 Finally, similar to other health measures you take, you must hold yourself accountable. Like with a diet, if you eat fast food five times a week, you may not spark change. If you often cheat on your sleep routine, you may not see benefits. The same goes for sleep. Be diligent in your sleep routine, and it’ll feel less like something you need to work towards and more like an integral part of your lifestyle. Like having one fast food meal, one poor night of sleep won’t erase all of the progress you’ve made. Simply focus on doing better the next night.
Do you think getting “good sleep” is more difficult today than it was in the past?
Yes and no! The current pandemic has shone a spotlight on how critical personal health is. Because sleep relates to just about every aspect of health and is something that we can control, people have a heightened sense of awareness around improving their sleep. On the other hand, we’re living in what’s likely one of the most stressful times imaginable. Higher stress levels work against sleep hygiene. Not to mention, many of us have brought our offices right into our homes, often making it difficult to disconnect from our devices and our stress. I would say in some ways, yes and in some ways no.
Ok. Here is the main question of our discussion. Can you please share “5 things you need to know to get the sleep you need and wake up refreshed and energized”? If you can, kindly share a story or example for each.
The best tips for improving sleep and waking up feeling refreshed and energized truly depend on each individual. I will share five scientifically backed strategies that I currently use to help people sleep well and feel refreshed and energized when they wake up.
 The most important aspect of sleep is to establish sleep consistency: going to sleep and waking up at the same time each day, even on the weekends. Setting a consistent sleep schedule improves your body’s circadian rhythm and optimizes its repair processes while you sleep. I’ve worked diligently to keep my sleep consistent, but of course, sometimes life happens. For example, this week, I recorded a podcast with a scientist in Singapore quite late for my current time zone, and I went to sleep much later. And when I checked my sleep score when I woke up, this was reflected! You may not always have a choice.
 Be mindful about what you eat and drink within four hours of bedtime. I avoid caffeine during the day when possible. Caffeine acts as a stimulant, meaning caffeine increases messaging speed between the brain and body. Caffeine can interfere with the body’s circadian rhythms, the body’s way of regulating the sleep cycle. As a result, consuming caffeine can make falling asleep harder and reduce the quality of sleep. Being exceptionally responsive to caffeine can result in decreased sleep duration and deep sleep. I’ve also found that when I drink alcohol in the evening, the quality of my sleep is significantly compromised. I’m also mindful of what I eat for dinner and when I eat it. Foods high in saturated fat can inhibit the onset of sleep.
 Exercise at the best time for you. Exercising too early and too late impacts sleep. Exercising within four hours of bedtime negatively impacts sleep quality. Intense exercise increases your heart rate and adrenaline. At times, morning exercise shortens sleep duration. I used to think that I had to wake up very early to make sure that I exercise in the morning. I noticed that in doing so, I was shaving off two hours of sleep time each day. After analyzing my sleep score, I decided to make a change. Exercising in the morning helps me feel more alert throughout the day, but instead of doing so at 5 AM, I do at 7 AM. And the improvements show! My sleep quality has significantly improved since I made this change without sacrificing the alertness that a morning workout brings to my day.
 Simultaneously relax and avoid stimulating the brain. Life is complex, but taking time for ourselves can not only improve sleep and health but make us more productive when we wake up. Our smartphones and TVs are sources of blue light. Blue light stimulates the eyes and delays entry to the sleep cycle. Not only that, but the content on our phones and TV can stimulate the brain; whether the content is good, bad, scary, etc., you’re still thinking about it. Instead, aim to participate in activities that relax the brain starting two hours before bedtime. Activities like journaling, stretching and meditating allow us to reflect on the day as well as tune out distractions, respectively. For me, training myself to not check my phone and email at night was tough at first, but when I see positive results in my sleep, I know it’s worth it.
 Use technology to your advantage. As a scientist, I’m always interested in self-experiments and currently use sleep quality as an “N of 1” experiment. And with technology now, you can too! When you track your sleep and get your blood tested, you know what you need to work on to improve. For example, my most recent InsideTracker blood test found that I’m low in magnesium. Magnesium is a mineral that activates the parasympathetic nervous system, responsible for relaxing your muscles. It can also naturally stimulate the body’s production of melatonin, sending you into sleep waves. Because I knew that my magnesium levels were now, I learned that taking a magnesium supplement could make my sleep score even higher. Knowledge and data are power. We can use technology to pinpoint how we can improve health, but we won’t know until we look inside.
What would you advise someone who wakes up in the middle of the night and can’t fall back to sleep?
First, I’d ask the person why they believe they frequently wake up in the middle of the night. For example, are you thinking about work? Are you stressed? Did you watch TV late? Do you need to go to the bathroom? Pinpointing the cause of wakefulness helps to identify how to fix it.
It’s essential to incorporate sleep maintenance habits during the day. Try taking a vitamin D supplement if your vitamin D levels are low. Low levels of vitamin D are linked to decreased sleep efficiency, meaning low vitamin D levels may be the culprit in waking you up during the night. A low-dose melatonin supplement can also help you sleep through the night, although it doesn’t solve wakefulness’s root cause. While being wide awake may be uncomfortable, avoid using your TV and smartphone. The light emitted from your electronics will only pull you further out of your sleep cycle.
What are your thoughts about taking a nap during the day? Is that a good idea, or can it affect the ability to sleep well at night?
Like many other factors of sleep, response to napping is highly individualized.
There are many benefits associated with taking naps. Naps can improve memory by converting short-term memories into long-term ones, particularly beneficial after a study session. Studies show that napping may enhance your ability to sleep well at night. Being overly exhausted during bedtime can make it more difficult for your body to drift off to sleep.
If you typically benefit from (or enjoy!) naps, here are a few rules of thumb. Don’t nap too close to your bedtime, as it can interfere with your sleep schedule. Aim to nap for 90 minutes, the length of an average sleep cycle. This way, you don’t wake up in the middle of deep sleep. In general, time your nap to wake up at least 60 minutes before strenuous activity to avoid grogginess.
Wonderful. We are nearly done. Is there a person in the world, or in the US, with whom you would like to have a private breakfast or lunch, and why? He or she might just see this, especially if we tag them. 🙂
If I could have lunch with anyone in the world, it would be Steve Jobs. Steve Jobs was an incredible innovator; he completely changed our lives. I’m talking to you from my Macbook laptop, next to my iPhone, wearing an Apple Watch, with AirPods in my ears. These devices have changed our lives forever. I’d love to sit down for lunch with Steve Jobs and understand how we can apply transformational innovation to the field of longevity to live a longer, better life.
How can our readers further follow your work online?
This was very meaningful, thank you so much. We wish you only continued success on your great work!
Thank you very much, and thank you for your time today!