69. The Future of Work and peak employee performance | Dr. Erik Korem, Founder of AIM7


Dr. Erik Korem | Founder of AIM7


Our guest this week is Dr. Erik Korem, a high-performance coach who is bridging the gap between high-performance athletes and knowledge workers. 

In Episode 69 we turn our attention to sleep. How it affects our daily work lives for the better and detrimentally. And find out how much is enough so we can perform at our best.


Erik Korem Pic


Erik has introduced sports science and athlete tracking technologies to collegiate and professional (NFL) football. He has worked with the National Football League, Power-5 NCAA programs, gold-medal Olympians, Nike, and the United States Department of Defense. It is this work and his insights that he is now using to help businesses and their employees work at their peak. Erik is an expert in sleep and stress resilience and he is the Founder and CEO of AIM7.




[00:00:00] - Erik Korem
Sleep impacts our cognitive function. More specifically, regarding workplace executive function. And executive function are mental skills associated with working memory, flexible thinking, and self-control, and diminished executive function leads to poor decision making, lack of focus, following directions, and handling emotions.

[00:00:32] - Doug Foulkes
Hello, and welcome to Episode 69 of Chaos & Rocketfuel: The Future of Work Podcast. This is the podcast where we look at every aspect of work in the future. It's brought to you by WNDYR and Pattyrn, and my co-host sat across the ocean is Claire Haidar, the CEO of WNDYR and Pattyrn. Claire, this is the second time that we're chatting to Eric Korem. What are we talking about today?

[00:00:57] - Claire Haidar
Sleep, sleep, sleep. And I know it's actually a topic that interests you, Doug, because you, interestingly enough, have just recently watched a TED Talk by Matt Walker on the exact same topic. But I genuinely believe that sleep is one of the most underrated, and Erik interestingly agrees, as we see in this episode, in terms of one of the most underrated work tools that can actually enable people to be better, and coming back to Erik's first episode with us, be able to achieve peak performance and work. A lot to delve into.

[00:01:33] - Doug Foulkes
Yes, definitely. I've actually changed my sleep patterns to become more in line with the TED Talk that I saw. And interestingly and not surprising, Erik mirrored a lot of what was said in that talk. Let's catch up with Erik.

[00:01:46] - Claire Haidar
You did your PhD in sleep.

[00:01:48] - Erik Korem

[00:01:50] - Claire Haidar
Talk to us about that. How does it impact sleep outcomes?

[00:01:54] - Erik Korem
Oh, geez. In every single way. I studied sleep because I was working in athletic performance and I wanted to study something that we couldn't live without. You can't live without water, you can't live without food, you can't live without sleep. I was like, "Okay, that seems like it would be a really important thing."

[00:02:14] - Erik Korem
And then I wondered how it impacted our ability to adapt to stress, because in sport, I had this phrase, we wanted to create the most resilient and adaptable athletes that consistently obtain their performance potential. And what I mean by that is the faster you can adapt to physical and psychological stress, the faster your skill improves. That's a heuristic. It works in the workplace and in athletes.

[00:02:38] - Erik Korem
Stress is a common signal. It's one signal. The brain does not differentiate between physical and psychological stress, and so I wanted to see was sleep this wonder drug that I'd heard it to be? And the answer was yes. So sleep impacts our cognitive function. More specifically, regarding workplace, executive function. And executive function are mental skills associated with working memory, flexible thinking, and self control, and diminished executive function leads to poor decision making, lack of focus, following directions, and handling emotions.

[00:03:17] - Erik Korem
If you don't have adequate sleep, you're not going to make good decisions. When you're sleep-deprived, you don't engage in mood appropriate behavior, so you can unintentionally be a total jerk. When you're working with teams, you want to be able to pick up and have emotional intelligence, but all these capabilities are diminished when you're sleep-deprived. If I could improve one thing for our knowledge workers out there, it would be improve your sleep.

[00:03:45] - Claire Haidar
You said something really important there, which I don't think a lot of workplace designers, workplace architects, managers realize. The faster a person is able to adapt to stress, the better you can perform. If you look at the general trend of what's happening in the workplace today, managers and employees themselves are actually trying to remove the stresses out of the workplace environment, which is totally counterproductive because from your lens as a sports trainer, if you think about it, a peak athlete becomes a peak performance athlete by adding stressors into the training program.

[00:04:26] - Erik Korem

[00:04:28] - Claire Haidar
And so this whole concept of wellbeing being the diminishment of stress is something that myself and Tracey, my co-founder, we get so irritated with people about this topic because there's a very, very big movement amongst employees, but also IO psychologists and that who are trying to diminish the stress out of the workplace, and it's not possible. It's totally counterintuitive to what peak performance, which is your whole area, teaches us about the best work outcomes.

