In the 2002 movie Insomnia, Al Pacino played a sleep-deprived detective by the name of Will Dormer. To those of us who are weirdly obsessed with language, that character’s surname was clearly a play on the word for to sleep in the Romance languages: dormire in Italian and Latin; dormir in French, Spanish and Portuguese, dormi in Romanian, and—are you still with me?—durmer in an endangered Jewish language called Haketia.
Why am I pelting you with these nap-inducing facts? Because I couldn’t help but do a double-take when I learned that the sleep expert on MUD\WTR’s new council of advisors is a neuroscientist named Jeffrey Durmer, MD, Ph.D. For reasons that should now be obvious, that’s almost too perfect a last name for a sleep specialist.
“When I got into the sleep realm, I didn’t even make the association [about the name]—other people did!” Durmer says with a laugh.
The fact that Durmer is his given name makes it seem as if this man was born to be the sleep medicine physician that he is. His mile-long list of credentials and accomplishments only bolsters that impression. For starters, he’s the co-founder and the chief medical officer of Nox Health, quite possibly the largest remote sleep healthcare program in the U.S. He and his colleagues at Nox provide solutions for sleep troubles via telemedicine and/or the use of devices that the company has built to diagnose people’s sleep patterns.
Four years ago, Durmer, a longtime sleep consultant in the athletic world, became the first sleep and circadian rhythm neurobiologist to work with U.S. Olympians. Ever since then, he’s been helping the members of the U.S. Olympic weightlifting team get the rest they need for optimum performance.
One of the reasons Durmer loves doing sleep and circadian training with Olympic athletes is that its high level of visibility draws attention to the cause of sleep health. “It’s not just helping athletes,” he says. “It’s really using that as a platform to change the culture of sleep, at least in the United States, where we’ve gone backward for the last 60 years: Instead of sleeping more, we’re sleeping less; instead of being healthier, we’re much, much less healthy than we were.”
Durmer himself is an accomplished athlete. While attending Trinity College, he was a competitive rower, weightlifter, wrestler and football, baseball, basketball and tennis player. His brief post-college stint as an elite U.S. rower was cut short by lingering injuries from all the other contact sports he’d participated in, which rendered it impossible for him to make a run for the U.S. Olympic team. While in medical school, he became a rock climber and kayaker. He continues to use an indoor rower, train with kettlebells, run and play in the surf.
Durmer sees sleep as the missing link in the conversation with a lot of athletes. “They’re doing the right training, they’re eating the right foods, but they didn’t know sleep was a big part of it,” he states.
He adds that cellphones are the biggest problem with elite athletes, whom he calls “performance Jedis.” (“There are performance Jedis in many different walks of life,” he tells me, and Olympic-level athletes “are just one well-known group.”)
“They have a media life that they have to maintain, and oftentimes it’s done in the bed at night, so I help them understand it’s probably not the time to do that,” he notes.
Durmer, who also served as director of sleep performance for the Atlanta Falcons from 2012 to 2018, contends that quality sleep can give athletes a competitive edge. “We called it sleep doping for a little while, because we could use sleep as a legal form of creating an advantage for performance,” he says. Due to less-than-desirable connotations that such a term carries in the sports world, he now thinks better of that. “I think The New York Times picked that up, and I was sort of like, ‘Oh, God! I wish I hadn’t said that!’”
While earning his MD/Ph.D. at the University of Pennsylvania, Durmer became fascinated with the nervous system. He did extensive neurosurgery, which led him directly to the neuroscience of consciousness. His growing curiosity in this field intersected with his interest in Buddhism, which was sparked by an Introduction to Buddhist Thought course he took early in college.
“It was just mind-altering,” he recalls. “I’m not a highly religious individual; I’ve always been science-driven and empiric data-driven. So, when I took this class, it was really a different way to think. That led to a whole lifetime of practicing meditation to manage anxiety and stress, to improve my rowing performance, changing mind states so that you can sort of disembody from the pain state you’re in when you’re in athletic endeavors, and then even as a way to enhance the nervous system and make changes to things like temperature and autonomic function.”
Durmer, who currently practices meditation and studies Buddhist thought at Denver’s Kadampa Meditation Center of Colorado, notes that according to the Buddhist view, most people’s perceptions in life are like waking dreams.
“It’s not that I perceive the car outside on the street; it’s that my mind created that image and all of the essence of that car,” he muses. “These preconceived notions are all made up by the mind, just like when you’re dreaming, [and the mind] is making up your dreams. When we wake from the dream, we can understand the true nature of life.”
The Force Awakens
Metaphoric awakenings aside, Durmer follows his own advice when it comes to prioritizing literal slumber. Since his work requires a great deal of travel, he plans his sleep/wake timing to avoid sleep deprivation and jetlag. He supplements this with the practice of sleep banking before travel.
“I also try to adjust my sleep/wake patterns and eating/workouts in advance of travel so I am more connected to my destination time zone,” he explains. “This is similar to what I do for athletes traveling internationally for the U.S. Olympic and national teams.”
Still, with all that Durmer does, it’s hard to fathom how this guy has time to get his own eight hours of sleep per night. On top of everything mentioned above, he’s also a special consultant to the Federal Aviation Administration, a member of both the Restless Legs Syndrome Foundation Board of Directors and the Sleep Disorders Research Advisory Board for the National Institutes of Health, the father of three high-level U.S. swimmers … Aww, forget it. Let’s just leave it at this: The man is superhuman.
Or, at the very least, he’s a performance Jedi.
Jeffrey Durmer, MD, Ph.D.