Sleep Is More Productive Than Working Late, Part 1

Krisstina Wise interviews Kirk Parsley

Hi. I’m Krisstina Wise, and welcome to Wealthy Wellthy Life, where I interview thought leaders who teach a counter-cultural approach to money, health, and happiness because, truth be told, riches don’t matter if you’re sick, and optimal health doesn’t matter if you’re broke. Today I tackle health wealth with Dr. Kirk Parsley. Dr. Parsley is a former Navy SEAL. He’s a board certified MD and he’s also completed a Navy residency in hyperbarics and oxygen therapy. He’s consulted and coached professional athletes and leaders of major corporations, and today he lectures all over the world on the importance of sleep. He’s the inventor of Sleep Remedy, a natural supplement he created to help people sleep better.

Today, we talk about his inspiring story of going from Navy SEAL to medical doctor to sleep expert, the epidemic of poor sleep in today’s society and the cascade of health issues that can result from habitual poor sleep. We talked about the sacrifice in sleep is the last thing we should be doing, but it’s the first thing to go. He gives us helpful rituals and best practices to become a better sleeper, both for falling asleep and staying asleep, and we talked about the importance of sleep relative to peak performance in any field. This is part one of a two-part interview. Enjoy.

It’s so fun to have you here, thank you for coming and hanging out at the Wealthy Wellthy headquarters.

Thank you for having me.

It’s fun for you to drive over from down in New Braunfels.

Fun might not be the exact word, but it’s fun to be here.

Well, I’m so excited you’re here for number of reasons. You are a total expert at what you do, so I know you’re going to share so much life-changing knowledge when it comes to sleep and the different things we’ll talk about. But what’s so fascinating is your story; you’ve got quite a background and I really loved getting to meet you at Paleo f(x) and hearing about a little bit of your story. Tell us about your time in the Navy SEALs and the beginning of this entire journey.

The two faces, I guess, are loosely joined. I actually was a really bad student growing up. I was the bad kid with the long hair and motorcycles and fast cars. I was a good athlete but I only got good grades during the football season and then I didn’t care. In four years into high school, I was a sophomore via credits, so I said, “I’m not going to keep going with this. I’m going to go,” and I went to the military. I grew up in a 12th generation Texan. Everybody goes in the military. It’s like your duty is part of our family core values that everybody goes and does that.

I’d learned about these elite guys recently and, at that time, Navy SEALs were not well known. It was a very small and non-notorious organization. Even though they had tremendous success during Vietnam, they didn’t have media coverage. You didn’t see them in books, you didn’t see them in movies. Today, obviously, it’s saturated with that.

My mother had re-married a Navy guy. He was one of the officers in the Navy, and my boxing coach was a Marine recruiter and we had been talking for years about me going into the Marines Special Forces. It was Force Recon, and my mom married this guy and I got to know him and he said, “Well if you really want to be an elite, you’ve got to go into the Navy SEALs,” so I started looking into what those were. Literally two weeks after I started looking into Navy SEALs, there was this show like 60 Minutes, sort of a new journalism show called ‘48 Hours’. I’m not sure if it’s still around, I don’t have a T.V., but they were covering SEAL training and it was the toughest, hardest training in the world. 90% of people fail and I’m like, “I’m going to go and do that.”

So, I dropped out of school, got my GED, and joined the Navy and signed up, specifically on a track to become a SEAL. I was fortunate enough to be one of the people who made it through training and became a SEAL and I did my time there. This was well before 911, so I was primarily doing it in the Clinton Administration. We were just used as security guards and the limited police action here and there and not really what one fantasizes about a special forces warrior would be.

It got a bit mundane. A SEAL only sleeps in his own bedroom about 25% of his career. It’s a young single man’s job and I had met a girl so I was really becoming neither. I was getting a little bit older and was contemplating marriage, so I decided I was going to go on and do other things.

I don’t know if you remember the book, ‘Eat To Win’, it was a sensational nutrition book and it was just basically vegetarianism. I read that at eight years old and told my parents that I was going to become a vegetarian, and, in Texas, you might as well tell them that you’re homosexual or something like that. It’s the strangest thing in the world for them and they let me dabble in it and I never really did it. I competed in tons of sports in my whole life and I’ve just always gravitated towards that.