[00:05:02] - Erik Korem
I mean, I built an entire company on this.

[00:05:04] - Claire Haidar

[00:05:05] - Erik Korem
My company, AIM7, is built on the idea of building adaptability. Adaptability is the capacity to handle more stress with less cost. There's something called allostasis. It's our body's desire to be at this homeostatic balance. Every system of the body is trying to achieve allostasis: biochemical, cardiopulmonary, every system. When you induce a stress onto the body, there's what's called allostatic load, or it's the cost of adaptation. There's a cost. If you go take on a really hard work project, there's a cost to the stress.

[00:05:49] - Erik Korem
What we should be thinking is, how do I create more capacity to do the same thing with less cost? I picture it like this. If you had a bowl in your hands and that small little bowl is all the stress that you can handle, and then I told you to walk across the room, it would be like spilling over. But if I built this big, massive bowl and I poured the same amount of stress into it, it's nothing. You could run across the room and you'd be totally fine. That is what we should be working on developing. Unless there's long-term stress that's leading to some severe health issue, that's when you need to lower the temperature.

[00:06:30] - Claire Haidar

[00:06:31] - Erik Korem
But otherwise you need to work on improving capacity.

[00:06:34] - Doug Foulkes
Erik, from my side, I just wanted to go a little bit deeper into what you said. You started to say some of the benefits of good sleep and not enough sleep. I want to ask you about what happens in our bodies when we sleep. What happens when we get enough sleep, and what happens when we deprive ourselves of sleep?

[00:06:53] - Erik Korem
Everything that happens in sleep has yet to be fully elucidated, which, as a scientist, makes it exciting. We're learning more and more, literally by the day. But there's three big things that happen when you sleep. One, your brain detoxifies itself. There's a system called the glymphatic system, and this has only been discovered in the past, I think, 10 to 15 years. You have the lymphatic system of your body.

[00:07:16] - Erik Korem
The glymphatic system has these called perivascular pathways in the brain, and when you sleep, it literally flushes out metabolic waste products. Some of these waste products are proteins associated with Alzheimer's and dementia called amyloid beta plaques. Our brain, you can literally see it's flushing crap out. If you wake up in the morning, you didn't have a lot of sleep, and you feel like your brain is full of crap, it probably is.

[00:07:41] - Erik Korem
The next thing that happens is your tissues heal. And so there are certain hormones that are released when we sleep, like growth hormone during slow wave sleep. Growth hormone is a hormone that enables us to heal our tissues. Also, during REM sleep, or rapid eye movement sleep, when people dream, your body is in a complete state of paralysis. You cannot move.

[00:08:05] - Erik Korem
Two reasons for that. One, it allows for what we call myofibrillar restoration, or your tissues can restore themselves because they don't have to do anything. Number two, have you ever had a crazy dream where you were flying or jumped out of a building or something, chased by a bear? If you weren't in a state of paralysis, you could probably harm yourself. There are rare cases where people actually wake up during REM sleep and are completely paralyzed.

[00:08:32] - Erik Korem
The third thing, which I think really ties into our conversation today, is this is where learning and memory consolidation occurs. So there's something called neuroplasticity, or the brain's ability to modify itself in response to experience. When you learn something during the day, there's a series of things that happen. Let's say you were to sit down to work on something really difficult. You get agitated, right? You get this little frustration feeling, and that's good. That increases in adrenaline and norepinephrine, which bring alertness and bring your focus to this really diffuse light.

[00:09:11] - Erik Korem
And then during this process, the neurons in your brain that are being used for learning get marked by a neuromodulator called acetylcholine. Choline goes out and tabs these different neurons and said, "Hey, I use this to learn something new." When you sleep, those neurological connections are strengthened. There's a pair of researchers, Tononi and Cirelli, that came up with this thing called the synaptic homeostasis hypothesis and actually proved it to be true, that during sleep your brain is actually shrinking or expanding in different parts.

[00:09:46] - Claire Haidar
Wait, stop there. This is really, really interesting. I need you to backtrack a little bit because I want to make sure I'm understanding this. Your brain is sending out sensors that are essentially picking up on these new things and then bringing them back, and that integration process is happening in sleep?

[00:10:03] - Erik Korem
Yeah, so when you're working on something very difficult, trying to learn something, a neuromodulator, a chemical called acetylcholine, goes to the chemical in your brain. It's all in your brain, and it marks it, puts a flag in it and says, "I use this thing, these neurological connections, to do something really hard. I need to strengthen that today."

[00:10:26] - Claire Haidar

[00:10:27] - Erik Korem
When you sleep, though, those are strengthened and other neurological connections are selectively weakened.

