Why We Sleep by Matthew Walker

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Having heard the author, a Professor of Neuroscience and Psychology at Berkeley interviewed on Terry Gross, I listened to his book. While there was an element of “a hammer sees everything as a nail” to the book, I found much in it that was persuasive. He is able to trace all manner of bad outcomes for individuals and society as a whole to the lack of sleep. It became rather depressing to listen to because overcoming large obstacles is needed to make it more likely that people will sleep the 8 hours they need.

The belief that devoting that much time to sleep each night is an indication of weakness or laziness strikes me as being the biggest obstacle. Another is not accommodating the variation of the circadian rhythms of different people, as well as the changes over a person’s lifetime.  A “night owl” is considered lazy and is penalized for not being productive in the early morning hours. The imposition of standard work hours began at the time of the Industrial Revolution in the service of efficiency. Those who find work that accommodates their circadian rhythm are fortunate.

One of the demands of modern life that seems terribly sad to me is the inability to accommodate the change in circadian rhythm of teenagers. For reasons that are unclear when a person leaves childhood, their sleep patterns change to a later sleep time and waking time. Asking a teenager to get up at 6:00 am is like asking an adult to wake at 3:00 or 4:00 am.

Some of the evidence the author cites for impaired motor skills, learning, remembering, and health impairments are studies that were not always persuasive to me. If they were all true, I would be a broken down blithering idiot and so would many people I know. But a few of the statistics are hard to ignore. On the Monday after the daylight savings time change in spring that results in the reduction of an hour’s sleep for many people, the number of heart attacks that hospitals treat increases by 24%. And the usual number of heart attacks is reduced by 21% in the fall when we get an extra hour. Car crashes also spike in the spring.

The author mentions multiple times that sleeping pills do not help improve sleep. He says they make a person unconscious, but do not give the restorative value that sleep gives. His appendix gives 12 tips for healthy sleep. While changing the societal view on the low value put on sleep is necessary for these to happen, it is useful to aim for them. I’ll just mention a few:  have a consistent sleep schedule, exercise daily, but not within 2-3 hours of sleep time, avoid caffeine within 8 hours of sleep, and have a dark, cool, gadget free bedroom.

Matthew Walker, Why We Sleep, Berkeley, 2017, 272 pages (I listened to the audiobook). Available at the UVa and public libraries and from Amazon.

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