So, I said, “Well, I’m going to do something in that field,” — strength and conditioning, maybe, athletic training, maybe a physical therapist, which wasn’t a doctorate at the time. My fiancée, at that time, was in physical therapy graduate school. I thought there’s a reasonable goal for me, I could maybe do that and then I started working at a sports medicine facility to get an understanding of the different jobs. I decided that probably everything I was considering was a little too limited for my need for novelty and continued growth and learning. The doctors there started trying to talk to me into becoming a doctor, and I’m like, “Dude, I’m a high school dropout. I started getting Fs in third grade. I’m not doctor material,” so they really shamed me into committing to it. I committed to it and decided that I would go to medical school.

I did all the coursework and took the MCAT and it’s not really until you’ve pretty well established what your GPA’s going to be and what your MCAT scores are before you really know where you’re going to be competitive, and this is before the internet was big. I’m totally aging myself with that one. But, as you went to bookstores and you have the Claflin review books and colleges and stuff, and I’m flipping through there and I find one that says ‘Uniformed Services University of the Health Sciences’, and it turns out that the military has their own medical school. I did not know that, and I was really surprised that they had one, and I found out that not only would it not cost me anything, but they would pay me.

I would be an active duty officer and they would pay me at the medical school, and I was already married and I already had kids, and I didn’t really want my wife to have to work while I was in medical school because we knew it would be hard enough. It was an overwhelming experience for everybody involved. You can probably guess about my background. I have a little bit of authority issues, so the military isn’t the greatest fit for me. I wasn’t super excited about going back into the military, but I was like, “As long as I can get back to the SEAL teams as their doctor, I’ll be fine,” because it’s a far less rule-oriented organization. It’s much more about performance. If you do well, if you’re doing your job well, just keep doing it. People don’t hassle you about shiny boots and haircuts and things like that.

I did all that and went to military’s medical school, went through the Navy residency that’s required to go to what’s called a diving command, which is anybody who does any type of diving, and also for submarines. That’s hyperbaric medicine training and dive medicine training and we learned some nuclear stuff about the submarine safeties and all sorts of mundane, boring stuff. I went through that training, spent a couple of years with the submarine rescue unit in Coronado, or actually Point Loma and then went to the SEAL teams to become their doctor.

As it turns out, government initiatives take a very long time to come to fruition, as you’re probably aware of. Probably six or seven years before I got there, they had started this initiative for something called the Tactical Athlete Program which is basically, “Hey, we are going to start treating our SEALs like people treat professional athletes or at least college athletes and so we’re going to have facilities to do that because otherwise it was the SEALs having to take time of the work and drive into San Diego and go to the Navy hospital and be seen by whoever, and wait for appointments and compete with thousands of people for. So, we’re going to have all our own stuff.”

I got there right when they were actually ready to do it. They put me in charge of building the very first sports medicine center that the SEALs had ever had, on the West Coast, at least. Obviously, my background was very well suited for that. I’d sculpted my medical school career around becoming an orthopedic surgeon. I had six years of experience working at San Diego Sports Medicine facility and I knew the roles of everybody; I knew what athletic trainers did, I knew what strength and conditioning coaches did, I knew what PTs did, I knew what massage therapists did, I knew what acupuncturist did. I was very familiar of orthos, so I’m the perfect fit, right?

We recruited great people, fantastic people. We were pulling people from professional sports teams in the Olympic training center and the biggest minds. We hired our first nutritionist, and our first exercise physiologist, and our first strength and conditioning coach, and our first PT.

This is all for the SEALs?

All for the SEALs.

Wow.

I got to be a part of all of that, a big part of building all that. Then, once it was built, we’d recruited all these brilliant people. Then I was the dumbest person because I sought all these experts in every little niche, and it everybody knew more than me about what they do. So, what do you do? The Navy’s solution was you’re going to manage this facility, and because it was a new facility, I had to figure out what that meant as well. What does managing this facility mean? All of it was very disparate in how it was used. I was a little bummed thinking I’m going to end up being this managerial position and not really being a doctor. I really wanted to come and help the SEALs and give back to the community that gave me my start. Of course, there was some pride around having been a big part of building all that as well, but I felt useless.

