Book Review

Why we sleep by Matthew Walker

My friend Ken has been saving me from my complacency. I am not sure how neuroscience explains when we are behind, when we miss deadlines we put for ourselves, when we prioritize items at the expense of others, etc. 

I personally think that sleep deprivation impairs my productivity and most importantly my creativity. In an earlier post, I shared my thoughts about the fan #1 of sleep: Ariana Huffington. I was back then reviewing her book that focuses quite a lot on the importance of sleep in our life. She even dared to say, in one of her speeches, that we need to “sleep our way to the top”. No bad intentions. Sleep will help you succeed. 

Ken, the frequent contributor into my blog, has taken a more scientific perspective by reviewing a book authored by Matthew Walker – Why we sleep. Thank you Ken, always. 

It is amazing how attitudes to sleep change through the generations. At the start of my career it was macho and cool to sleep for four hours a night and wimpish to need a full eight hours. Top executives bragged about starting their workouts at 4.30am after finishing board meetings at midnight. Nowadays, the dangers of too little sleep are well-documented and publicized. A number of celebrities and prominent people have given their views on the subject.

It is as refreshing for me as a good night’s sleep to read a book written by a real expert. Dr. Matthew Walker (a Harvard and Berkeley neuroscience professor) has chosen a mundane title for his book that sounds like a dry compilation of the latest research into sleep and dreams and indeed it is packed with science.

But the book is far more than this. It is a rant against general ignorance of an unfolding public health disaster. A sleep-loss epidemic caused by changing social and employment patterns, as well as sleep-disrupting smartphones, is having a catastrophic impact on health, life expectancy, safety, productivity and education.

The solution? Get eight or nine hours’ sleep a night. Anything less than seven hours on a regular basis harms the brain, demolishes the immune system, disrupts the body’s blood sugar balance and damages coronary arteries. Long-term consequences include elevated risks of suffering from Alzheimer’s, cancer, diabetes, heart disease and stroke. Immediate impacts of a sleepless night range from crashing while driving to forgetting key facts in an exam.

The evidence for this comes from Walker’s 20 years of sleep research and he is keen to dispel the view that getting by on little sleep is a sign of mental strength, while sleeping a lot denotes weakness and lack of moral fibre.

Is it possible to sleep too much? Some studies suggest that sleeping more for than nine hours a night is also detrimental to health but this may be because an underlying disease causes sleep, rather than harm caused directly by excessive sleep.

Walker describes what happens in the brain during sleep and dreaming – sorting out the experiences of waking life, culling unwanted material and strengthening more important memories. The two basic types of sleep are REM, characterised by rapid eye movements and dreaming, and deeper NREM non-dreaming sleep, which alternate through the night. NREM, which tends to dominate at first, weeds out and removes unnecessary neural connections, while REM comes into its own later, strengthening remaining connections. A good night’s sleep has five NREM-REM cycles and so shortening or eliminating any of these cycles has a detrimental effect on the brain’s ability to rewire and reset itself for the day ahead.

Matthew Walker is preaching to the converted.

When I suffered anxiety and depression for a number of years, I couldn’t get to sleep at night or stay awake during the day. I felt constantly sleep-deprived and my physical health suffered as well. I vowed never to return to that state and so a key element in my recovery and lack of relapse during the past 4 years has been a very rigorous sleep regime which annoys my family as much as it makes my colleagues envious.

Who should read this book: Those who are looking for a wake-up call for our modern society

Why you should read this book: To understand how you can improve the quality of your life

Book genre: Non-fiction, psychology, neuroscience

Rating by Stylo à Bille

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6 thoughts on “Why we sleep by Matthew Walker”

  1. I do definitely agree on the importance of sleep for a sustainable health despite the challenges imposed by our modern lifestyles. It is interesting to know though that excessive sleep also has detrimental effects on the body.

  2. I do definitely agree on the importance of sleep for a sustainable health despite the challenges imposed by our modern lifestyles. It is interesting to know though that excessive sleep also has detrimental effects on the body.

  3. I wonder how long the overly worked and sleep deprived CEOs and leaders of uprising startups like Tesla will manage to stay fit for their jobs.

  4. Dear Hassib,

    It is true that some industry leaders like Elon Musk do potentially overwork themselves but to be honest I do feel that a large part of the articles and the discussions around these leaders are more to create hype rather than depict the actual truth.
    On another note, I am thrilled by the article just like all articles on this blog. Joanna please do maintain your regular posts. You’re getting us addicted to this blog.

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