[00:10:34] - Claire Haidar

[00:10:34] - Erik Korem
Because it's like, use it or lose it. Because if your brain kept constantly expanding, it would blow up, right? This is wild stuff that I learned about when I was doing my dissertation, but the finalization of learning and memory consolidation is sleep. If you bust your rear end all day learning and you don't get enough sleep, you literally are not capitalizing on all the work you did.

[00:11:00] - Erik Korem
Actually, MIT just did a study in the past year-and-a-half that showed that students that went to bed earlier and were more consistent with their sleep leading up to exams, not the night before, but the month before, had better grades, and 25% of the variance in grades was due to sleep alone. This is MIT. This is not dumb people, and they were doing some really amazing things.

[00:11:31] - Claire Haidar
Yeah, exactly. This is the best of the best.

[00:11:33] - Erik Korem
The best of the best. I went to A&M, Kentucky, and Arkansas, so I would love to have gone to MIT. I'm trying to hire people from MIT. But the point being is, there's so many amazing things. If you don't get enough sleep, you're going to have a really hard time being your best. People may be like, "Well, I get six hours a night. I'm fine." You don't even know what fine is.

[00:11:54] - Doug Foulkes
I've actually just seen very recently a TED Talk by Matt Walker where he talks about sleep as a superpower. I was going to ask you, if six hours isn't enough, what is optimal? About eight hours?

[00:12:07] - Erik Korem
National Sleep Foundation says 7-9. If you're that person that's listening and you're like, "I do great on five," I can almost 100% guarantee you you're not the person with the genetic polymorphism. It's a fraction of a fraction of a fraction of a percent. My research for my dissertation, without going too much into the neuroscience, we measure what's called DC potential of the brain, which is a slow cortical potential, which represents the battery of the brain, literally in millivolts. It's like the overarching indicator of how all the systems of the body are adapting to stress.

[00:12:42] - Erik Korem
We looked at this with elite football players in their season, when they're under the most academic and physical stress, and we found that they needed seven-and-a-half to nine hours to be in the best position to adapt. These are the best of the best that are wired a little bit different than you and I. That actually validated, in a sense, those recommendations. And we know that there's this U-shaped bell curve. People that sleep less than 7 hours a night die earlier, their all-cause mortality increases, cardiovascular disease increases, risk of diabetes mellitus. I mean, you go on and on. Sleeping more than nine hours is the same outcome.

[00:13:19] - Claire Haidar

[00:13:20] - Erik Korem
Now why could be related to a whole host of factors. It could be that people that tend to sleep over nine hours maybe already have disease states where they're more bedridden. But we know that there's a U-shaped curve with 7-9 hours being the ideal duration.

[00:13:35] - Claire Haidar
Interesting. Erik, again, question that I want to ask you is specifically for every listener listening in, are we sleeping the way we should be sleeping? Because clearly there's a art and science to this.

[00:13:49] - Erik Korem
No. I think recently there was a paper I read that basically said that we're in an epidemic with sleep right now. It's so bad. I would say that most people listening to this podcast will be like, "I don't feel as rested as I could when I wake up in the morning. I don't feel as energized at work. I wish I could sleep better."

[00:14:13] - Erik Korem
As a matter of fact, when I surveyed wearable technology users, the number one thing they wanted was more energy. Number two was if their device could do anything for them—you've got to think about people that are wearing technology—to improve behavioral outcomes. Number three was sleep. But if you think about the first one, more energy, it's related to sleep.

[00:14:32] - Claire Haidar

[00:14:34] - Erik Korem
No, we're not. I think that goes to the habits that we have during the day that create the conditions for resting and fulfilling sleep.

[00:14:44] - Claire Haidar
Okay. To wrap this piece up, because first of all, I think you need to write a book, Erik. Please write a book. Pull that dissertation out and write a book for us. But that's another topic for another day. Give us the top three tips, because naturally, the hundreds of people listening to this are sleeping very differently. But what would you say are the three most basic sleep hygiene things that we should be following on a daily basis?

[00:15:12] - Erik Korem
Yeah. I'll give you a little more than three, and I'll make it fast. One, the first thing you do in the morning is the most important thing related to your sleep at night. You must get natural light exposure as early as possible. When you wake up in the morning, you should get as much light exposure as possible. Right now it's darker later into the morning, so get as much bright light exposure from your house, and then at least get 10-15 minutes of sun exposure.

[00:15:39] - Erik Korem
People were like, "Well, I can't. That's hard." Go out for five minutes, come back in. Because here's what happens. There are these special cells in your eyes called the melanopsin retinal ganglion cells. This was recently discovered by Berson's lab at Princeton. There's this thing that sits on the top of your roof of your mouth called the suprachiasmatic nucleus, and it is the Circadian pacemaker.

