Skimping on sleep can take a serious toll on the body and brain—a reality that Alyssa Mastromonaco, Obama's former deputy chief of staff for operations, learned the hard way.
In her new political memoir, Who Thought This Was a Good Idea? And Other Questions You Should Have Answers to When You Work in the White House ($27, amazon.com), Mastromonaco writes about the incredible experiences she had on the job, such as sitting across from POTUS on Air Force One heading to China, or Russia, or anywhere else in the world. She writes candidly about the importance of period preparedness in the West Wing ("not a scene where you could just bum a tampon from your girlfriends"), and the IBS attack she had while meeting the pope at the Vatican (yes, really).
But most relatable is Mastromonaco’s expectation of herself to do it all, especially as a young woman in a largely male-dominated political sphere. (She was 32 when she was hired for her first position in the White House in 2009, as assistant to the president and director of scheduling and advance.) On a typical day Mastromonaco would wake up at 5:30 a.m., read national security books or press clips, attend senior staffing meetings, and sit down with the President and his advisers—all before lunchtime. She once fell off a treadmill while “Blackberry-ing” and nearly broke her teeth.
"[F]or a long time I worked at my capacity, or over my capacity. It didn't really matter—I was young, and I was happy to do it," she writes. But those endless, nonstop days eventually caught up with her.
In the summer of 2012, Mastromonaco began losing things. "I had misplaced my keys. I would get in the car and not remember if I had fed my cat," she says. One month she accidentally put in two Nuva Rings and didn't realize it for weeks. Then one day Mastromonaco was typing an email while simultaneously chatting with David Plouffe (the type of multitasking she did on any given day) when she realized nothing she'd written made any sense. It was jibberish. "When I saw the nonsense on my screen, all this came together, and I panicked," she writes. "I was convinced I had a brain tumor."
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After a complete neurological exam, the White House physician concluded that due to extreme exhaustion, Mastromonaco was operating at about 50% of her capacity.
Sleep deprivation is a very real thing, confirms neurologist W. Chris Winter, MD, a sleep medicine sleep specialist and author of the Sleep Solution. “Our brain’s ability to do just about anything is much worse when we’re excessively sleepy. We’re cognitively not there.” And nobody is immune to the consequences of too little sleep. "Some people may fake it and hide it better than others, but it's at the expense of their blood sugar, blood pressure, everything," says Dr. Winter (who never treated Mastromonaco).
One classic sign: Memory troubles like the forgetfulness Mastromonaco was experiencing. "Forgetting details and names are recall problems, and they’re common among people who aren’t sleeping enough or well,” Dr. Winter says.
Mastromonaco made a commitment to get more rest. "I agreed I would go to sleep—not just be in bed, but, like, snoozing—by 10:00 PM and take Ambien for a few weeks,” she says.
Sticking to a strict sleep schedule is always a good idea, says Dr. Winter, especially if you’re someone who has trouble putting down your to-do list come bedtime: “There are certain kinds of people who need to actually set a bedtime alarm to force themselves to get into bed." As for the Ambien, if you're able to fall asleep, you may not need a pill.
The good news? The symptoms of sleep deprivation can be reversed once you start catching sufficient Z's.