I listened to an incredible podcast featuring Dr. Matthew Walker, a professor of neuroscience and psychology at the University of California. He is a public campaigning intellectual who has committed his entire career to the topic of sleep. As an academic, Walker has focused specifically on the impact of sleep on human health and his findings have been fascinating.
He believes based on his findings that there is a worldwide sleep loss epidemic which he attributes to the modern world we live in. He claims that sleep is the single most important thing that you can do to reset your body’s health. Exercise and diet are also critical but of all three sleep is the most vital. Dr. Walker views it as nature’s life support system.
You can listen to the full two-hour interview:
If you’re in a hurry, here are the main points. From an evolutionary perspective, doesn’t seem to make much sense. It leaves us vulnerable and takes time away from finding a mate and foraging for food. This tells us that it must serve some less background purpose that is important to survival. Through the vast research on the area we now know that it restocks the weaponry in your immune arsenal, making you more immune and robust when you wake up. It regulates your blood sugar, controls your hormones including testosterone and estrogen. Sleep fixates memories and will help your learning process and hold memories. It will also help reduce anxiety and detoxify the brain.
The modern world’s impact on sleep
Dr. Walker suggests that there is a correlation between the increased rates of disorders like Insomnia, anxiety, and depression and the demands of Modern World living. External factors are to blame. Noise pollution, Street lighting, lights going on and off in the home, we’re flying more than at any time in history, and drinking too much caffeine.
He explains that on average worldwide that 33% of people fail to get their recommended 7-9 hours of sleep. This varies from nation to nation. In the US the average is 6hrs and 29mins, in the UK it’s 6hrs and 49mins, Japan is the worst with 6hrs and 22mins whereas Mexico is nearly 8hrs.
In general sleep deprivation isn’t taken seriously at Government or personal levels. Of all the issues that are subject to public health campaigns, like suicide, and healthy eating, sleep isn’t among them. Even though sleep is linked to a lot of the health risks in society. Dr. Walker believes that if Governments were to create awareness of that the health care benefits would be significant.
Work culture and sleep
There is a need to change the work culture around sleep. Employees would be more productive, happier and lose days to illness less often if employers prioritised positive sleep messaging instead of wearing short sleep times like a badge of honour. He goes on to say that if you prioritise the sleep of your employees they’d also be more profitable. The Rand Corporation found that insufficient sleep costs most nations around 2% of GDP. In the UK that makes up around $50 billion.
- When employees undersleep they tend to choose less demanding tasks to work on, getting caught up on email and messages for example. They don’t go straight into deep project work.
- Of the problems that they take on in their work, they will produce fewer creative solutions.
- Underslept employees working in teams will slack off and not contribute equally, riding on others’ hard work.
- Underslept employees are more likely to cut corners, lie, and falsely claim expenses.
- Lack of sleep goes all the way up the business chain.
- Use of health care resources go up by 80% in underslept employees.
Dr. Walker would also target medicine. Shockingly, through no fault of their own Doctors are only given around an hour and a half of training on health issues concerning sleep. This is alarming considering it’s about a third of our lives. They are also sleep deprived when training and throughout their careers while having to make life-or-death decisions.
How does Caffeine affect sleep?
Dr. Walker explains that caffeine will hurt your sleep in 3 ways. It has a half-life of around 3-6 hours and quarter-life of 10-12 hours. So timing is important if you are going to use it and not impair your sleep. It is good at blocking the deep sleep part of your cycle which is critical for regulating your cardiovascular system and processing blood sugar. It’s also when we form long-term memories.
He still recommends coffee from a health perspective but it has nothing to do with the caffeine. Coffee beans are very high in anti-oxidants including chlorogenic acid. He suggests swapping out for Decaff for the same benefits.
The dangers of sleeping pills
Matthew suggests that sleeping pills are a ‘bandaid on a wound’ and it’s important to first establish why someone is having sleep difficulties. Sleeping pills are not advocated for the long-term treatment of insomnia. Sleeping pills put you in a sedated state, and sedation is not sleep. Cognitive Behavioural Therapy should always be the first thing to explore, to understand the why of them not sleeping and address those issues.
How to sleep optimally
If you are having trouble sleeping after 30 minutes Matthew recommends that you get up and do something, like tidy up, stretch, meditate, listen to a podcast, or read a book, until you feel tired. Avoid eating as that trains the brain to keep awake.
It is preferable to get out of bed and do something than lay awake in your bed as your brain starts to associate your bed with a location where you are awake. Also, remove all clock faces from your bedroom as they contribute to building up anxiety about not being able to sleep.
Dr. Matthews tips to help you go to sleep straight away:
- Routine – Go to bed at the same time and get up at the same time. The brain craves regularity, give it that and you can improve the quality and quantity of your sleep.
- Get in touch with darkness – As an experiment, turn off or dim down half of the lights in your home in the last hour before bed. This acts as a behavioral trigger to make you feel sleepy in preparation.
- Temperature – most people have a bedroom temperature that is too high. Get the ambient temperature to around 18oC. The room has to be cool because you have to drop your body temperature by about 1oC in order to sleep.
- The 30-minute walk-it-out rule (mentioned above)
- Caffeine and alcohol – don’t drink more than two cups of coffee per day and don’t drink them any later than noon if you’re looking to sleep around midnight. Alcohol is not a sleep aid like a lot of people think it is. Like sleeping pills, alcohol is a sedative and sedation is not sleeping.
- Avoid screens before bed. The blue light fools your brain, making it think it’s daytime and delays the release of the sleep hormone, melatonin. If you absolutely must use them then use dark mode as it cuts the light emitted. However, it’s not just the blue light. They are attention-capture devices. If you are paying attention then your brain is stimulated, creating sleep procrastination.
Sleep and weight loss
Dr. Matthews points out a well-defined relationship between sleep and weight loss. Studies showed the hormones that signal you’re satisfied with your food (leptin) decreased by 18% when getting less than the recommended 7-9 hours per night sleep. On the flip side, the hunger hormone (ghrelin) lept up by 28%. Double the punishment for not getting enough sleep. Studies also found that the food craved were starchy, salty and sugary foods. They found that the reason for this is the impulse control centre of the brain shut down and appetite increased. Also, if trying to lose weight on insufficient sleep 60% of the weight that you lose will come from lean muscle mass and not fat. That’s a scary thought.
Dr. Matthews finishes the interview by acknowledging in the real world that we won’t sleep our 7-9 hours every night, all of the time. He makes clear that it’s important to live life and that in the course of that we’ll sometimes be sleep deprived. His advice is to ensure that we make an effort to sleep optimally more often than not. Hopefully, this summary will help you be more mindful of your sleep and improve the quality of yours.
“Strength for life”