My office was actually in the sports medicine building. One side was what you would think was just a regular PT center, and then the other side was a gym with a hallway in between and lots of where the offices were. I had been a SEAL recently enough to where there were still lots of SEALs that I was a SEAL with that I’d gone through training with it, I had done platoons with, so they trusted me. They would come into my office and close the door and then say, “Let me tell you what’s truly going on with me, man.” Because just like a professional athlete or just like a pilot or anybody who has physical standards around their job, their biggest fear is being disqualified from their job. They don’t tell people anything when they go to see their doctors .

Everything’s fine.

Medical is the enemy, right?

Right.

When they go to see their doctor, they would put duct tape over a bullet hole and be like, “I’m fine. Nothing’s going on with me. I’m good,” because they don’t want to be disqualified. It’s the worst thing in the world for the SEAL not to be able to be a SEAL to be on the sideline. But they trusted me, and then, in fact, probably the worst thing that you could admit to is anything about the neck bothering you. Any concentration issues, memory issues, emotional issues, mood, motivation, anything that is in that non-macho, non-physical, realm of performance, they weren’t going to talk about to anybody. But they came and talked to me about it.

There were some physical complaints as well and they were saying things like their joints hurt way more than they did a year ago or two years ago. They feel like they’re progressively getting fatter, they’re getting weaker, but their diet’s better than it’s ever been, their routines are better than they ever been. We have these great coaches now and they’re like, “I’m just falling farther and farther behind,” and then they’ll be like, “I’ll walk in a room and I can’t remember why I walked in the room.” It was very routine for people to tell me it took them 5 times to leave their house and that was the magic number. They’d get in their car and realized they forgot their wallet and they’d go back and they’d come and get back in the car and realize they forgot their badge and they’d go back, and they just keep going back and forth. It’s five times every morning, five times before I can even get on the road, and then half the time I pass out my exit and I end being late because I have to do this big loop around.

Then, they would say, “Well, maybe I’m just getting old,” and of course, I would just laugh and say, “You’re 36. That’s not old by anybody’s standards. I mean, maybe it’s old as the SEAL competing with a 25-year-old SEAL. Maybe you feel old but, it’s not old by any stretch of the imagination. You shouldn’t be having cognitive decline at 36.” But, unfortunately, I had been trained in western medicine which teaches you how to recognize, diagnose, and treat disease and none of these guys had disease. They just weren’t performing at the level they wanted to perform at or believed that they could or should be performing at.

I started my quest for what I know call ‘Health Optimization’, and a lot of people use that phrase now and it’s based around the premise that you don’t have to be broken to get better. You can just say “I feel like I should be 30% better than I am right now. Even though most people would call me high-achiever right now, I’m capable of this much more, so let’s optimize that.” And because I had no idea what I was looking for, I did these really big, very expensive lab panels on the SAM Test, which I eventually got in trouble for because they’re $1,300 each and I was sending hundreds of people to do them. I was primarily doing that as a shotgun idea because I don’t know. All the stuff you’re telling me I can’t unify with any sort of concept.

Of course I knew that adrenal fatigue existed, I knew that chronic minor or moderate traumatic brain injuries could lead to some of these symptoms, but there wasn’t anything that really unified everything. I went out and got certified and all these alternative, integrative, and functional medicine courses, and organizations, and age management, and hormone modulation. It was really just to learn more about optimization because, really, that stuff is much more about optimization than western medicine is.

About the 100th guy who came and sat in the same chair in my office and told me the same story that every guy has over 4 years told me, had talked about how much Ambien he takes and how we wakes up in the middle or really early in the morning, around 4 am. He can’t go back to sleep and he decides that the best solution for that is that he’ll get up at 4 am, go to gym, work out really hard, then he’ll work all day, and then he’ll be able to sleep that night. I say, “Okay, how long have you been doing that?” “For 5 years.”

But wait…there’s more?!

This post has been adapted from The WealthyWellthy Life podcast. Listen here for the full interview and story of Kirk Parsley and to download a PDF of this entire conversation.

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