Why Sleeping Might Be Your Best Workout: An Interview with Dr. Tiffany Lester

Photo credit Chris Sutton.

Photo credit Chris Sutton.

Nope, we're not on an anti-workout kick; but sleep and rest are key to a fully functioning, healthy lifestyle. And if we could get said workout in our sleep? Sign us up! We're intrigued by what Dr. Tiffany Lester of Parsley Health has to say about how sleep relates to brain fog, irritability, and that wired-but-tired feeling.

Dr. Lester is an integrative medicine MD who works with her patients on holistic health plans. "It's just practicing good medicine," she says of the definition of integrative medicine. "It's the best of both worlds, conventional medicine and other modalities like yoga, meditation, and nutrition."

Good sleep is one of her prescriptions. "If you're not sleeping," she says, "nothing else matters. You can be working on your anxiety, taking supplements, eating organic avocados. But...if you're not getting good sleep, your body doesn't have the space or capacity to fully heal."

Her work with patients on their sleeping habits led her to realize that most people don't really understand what "good" sleep is. "A lot of people are getting 7 hours of sleep, but it's not good, quality sleep," Dr. Lester says. "We have a latte at 2 p.m. and go to Barry's Bootcamp after work, and then don't understand why we can't fall asleep at night." [Hint: it's because both of those drive up cortisol levels.]

"There wasn't a good resource to point people to," she continues. So she created her own.

Called The Unconscious Workout, Dr. Lester's program launched online in 2016—and immediately caught the attention of the mainstream (Huffington Post) and the wellness world (Well+ Good NYC). "I created it to be accessible to lots of people," she says, "and I made it an online program so that I can adjust it and update it as the science and research around sleep changes."

The Unconscious Workout

So what is The Unconscious Workout? It treats your sleep like an HIIT workout, widely regarded as the most effective type of workout to lose weight and hold onto muscle tone. But unlike HIIT, The Unconscious Workout is about winding down.

"There are 3-5 stages of sleep (depending on your source)," Dr. Lester says. Her program treats each stage like a step in the HIIT workout.

  1. This is your warm-up phase. It's your pre-bedtime ritual—"everyone has to have one," Dr. Lester says. "It gently eases you into sleep—call it self-care—and can include things like shutting down your electronics, doing affirmations, meditating or having a soothing hot tea."
  2. Next is your low-intensity phase. "This is stage 1-2 of sleep," says Dr. Lester. "You're sleepy, but still kind of awake. You're right there. Your alpha waves are going but you're still able to be woken up."
  3. Third is the “deep” stage, and it's similar to MIIT (moderate-intensity interval training). Says Dr. Lester, "During this stage, our brain produces relaxing, slow waves to aid our body in healing. This is critical to our health, to clean out all of the cobwebs that have accumulated throughout the day."
  4. Last is your high-intensity phase. This is REM, the often elusive dream stage. "To get our best sleep ever, we must allow our bodies to dip into the REM stage of sleep," says Dr. Lester. "When you reach this stage on a regular basis, you are able to access your deepest intuition. It is a way for our consciousness to solve a problem for a project at work or express what we really wanted to say to our partner who upset us."

All told, it takes about 90 minutes to cycle through those stages, and you want to get 5-6 cycles a night, Dr. Lester says. "So, again, it's not about quantity, but quality. It's better to get 6 hours of sleep and wake up at the end of that 90-minute cycle than to get 7 hours and wake up mid-workout.'"

What can you do to set yourself up for better sleep? Dr. Lester says that it starts with prioritizing. "Good health is an everyday practice," she says, "like having a fit body. You might eat a cheeseburger once in a while but it's not your everyday go-to so it doesn't throw you off the same way."

Similarly, getting better sleep requires commitment. "I work with patients to create a place to optimize their health and their sleep," says Dr. Lester. "Even in our most stressed, taxing phases of life (like post baby!), we can do something to sleep better."

And despite the Goop-esque era of info we live in, she says, it doesn't have to be super complicated or expensive to live your best, healthiest life. "It can be simple to get better sleep. It just requires taking a genuine look at our habits, and finding the little things we can change."