[00:16:05] - Erik Korem
Your Circadian clock is this 24-hour clock. Okay? It's entrained by external things in the environment, meaning time givers from the environment, light, temperature, humidity, and there's other things. When your eyes see this light, this special quality of light for the morning, it sends a signal to this little thing above the roof of your mouth that then sends a signal to every cell in your body that it's time to wake up.

[00:16:35] - Erik Korem
It does that in a number of ways, but one of the things I want to highlight is it increases cortisol. Cortisol is a stress hormone. You want a massive spike in cortisol in the morning because that increases alertness. Then a little clock is set off in your head that 12-16 hours later to increase melatonin, which makes you sleepy at night. And it all goes back to the first thing you do in the morning. If you do anything from this podcast, try to get at least 10 minutes, and it's 50 times less effective looking through a window.

[00:17:06] - Claire Haidar
That was going to be my next question. So no windows.

[00:17:09] - Erik Korem
I knew it. I could see it.

[00:17:11] - Claire Haidar
No windows.

[00:17:12] - Erik Korem
No windows. You got to go outside. Right now it's raining in Houston, and it's terrible, so I literally just stood on my porch this morning. It can't happen every day, but if it's cold, I don't care. Put on a jacket and go stand on your porch. You will feel better. Two weeks later, you will feel better.

[00:17:29] - Erik Korem
Number two, if you drink caffeine, try to start tapering off by no later than two o'clock, because the half-life of caffeine, I think, is 5 or 6 hours. When you go to bed, if you've had that last cold brew at five, you're still going to be awake because there's a chemical called adenosine that accumulates during the day. It creates a pressure for sleep. What caffeine does is, it competes with adenosine and it pushes back on adenosine. Caffeine doesn't actually give you energy. It's an adenosine blocker, so you feel alert. Then when the caffeine wears off, you crash. Nothing wrong with caffeine. It can be used in very appropriate ways. I drink coffee everyday. Stop by roughly two o'clock.

[00:18:14] - Erik Korem
The last thing is, when you go to bed, make your room cold, dark, and quiet, like a cave. Cold, less than 70 degrees. Dark, if light is an alerting signal, it's an alerting signal at any time of the day, so make your room as dark as it can and quiet. If you're in a city, use a white noise maker. I use a white noise maker. Actually, I use a cool little app called Endel. It makes these beautiful AI soundscapes that attach to my Apple watch. My wife and I love it. It's the coolest little noises and it changes throughout the night. It just whisks us off into sleep. Cold, dark, and quiet, or a consistent tone.

[00:18:56] - Claire Haidar
Erik, you know my husband, so I have to share the story with you. On our very first date ever, he sat me down and he was like, "Before we even order starters or main course or dessert for this dinner, I have got a series of questions to ask you."

[00:19:14] - Erik Korem
Oh my goodness.

[00:19:17] - Claire Haidar
If I tell you what the first question is, you'll nearly fall over, so I'll skip over the first question. The second question he asked me was, "What is your best and optimal temperature?" And I was like, "Well, I'm really comfortable at around 72 degrees, kind of like at 22-24 Celsius, 72 degrees."

[00:19:40] - Claire Haidar
He was like, "We won't be able to date, and we definitely will not be able to get married one day."

[00:19:47] - Claire Haidar
I was like, "What do you mean? This is literally date number one. What are you on about?"

[00:19:53] - Erik Korem
Why did you stick with this guy? I love Mark. He's an amazing individual, but this is crazy.

[00:20:00] - Claire Haidar
Yeah. Let me just tell you where he went with this. He was like, "Unless the house is going to be a consistent 67-68 degrees Celsius and dropping down to 66 at night, we can't proceed in this relationship." Actually, we had to draw up an operational agreement that captured this.

[00:20:23] - Erik Korem
Okay, there's technology now where you can regulate the temperature of your bed on both sides. This is like a moot point now.

[00:20:30] - Claire Haidar
Trust me, that was one of the first things I bought in our relationship because I was like, "I need to live with this man." But to your point, I never really used to struggle with sleep, but it was so interesting to see how my sleep performance increased when we made the room colder than it had been before. I totally buy into what you're saying.

[00:20:52] - Erik Korem
Love it. This is a great story.

[00:20:53] - Doug Foulkes
And that is where we draw a line today. If you've missed the first part of our conversation about peak performance and how it affects the future of work, you can check it out on Spotify, Google, or Apple podcasts, or on WNDYR's website, wndyr.com. We'll conclude our chat with Erik shortly, but for now, from Claire and myself, we'll see you soon.

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